Palestinians Plan First Municipal Elections for Summer

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 11-May-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM, May 10 - The Palestinian Authority said Monday that it would begin holding its first municipal elections late this summer, in a bid to stem public anger over corruption and mismanagement.

Under the plan, elected representatives will replace mayors and municipal council members who were appointed by the Palestinian Authority and who are, in many towns and cities, regarded as incompetent or crooked. The decision, by the Palestinian cabinet, also appeared to be intended to demonstrate to the outside world that the Palestinian leadership was bent on improving its governance. Elections are likely to be held first in the relatively tranquil West Bank city of Jericho in August, to be followed by elections in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, officials said.


"We cannot talk about reform at a time there are appointments to the municipal councils," said Jamal Shobaki, the Palestinian minister of local government. "We need reform, and we need to respect the desire of the people."

In 1996, the Palestinian Authority held elections for president and legislative posts, as part of the Oslo peace plan. But it postponed municipal elections, fearing that the militant group Hamas would do well in them.

Hamas did not take part in the presidential or legislative elections, regarding them as more connected to Oslo, which the group rejected. Hamas has grown stronger during the current conflict with Israel. Hamas leaders have said in recent interviews that they are interested in competing in municipal elections.

Mr. Shobaki acknowledged that Hamas might fare well in the elections, but said, "Whatever the results are, the elections are an important mechanism." He added, in a reference to Hamas, that winning public office might force "the opposition" to be "more responsible."

Many Palestinian officials blame Israeli military pressure for growing lawlessness in their cities. Israel forbids uniformed Palestinian police officers to operate even in some big cities, like Nablus, saying they present a threat to Israeli soldiers.

In Nablus and elsewhere, gunmen have taken control of the streets, seizing hostages for ransom and extorting payments from businessmen.

[Israeli troops raided Gaza City on Tuesday, killing at least three Palestinians in heavy fighting, and several Israelis were killed in an explosion nearby, witnesses told the Reuters news agency. Israeli sources said several Israelis were killed and others wounded in an explosion near Gaza City. Palestinian witnesses reported seeing an armored vehicle ripped apart by a blast.

[In Gaza City, Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, fought gunmen in the Zeitoun neighborhood known as a stronghold of Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli vehicle. Three Palestinians, at least two of them gunmen, were killed and more than 20 people were wounded.]

Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, said Monday that Palestinians would hold presidential and legislative elections only when Israel withdrew its forces from areas that, under Oslo, are supposed to be under Palestinian control.

Mr. Qurei called on the so-called quartet of mediators for the Middle East, particularly the United States, to pick a date for those elections "so that they stop saying there is no partner," a reference to the Israeli claim that the Palestinian leadership is not a credible partner for negotiations.

The quartet - the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - is the sponsor of the peace plan, known as the road map, for fast-paced negotiations toward peace and a Palestinian state. That plan calls for Palestinian elections "as early as possible."

With the road map initiative stalled, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel is pursuing his own plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from some occupied territory heavily populated by Palestinians. Though backed by the Bush administration, Mr. Sharon's plan was rejected by his own right-wing party, Likud, on May 2.

The Israeli group Peace Now reported Monday that as Mr. Sharon spoke of evacuating some established settlements, settlers were continuing to develop dozens of outposts that Israel was supposed to have torn down under the road map. Some 80 outposts have been set up on occupied territory during Mr. Sharon's three years in office, and about 24 of these have been taken down, according to Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for Peace Now. Peace Now's surveys of settlements are regarded as authoritative by many, including American diplomats.