Amid Egypt Aftershocks, Palestinians Call Elections

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L to R: ATEF SAFADI / EPA; Omar Rashidi / PPO / Getty Images

L to R: Former Chief Palestinians negotiator Saeb Erakat; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Satellite television reception being crisp and clear in Ramallah, the leadership of the Palestinian National Authority watched events in Egypt on Friday, then chose Saturday to announce that they would hold new elections, after all.

Balloting for Palestinian president and the legislature was originally scheduled for 2010, but was called off because the government is divided into warring factions. According to the results of the last round of elections, the militant Islamist Hamas is the ruling party in the legislature, while Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is the president. New elections are long overdue, but the reality on the ground is that Fatah rules the 2.4 million Palestinians who live on the West Bank, while Hamas governs the Gaza Strip, home to another 1.5 million citizens. And in response to the latest announcement, Hamas made clear that Gaza would not be participating in the proposed poll.

"This procedure is invalid because President Abbas has no legitimacy and is not fit to organise such elections," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told reporters.

The parties literally went to war in 2007 after Hamas won the previous year's balloting, then forced Fatah out of its Gaza stronghold amid signs that the Bush administration was urging a Fatah coup. Talk of reconciliation is so far just talk, as each side hunts activists of the other. West Bank security forces work with Israeli intelligence to locate and jail Hamas operatives; Hamas enforces brutal discipline over all Gaza rivals.

In a rehabilitation hospital near Bethlehem, on the West Bank, a middle aged Fatah activist from Gaza was recently recuperating from a bullet to the kneecap. On the cast that ran from his ankle to his thigh, a Star of David was drawn in felt tip marker. "Because Hamas is worse than the Jews," he explained.

Jamil Rabah, a pollster and political analyst in Ramallah, said Fatah will proceed with the elections — set for no later than September, a PA official said — even without participation from Gaza, because the intention of holding the ballot is more political than electoral. Like other ruling parties with ties to the United States, Fatah has come under pressure as a result of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. It has also suffered setbacks specific to its own situation.

First came the complete breakdown of peace negotiations with Israel, which has occupied both Gaza and the West Bank since 1967. Then Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, faced a shadowy intraparty challenge from Mohammad Dahlan, the former security chief for Fatah in Gaza. And last month, the satellite news channel Al Jazeera published secret documents from Palestinian negotiators casting them them as ineffective, ingratiating and willing to concede more than many Palestinians would be in talks with Israeli and U.S. officials.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned on Saturday, saying it was the right thing to do after tracing the documents to a leak somewhere in his department. If he's truly gone, it marks the end of an era. Erekat has been the public face of the Palestinian peace effort for decades, an urbane, once portly (lately slimmed-down) figure instantly recognizable for his beseeching look and distinctive way with words, at once colloquial and precise.

"The elections are to further legitimize Abu Mazen in light of what's happening in the region as well as locally," Rabah told TIME. "I think Abu Mazen is trying to solidify his position within Fatah."

The pollster said his latest survey shows the Al Jazeera stories, revealed over four days to great fanfare, actually appeared to do little damage to the Palestinian Authority on its home turf. The percentage of Palestinians who named the channel as their preferred news source had dropped to just 20 percent, from 34 percent in the last survey. The number has been declining for two or three years from a high of more than 60 percent.

The impact of Hosni Mubarak's toppling was less immediately apparent. A few dozen demonstrators carried Palestinian and Egyptian flags into the streets of downtown Ramallah on Friday. But two earlier attempts to show public support for the Egyptian protests were put down by PA security forces, who later roughed up and detained youths who shouted anti-Abbas slogans during the one authorized demonstration.

When Cairo's throngs first appeared to gain the upper hand, PA officials announced that local elections, postponed last June, would go forward a year later. In adding the balloting for president and the Palestinian National Council, which has not convened since the 2007 split, Fatah leaders clearly calculate that they can hold their own in a contest that does not include Hamas.

But such a ballot risks deepening the schism between parties that most Palestinians say they want mended in order to present a unified effort against the Israeli occupation. Sari Bashi, executive director of the Gaza human rights group Gisha, says the Israeli military has long pushed a strategy of permanently dividing the Palestinian population in Gaza from Palestinians in the West Bank.

"What will be the ramifications if this election happens excluding the Gaza population?" Rabah asks. "Will this be like Pakistan, before it became Pakistan and Bangladesh?"