RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian high court on Thursday postponed municipal elections that had been set for next month, putting on hold what would have been the first real test of political support for archrivals Hamas and Fatah in a decade.
The delay of the vote is bound to stir more tensions between Fatah, the movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, an Islamic militant group.
It will also make it less likely the two sides will be able to end their territorial split, with Hamas entrenched in the Gaza Strip and Abbas in autonomous enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The rift has undercut Abbas' claim to be a leader of all Palestinians and weakened him in past negotiations with Israel on Palestinian statehood.
The Oct. 8 vote would have been their first electoral contest since Hamas drove Abbas loyalists from their posts in Gaza in 2007, a year after the group won parliament elections. Since the Hamas takeover, repeated reconciliation attempts have failed while both sides deepened control over their respective territories.
Hamas sat out the last municipal elections in 2012, which were only held in the West Bank, but the group apparently took Abbas by surprise when it agreed to participate in this year's vote. In calling the municipal vote, Abbas had hoped to restore some political legitimacy after overstaying his term for six years.
On Thursday, the Palestinian high court in the West Bank town of Ramallah put the elections timetable on hold, saying it first needs to hear two appeals against election procedures. The court said it would hold hearings on Sept. 21 and Oct. 4, respectively, but it was not clear when it would rule.
The Fatah website had initially reported that the first court hearing would be Dec. 21.
The Central Election Commission, which is seen as independent, said it backed the court decision and ordered a halt to all election-related activities. The commission said it would decide on its next move once the high court has ruled on the two appeals.
In all, Palestinians were to have chosen 400 mayors and local councils in the West Bank and 25 in Gaza.
The high court decision came as a Hamas-controlled court in Gaza announced Thursday that it disqualified seven Fatah-backed slates of candidates on technical grounds. Last week, four Fatah lists were disqualified, including three by a Hamas-run court in Gaza and one in the West Bank, though that ruling was accepted by commission.
The rulings meant Fatah would have been unable to compete in 10 out of 25 races in Gaza.
Fatah protested against the exclusion of its lists, arguing that the judiciary system in Gaza is illegal and the challenges against the lists were meant to sabotage the elections.
Salah al-Bardaweel, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, alleged that the high court decision to postpone the election "is a political one dictated to the court by Fatah and President Abbas" to avoid defeat.
Amin Makboul, a senior Fatah official in the West Bank, said the decisions by the Hamas-controlled courts in Gaza "were political and not legal."
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the Palestinian high court will hold its first hearings on appeals against municipal election procedures on Sept. 21, not Dec. 21.