The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gaza was really looking forward to elections. Now voters feel robbed.

Young Palestinian men play video games at a coffee shop in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, on Aug. 4. (Mohammed Saber/European Pressphoto Agency)

For the first time in a decade, voters here were going to the polls next month. They were psyched.

But after Thursday’s decision to suspend the campaigns, many said they felt robbed. A new date has not been set, stoking a sense of chaos and paralysis.

A Palestinian high court ruled that municipal elections scheduled for next month must be postponed because of a dispute between the rival political parties that control the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The decision was yet another setback to Palestinian democracy.

“I’m seriously pissed off,” said Nirmeen Daban, 34, a stay-at-home mother. She blamed the squabbling political factions, which she said have dug deep divides between Gaza and the West Bank, forever pretending to be ready to reconcile but never doing it.

“They are playing with us,” Daban said. “They are like children. When they are not winning the game, they ruin the game.”

Gaza was into the very idea of elections.

To youths, it would be a first taste of participatory democracy in a society they see as run by old men and unaccountable committees, where the national parliament is an empty shell, where the most popular political leader, Marwan Barghouti, is serving multiple life sentences for his role in a deadly attack against Israelis.

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Voter registration in Gaza had soared to over 80 percent of the adult population, far higher than in the West Bank.

It didn’t matter that the suspended vote was not for Palestinian president or parliament but for leaders to fill 3,818 seats on 416 municipal councils in cities and villages across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Even before official campaigns began, the people of Gaza were engaging in a full-throated debate, especially on social media.

An early take-away? It was now possible for Palestinians here to mock Hamas, deemed a terrorist organization by the outside world.

The October elections were going to be the first vote in 10 years that would have pit the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, against its bitter rivals in Fatah, which runs the West Bank and is the party steered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Opinion surveys have found that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. Hamas also has deep credibility issues here, having fought three wars with Israel with little to show but more deprivation and isolation.

But the Palestinian high court in the West Bank city of Ramallah decided Thursday to suspend the election after challenges were filed over decisions by Hamas judges to disqualify some Fatah candidates in Gaza.

The court was also calling for a postponement because of a legal challenge filed on behalf of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, defending their right to vote.

Israel considers East Jerusalem a part of Israel and almost certainly would never permit Palestinian ballot boxes there. Palestinians consider East Jerusalem occupied territory and want it to serve as their capital in a future Palestinian state.

On the streets of Gaza City on Thursday, people expressed raw disappointment.

“I confess this was expected,” said Nour Atrash, 27, an accountant for a charity working in Gaza. “I never believed the election was going to happen. I always was expecting something to stop it.”

“Fatah and Hamas are not interested in democracy,” he said. “They believe in their interests only. They never care about people.”

The election had promised to be lively, with dueling videos and plenty of social media.

Last month, supporters of Hamas launched a remarkable social-media campaign with professionally produced videos, hashtags and slogans such as "A More Beautiful Gaza" and "Thank You Hamas."

The videos, shot by professionals with camera dollies and aerial drones, show a prosperous Gaza of water parks, fancy hotels and upscale shopping malls, accompanied by an upbeat pop song.

Equally remarkable, activists and ordinary people in Gaza have apparently started feeling secure enough to poke fun at the Hamas campaign — pointing out that vast swaths of Gaza are not so beautiful but are instead strewn with rubble from the last Hamas-Israeli war, in the summer of 2014.

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Soon after the “Thank You Hamas” video went up, critics in Gaza began chewing it up.

In a Facebook post that went viral in Gaza, a local activist named Mohamed Gharib took apart the video, pointing out frame by frame that many of the sites featured as Hamas “achievements” were built before the group took control or constructed by private businesses or donor countries, such as Qatar.

The point being: What did Hamas really build?

“The most difficult job for any candidate or party on social media is to convince people, but it’s not like mainstream media with its one-way message,” said Saadi Hamad, executive director of Social Bee, an online marketing company. “There is a huge feedback on social media. The political factions in Gaza can reach people easily, but reaching is not enough.”

The pro-Hamas video showed florists and children with balloons — and interestingly did not blame the Israelis for all their problems. In fact, there were no Israelis at all.

An anti-Hamas video put up on YouTube in response shows Hamas militia beating civilians on the streets with clubs. Using the same "Thank You Hamas" slogan, the video shows wounded civilians, dead bodies, grieving mothers — and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh waving a victory symbol.

The makers of the videos have remained anonymous.

Many Israelis say that public criticism in Gaza leads inexorably to a midnight knock on the door, jail time or worse. Hamas has staged street executions of alleged traitors to the Palestinian cause after secretive trials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Hamas to the Islamic State.

Hamas keeps a tight rein on media in Gaza. Foreign journalists are peppered with questions at the border by Hamas security officers. Last week, Hamas detained a Palestinian investigative reporter, Mohammad Othman, for 24 hours.

The group Human Rights Watch last month charged that Hamas and Fatah are harassing and arresting journalists and activists who criticize authorities.

Yet the prospect of elections appeared to have opened the tap for criticism a bit, especially online but even on the streets.

Now that the elections have been suspended, hopes that such dissent can continue have dimmed.

“The elections gave us a chance and the idea that Palestinians might unite and this would lead to reconciliation between the factions,” said Atrash, the accountant. “But it hasn’t happened. The divide is deeper now. Life will be more hard, and both parties will blame each other without end.”

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