As Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories begin preparations for local elections scheduled for October, division and factionalism are rearing their ugly head.

Palestinian political platforms and social media are abuzz with self-defeating propaganda: Fatah supporters attacking Hamas’ alleged failures, and Hamas’ supporters doing the same.

What is conveniently overlooked by all sides is that the performance of Palestinian municipalities is almost entirely irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.

In the West Bank, local councils are governed by a strict Israeli-Palestinian Authority arrangement. Aside from a few chores, village and town councils cannot operate without a green light: an endorsement from the Palestinian Authority itself conditioned on a nod from the Israeli occupation authorities.

This applies to almost everything from basic services to construction permits to digging wells. All such decisions are predicated on political stipulation and donors’ money, which are also politically motivated.

Blaming the mayor of a tiny West Bank village that is surrounded by Israeli military walls, trenches and watchtowers, and is attacked daily by armed Jewish settlers, for failing to make a noticeable difference in the lives of the villagers is as ridiculous as it sounds.

The local elections, however, are also politically and faction driven. Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, is buying time and vying for relevance. No longer having a major role in leading the Palestinians in their quest for freedom, Fatah constantly invents ways to proclaim itself as a relevant force. It can only do so, however, with Israeli permission, donor money and U.S.-Western political backing and validation.

Hamas, which may endorse selected candidates but is unlikely to participate in the elections directly, is also embattled. It is under a strict siege in Gaza and its regional politicking has proven costly and unreliable. While it is not as corrupt — at least financially — as Fatah, it is often accused of asserting its power in Gaza through the use of political favoritism. While one must insist on national unity, it is difficult to imagine a successful union between these two groups without a fundamental change in the structure of their parties and overall political outlook.

In the Palestinian territories, factions perceive democracy to be a form of control, power and hegemony, not a social contract aimed at fostering dialogue and defusing conflict.

Thus, it is no wonder that supporters of two Fatah factions, one loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the other to Mohammed Dahlan, clashed recently in Gaza. Several people were injured and required hospitalization.

Of course, a main case in point remains the civil war of 2007, a year or so after Hamas won parliamentary elections. The Fatah-Hamas political culture failed to understand that the losing party must concede and serve in the opposition, and the victorious party cannot assume the vote as a mandate for factional domination.

Other factors have contributed to the Palestinian divide. The United States, at the behest of Israel, wanted to ensure the collapse of the Hamas government and conditioned its support for Fatah based on the rejection of any unity government. Israel, too, inflicted much harm, restricting movement of elected officials, arresting them, and eventually entirely besieging Gaza.

The European Union and the United Nations were hardly helpful, for they could have insisted on the respect of Palestinian voters, but they succumbed to American pressure.

However, there can also be no denial that these factors alone should not have jeopardized Palestinian unity, if the factions were keen on it.

To appreciate this further, one must look at the experience of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Although they divide themselves based on factional and ideological affiliations, they tend to exhibit much more solidarity among themselves. When a prisoner from a certain group goes on a hunger strike, he or she is often joined by a few, tens or even hundreds of other political prisoners from all factions. These prisoners find ways to communicate and transfer messages among themselves, even when in solitary confinement or shackled to their beds.

In larger prisons they even hold elections to choose their own representatives and issue joint letters to Palestinians outside calling for unity and a common strategy. If shackled prisoners are able to foster dialogue and adhere to a semblance of unity, those living in Ramallah mansions and those free to travel outside the Palestine territories should be able to do so as well.

But the truth is, for many within the Palestinian leadership, unity is not an urgent matter and, for them, the ascendency of the faction will always trump the centrality of the homeland.

This is partly because factional politics is deeply rooted in Palestinian society. And like the Israeli occupation, factionalism is an enemy of the Palestinian people. It has constantly overwhelmed any attempt at fostering dialogue and true democracy among Palestinians.

It is true that democracy is suffering a crisis in various parts of the world. In Brazil, a parliamentary subversion pushed an elected president out of office. In Britain, Labour Party plotters are entirely discounting the election of a popular leader. In the U.S., democracy had been reduced to cliches while powerful elites bankroll wealthy candidates who are, more or less, propagating the same ideas.

But the situation ought to be different for the Palestinians. For Palestinian society, dialogue and a degree of a democratic process is essential for any meaningful national unity. Without unity in politics, it is difficult to envisage unity in purpose, a national liberation project, a unified resistance strategy and the eventual freedom of the Palestinians. There can never be a free Palestine without Palestinians first freeing themselves from factional repression, for which they, and only they, are ultimately responsible.

For Israel, Palestinian factionalism is a central piece in its strategy to divide and rule. Sadly, many Palestinians are playing along and by doing so are jeopardizing their own salvation.

Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years.

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