A bloody 11-day conflict with Israel in spring gave Hamas a jolt of popular support among Palestinians in the West Bank. Now, local elections this week will provide one of the first tests of whether the militant group’s gains are lasting.
The vote for local city councils and mayors is the first election in the West Bank in nearly five years and comes amid a wave of street violence across the territory that has punctuated anger at the Palestinian Authority, the ruling body here. Support for Hamas has risen as Palestinians voice frustration with Fatah, the party that runs the authority, over corruption, public safety and coziness with Israel.
“We need someone to handle the roads, trash and support town planning,” said Khader Khalifeh, 49 years old, from the impoverished, rural village of Al-Mazraa in the hills of the central West Bank. “They are competing for our votes, we should demand more.”
Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S., runs the Gaza Strip but operates largely underground in the West Bank, where it is officially boycotting the elections. Numerous people are running with the blessing of the militant group and are seen as unofficial Hamas candidates.
Palestinian support for Hamas exploded in the wake of the May conflict that saw the militant group exchange thousands of rockets with Israel following an upswing in tensions earlier this year. In both the West Bank and in Gaza, Palestinians applauded Hamas’s will to stand up to Israel, though the violence killed 13 people in Israel and more than 250 in Gaza. There has been a shaky truce between Hamas and Israel since.
Since then polls have seen Hamas’s popularity surging past that of Fatah by as much as 20 percentage points. Fatah and Hamas have been at odds since 2007, when Hamas rejected a power-sharing arrangement and took over government offices in Gaza by force, ousting and, in some cases, killing local Fatah politicians.
Israel has responded to the rise of Hamas’s popularity with increasing alarm since May, and the Israeli government that ousted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June has taken steps that are seen as boosting the West Bank government’s authority and undermining Hamas’s foothold, analysts said.
Nonetheless, displays of Hamas support here have been increasingly public.
Last month, the funeral of a popular Hamas member drew thousands into the streets where militants in full regalia brandished guns and Hamas flags. Local authorities, loyal to Fatah, immediately forced the group’s flags to be lowered and fired heads of security. Hamas said the event showed the inroads the group has made in the West Bank.
In defiance of the government, some smaller towns and villages across the West Bank still see Hamas’s green flags flying, taped on telephone poles or spray painted on buildings.
For many, support for Hamas amounts to a rejection of the Palestinian Authority, which was set up nearly three decades ago as an interim mechanism of self government but is now often accused of authoritarianism.
A Palestinian presidential election hasn’t been held since 2005. Local elections were last held in 2017. Polls show as much as 80% of the population wants the octogenarian Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resign.
Palestinians complain that basic services like trash collection and repair of roads and sidewalks are denied to swaths of the population. There has also been a breakdown in the local justice system amid increased street violence.
Emad Abul-Hayyat has run a barbershop in Jenin since 1971 with leather and chrome barber chairs imported from Egypt. He said security has become a luxury for the rich and well-connected, causing many West Bankers to look to Gaza, where punishment is sometimes publicly meted out to criminals.
“Despite all of that, despite the situation they face, they have a system and security,” said Mr. Abul-Hayyat. “In Gaza, the killer will be killed, but the killings in the West Bank happen in daylight and the crime will be dealt with over a cup of coffee.”
The Palestinian Authority says it is committed to civil liberties and that violations of rights are isolated incidents. West Bank authorities blame Israel for its economic woes and call its military presence a hindrance to local security forces.
The Palestinian Authority earlier this year postponed presidential and legislative elections, blaming Israel for refusing to allow ballot boxes in the disputed city of Jerusalem. Critics say the West Bank authorities pushed elections back because they were afraid of publicly losing to Hamas.
Hamas itself says it is gaining in power in the West Bank because it advocates order and isn’t afraid to use violence against Israel. Palestinians were angered by President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and close a consulate that served Palestinians. Meanwhile, the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Jerusalem has played into Hamas’s narrative that Israel is pushing Muslims out of their third-holiest city.
“People trust Hamas because it makes a promise and then it delivers,” said Hamas member Khaled Alhaj, who said he has seen popularity for his movement rise in his native city of Jenin since June when he was last released from jail.
“People want resistance and they appreciate that Hamas resists and fights for them,” he said.
With violence on the rise, many here and in Israel say Palestinians have never felt the degree of hopelessness they do today—squeezed by Israeli authorities, ignored by their own government and largely abandoned internationally.
“The Palestinian Authority is on the verge of total collapse,” said Esawi Frej, Israel’s minister for regional affairs, one of the few Arabs in the government. “It has no control on the ground.”