For the first time in a decade, voters in Gaza and the West Bank were called to the ballot box. But a court suspended the elections, deferring the decision whether to hold them to October 3. Tania Krämer reports.
Palestinian municipal polls have been postponed after a court in Ramallah delayed a ruling on whether to hold elections to October 3, only five days before the scheduled date for the elections.
The electoral commission confirmed October 8 was "no longer applicable," but has set no new date yet.
A preliminary ruling of the Palestinian Authority's High Court in Ramallah in the West Bank had suspended the elections in early September following court submissions by a court in Hamas-run Gaza against party lists drawn up by rival Fatah.
Since then, all preparations for the elections were put on hold.
Election campaigns put on hold
"We go day by day," said Rami Dreimly, the energetic young CEO of one of Gaza's advertising and printing companies tasked with producing campaign materials. "Even when we started to plan the advertisement posters and social media campaigns for the elections, we had this idea that maybe we shouldn't invest too much."
Large billboards were already fixed at the main intersections in Gaza City waiting to carry posters for the six political lists competing for Gaza's municipality.
"Many people are disappointed. It is certainly a disappointment for me, on a personal level," Dreimly told DW. "There was hope that the election would give us a sense of change."
Announced just before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the High Court's ruling came as a response to a legal challenge that was filed on two grounds. The appeal was based on the fact that elections were not being held in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of a future state of their own but which is under Israeli rule, and because of disputes between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements.
Several lists of Fatah candidates were disqualified by a court in Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Central Election Commission.
As the political division continues between the two movements, both Hamas and Fatah blamed each other for the court's decision.
"We believe the decision is a political one. Hamas is strongly interested in the elections," said Hazem Qasem, a Hamas spokesman, in his office in Gaza. Hamas rejected the decision to suspend the election.
It would have been the first vote since Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 to include both Hamas and Fatah
Fatah had protested against the exclusion of its lists. "It must be a healthy situation to conduct the elections without using institutions in Gaza for division and to disqualify our lists," Fatah leader Faisal Abu Shahla said. "Security forces have to stop pressing our people by beating and arresting them."
For many in Gaza, the latest election dispute is just another setback in the continued rivalry between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which rules over the West Bank.
A sizable portion of the public mistrusts both.
Elections long overdue
"It has been ten years since people could vote. Especially here in Gaza, where we have many young voters who want to try and experience an election," said Mustafa Ibrahim, a writer and human rights activist in Gaza. "The last election in Gaza in 2006 was used to punish Fatah. People thought these elections could have been a tool to punish Hamas in Gaza and vice versa in the West Bank."
Gaza's three border crossings are tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt - the so-called blockade has crippled almost every aspect of life in the small enclave of 1.8 million people. And with Hamas's tight grip on the Gaza Strip, people hardly voice their criticism in public.
Elections are long overdue in the Gaza Strip - municipal elections in 2012 were only held in the West Bank
People here are weary of power cuts which last up to twelve hours a day, high unemployment, severe travel restrictions and coping with the aftermath of three wars. Despite the difficult situation, however, some hope that the municipal elections could bring some change.
"It would be good to have some kind of accountability," said Rami Dreimly. "I am paying taxes but don't get services. The holes in the street or the wires that are hanging down do not all relate to the blockade only."
Few are optimistic
Others are less optimistic. "Even if there will be elections, I won't go, I will stay at home. Already last time, in 2006, we were cheated. We voted and the world punished us," said Riad Zibdeh, who owns a falafel restaurant in Gaza City.
Elections have long been overdue in the occupied Palestinian Territories. Although there were municipal elections in 2012, they were only held in the West Bank, with Hamas boycotting the vote and preventing elections in the Gaza Strip.
The last parliamentary elections took place in 2006 and were won by the Islamist movement Hamas, which prompted a boycott by most of the Western countries and led to an internal Palestinian feud that ended with the political division between Hamas and Fatah in 2007.
Various attempts of reconciliation between the two bitter rivals failed. The Palestinian parliament has not functioned for almost ten years, and President Mahmoud Abbas, elected in 2005, continues to rule by decrees.
The municipal elections were seen by observers as a positive step to democratically choose representatives in 416 municipal councils in cities and villages across the West Bank and Gaza.
Young voters want change
Local elections could give room for smaller groups to aim for seats. Like "Shabab il Balad," run by young professionals who claim not to be affiliated with Hamas or Fatah.
"We are lawyers, doctors or engineers, a group of youth, totally independent and we want to serve the community," said Salama Afifi, who heads "Shabab il Balad." The 30-year-old general doctor wants to see change when it comes to services from the municipality, where most officials are appointed, not elected.
"We simply want to give youth a voice, they are not represented anywhere, not even in the municipalities."
For first-time voters like 20-year-old Rawand Taturi, the most important point is that elections take place. "Somehow we were not expecting that the elections will happen," she said. Her fellow student Sanabil Buhaize, 20, still hopes the elections will go ahead. "It is a very rare chance for us to choose," the young woman said. "Although now it seems we no longer even have this choice."