Israel arrests candidates ahead of Palestinian municipal elections

Palestinian candidates for municipal council elections are displayed on a banner above a building in the West Bank city of Nablus (AFP)

Shatha Hammad

Middle East Eye  /  March 25, 2022

Campaigners and politicians denounce arrests as attempt to derail Saturday’s Palestinian municipal elections.

A third Palestinian municipal elections candidate has been arrested in the city of Dura after being summoned for interrogation, raising fears that the Israeli authorities are trying to sabotage the process before voters go to the polls tomorrow.

Ismaeel Awawdah, a candidate on the Unity and Professional Development list, was arrested by the Israeli army on Thursday. He is the third Palestinian candidate to be arrested by Israel since the start of the electoral campaign in early March.

The other arrested candidates are Islam al-Taweel, head of the Al-Bireh Unites Us list, and Abdul Kareem Farrah, head of the Loyalty to Hebron list.

Israel has been accused of working to help candidates and lists affiliated with the ruling Fatah party win the municipal and local authority elections, which in 2021-2022 have been divided into two phases.

The first round of voting took place last December across 376 local authorities in the occupied West Bank. The second round takes place tomorrow and includes the remaining 66 local authorities in Gaza and larger municipalities in the West Bank.

The arrests of three Palestinian candidates have taken place against the backdrop of a general rise in Israeli detentions of Palestinians, numbering as many as 20 to 30 arrests per day, according to human rights organizations.

Many of those arrested and released a few days later reported that interrogators made threats meant to dissuade them from participating in the municipal elections, either as candidates or voters.

Khaled Faqua, a Unity and Professional Development candidate, told Middle East Eye that Ismaeel Awawdah was second on the list, and was chosen because of his 25 years of experience as an architect in the municipality.

He also clarified that Ismaeel is one of the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Hebron, and was previously incarcerated in Israeli prisons for seven years. He was one of the hundreds of Palestinian cadres to be exiled to Marj Zuhour, a southern Lebanese town on the border with Palestine, in 1992.

Faqua said he and his fellow Unity and Professional Development candidates had “no underlying political goals in participating” in the elections, but were doing it to serve the municipality.

He said Awawdah’s arrest was intended to throw a wrench in their electoral campaign in the Dura municipality, and to specifically hinder the victory of his list.

“Israel wanted to arrest Ismaeel in order to send us a message to back down from participation in this arena, and it wants to sabotage any election that may result in national unity,” he said.

Sabotaging the electoral process

On 21 March, Israel arrested Islam al-Taweel, the mayoral candidate for Al-Bireh, a city in the central West Bank.

The move was condemned by Palestinians from across the political spectrum, branding it a clear attempt to dissuade Palestinians from participating.

The Manaret Ramallah list for the Ramallah municipal elections put out a statement condemning the arrest, calling it “a blatant intervention on the part of the occupation in Palestinian affairs, and a pitiful attempt to influence the results of the democratic process.”

The list also called on the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its duty in pressuring the occupation and to take the appropriate measures to ensure the independence of the electoral process.

Rubin al-Khatib, from the al-Bireh Unites Us list, told MEE that “the occupation does not need an excuse to arrest any Palestinian, but the arrest of Islam al-Taweel aims to sabotage the electoral process and to impede our participation in it.”

“We in the list are 15 people, and four of us are able to serve the role of mayor, so the absence of one person or another will not affect our collective action… we will not be deterred in our participation in the elections, and we will not be cowed by this arrest.”

Al-Khateeb said a committee of lawyers had been formed to contact various human rights organizations to put pressure on Israeli authorities to release Taweel.

“We will not allow Israel to influence our elections, and we will fight it at every level.”

‘Uphold the principles of democracy’

The Central Elections Committee condemned the arrests, calling them an affront to human rights and the democratic practice, saying it regarded the “repressive measures of the occupation with the utmost gravity.”

Spokesperson for the Central Committee, Farid Tamallah, told MEE that human rights organizations and the international community should play a monitoring role and prevent Israel from arresting candidates.

“Israel thinks that it is in control of all Palestinian land, and so it tries to intervene in Palestinian affairs, and tries to allow or prevent whoever it wants to participate in the electoral process,” Hilmi al-Araj, executive director of the Hurriyat Center for Civil Rights, told MEE.

Al-Araj said that the arrests no longer negatively affected people’s view of the targeted lists. On the contrary, those targeted lists have seen an increase in their popular support as a result. 

“There is increasing social awareness of the arrest of activists that are considered patriotic and influential in their environment,” he said.

“What is needed is for the international community to uphold the principles of democracy, and to break its silence over the crimes committed by the occupation against the Palestinians, including preventing them from exercising their political rights.”

Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist