It’s a lot smaller than Canada, but tonight’s election in the
Palestinian territories is attracting just as much interest, with the
assorted hopes and fears that it holds for the Middle East peace

In the only previous election
for the Palestinian Authority, in 1996, the only organised group,
Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, won 31% of the vote. The remainder went
to independents, many of them pro-Fatah; that gave Fatah a comfortable
majority, variously reported as 50 or 55 of the 88 seats.

This time, however, things are very different. Fatah is being opposed
by the militant Islamic group Hamas, which did unexpectedly well in
last month’s local elections and now only narrowly trails Fatah in the

Fatah itself is also divided; at the head of its ticket is Marwan
Barghouti, a younger activist opposed to the leadership of Palestinian
president Mahmoud Abbas. Barghouti has said
that Hamas should join Fatah in a government of national unity; his
campaigning ability, however, has been limited by the fact that he is
serving a life sentence for murder in an Israeli jail.

Hamas has a great deal of blood on its hands, and remains officially
committed to the destruction of Israel, although it has omitted that
objective from its election manifesto and its leaders have thrown out
hints of entering negotiations in the future. Recent statements from Israel’s acting prime minister Ehud Olmert have also been conciliatory, but, as Martin Chulov puts it in this morning’s Australian:
“Israel is still unsure of how to deal with the emergent electoral
legitimacy of its mortal enemy.” It looks as if many votes will be
swung to Hamas not by the big issues of war and peace, but by its
reputation for clean government and efficient service delivery. It will
not be enough for it to control the Palestinian authority, but its
influence will be too great to be ignored.

For further coverage of the election, there are excellent reports in Monday’s New York Times and from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen.