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West Bank councils elected in rare democratic exercise

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Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas after casting his vote in the local elections, in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on Saturday. AFP/HO/PPO

West Bank councils elected in rare democratic exercise

Voters cast ballots on Saturday for municipal councils in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in a rare democratic exercise following a decade and a half of delays to Palestinian elections.

It was the second phase of municipal polls after a first round of voting in December in 154 West Bank villages.

Saturday's vote was held in 50 towns and cities, with many elections uncontested, or without any candidates in some cases.

Turnout was 52.8 percent, according to the Central Elections Commission.

Wasfi Ramhi, voting in the city of Al-Bireh, said he hoped it would lead to national elections.

"If they are democratic, fair and free, they will help us to hold legislative and presidential elections," he told AFP.

As he cast his vote in Al-Bireh, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas defended his decision to call off scheduled presidential and legislative elections last year, saying they had to be held in "all the Palestinian territories".

Israel had barred voting from taking place in annexed east Jerusalem.

The Islamists had been poised to sweep the parliamentary election, which was widely seen as the real reason for Abbas's 11th-hour postponement of the poll.

No legislative or presidential elections have been held in the Palestinian territories for 15 years, following repeated delays.

The last municipal elections, held in 2017, were boycotted by Hamas, the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is also boycotting this year's election in protest at the indefinite postponement of parliamentary and presidential elections.

Central Elections Commission chief Hanna Nasser said a number of candidates had been arrested in the lead-up to the vote.

"There are candidates who were arrested before today," Nasser said. "This indicates blatant interference in the election process.

"The arrests were made for political reasons to prevent certain candidates from running in the elections," he told a news conference.

No elections are being held in Gaza or in east Jerusalem.

In the Jordan Valley city of Jericho, independents dominated the candidate lists, with established parties officially staying away, a dynamic mirrored across the West Bank.

"Usually there are just one or two lists running – and they belong to the parties. This time there are five lists, many of them independents," said Emad Barahmeh, a businessman who heads one of the independent lists running in Jericho.

Yet analysts say Hamas and Fatah, the secular party led by Abbas, are still involved, fielding candidates as independents.

"It is also noticeable that the various Palestinian factions are clearly absent from running for these elections, but their candidates have entered under the name of independents," Palestinian elections specialist Talab Awad told AFP.

"There are candidates from the Hamas movement in these elections, but they are doing so personally," Awad said, adding participation would likely be "high".

The businessman Barahmeh said the parliamentary election delay had left people "disappointed" and Saturday's vote was "like a small piece of freedom for them".

Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads since 2007 when the Islamists seized Gaza after a week of deadly clashes.

Today, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has control over parts of the occupied West Bank, while the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is under an Israeli blockade.

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