The Palestinian central election commission shut its doors Tuesday in protest after masked gunmen burst into its West Bank and Gaza offices, firing in the air and hauling off computers — jeopardizing next month’s parliamentary election, the first in a decade.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered his security forces to protect election workers, but officials privately conceded that violence could endanger the Jan. 25 vote — seen as a key to establishing a credible government that could conduct peace talks with Israel.
Contributing to the murky atmosphere, a poll released Tuesday showed that nearly a third of the Palestinian people have no faith in any of the possible leaders.
In Tuesday’s violence, masked gunmen stormed election offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, firing in the air, destroying computers and ordering workers out.
In response, election commission director Amar Dweik announced, “We have suspended all work until we receive security for our offices and our staff.”
Election commission head Hanna Nasser met with Abbas to discuss the crisis. Abbas pledged to protect election workers and “take required measures against the aggressors,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas.
Mustafa Barghouti, heading an independent list for the election, also denounced the violence. In a statement, he said the election commission must “maintain its independence and carry out its work free from any violation.”
It was not immediately clear whether the protest would affect Wednesday’s registration deadline, but election officials said if the fighting continues, it will be difficult to hold the vote on time.
A party divided
The violence stems from disputes within Abbas’ ruling Fatah party, which is divided between its corrupt old guard and younger members. The young generation fears Fatah old-timers will select the list of party candidates, instead of relying on results from recent primaries.
The Fatah young guard swept to victory in most of the primaries, but Abbas holds the final say over who will run in the January vote. He is to announce his list of candidates Wednesday.
The Fatah infighting could hurt the party, which already faces a tough challenge from the Islamic group Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh said the group had planned to announce its list of candidates Tuesday, but decided not to because of the violence.
In Nablus on Tuesday, eight masked gunmen stormed the election office, fired in the air and ordered workers out of the building.
The gunmen destroyed three computers and took two others, then opened fire again as they sped away in two cars. Later, the masked militants posed for TV cameras while stepping on a computer.
Jamal Tirawi, an Al Aqsa leader in the nearby Balata refugee camp, accused the Palestinian leadership of forcing candidates off the ballot.
“They excluded a number of Fatah members who won in the primaries,” he said. “We don’t want elections of this type, in which they are forced from above.”
In the Gaza Strip, dozens of Al Aqsa gunmen also stormed election offices.
In Gaza City, some 80 masked gunmen took over the commission’s regional office and marked it with a red “X,” with a statement saying Al Aqsa had closed the office “until the crisis is resolved.”
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, gunmen exchanged fire with police, witnesses said. There were no reports of injuries.
Lack of confidence in candidates
A poll released Tuesday showed voters’ across-the-board lack of confidence in candidates for leadership.
Abbas finished at the top, but only 15.5 percent of the people expressed confidence in him. Jailed Fatah young guard leader Marwan Barghouti received 7.8 percent, followed by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar with 5.8 percent.
But fully 31.1 percent said they trusted no one.
The survey, by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, polled 1,199 people from the West Bank and Gaza and quoted a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Also Tuesday, a Palestinian man was killed and 20 others were wounded during an Israeli arrest raid targeting Palestinian militants in Nablus, Palestinian hospital officials said.