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Hamas shot to prominence in the last local vote in 2005, unexpectedly taking control of many municipal councils in both the West Bank and Gaza. It went on the next year to sweep legislative elections, to the shock of the Fatah old guard.
The Islamists seized control of Gaza after a civil war in 2007, splitting the Palestinians both politically and geographically. They have refused to take part in Saturday’s vote, accusing Fatah of harassing their West Bank members.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but maintains a tight blockade on the enclave. The Israeli military remains in charge of the West Bank, allowing the Palestinians limited self-rule in certain areas, including the major urban centres.
The continued divide between Hamas and Fatah has proved a source of upset and anger for ordinary Palestinians, who fear it undermines their fight for an independent state.
“I don’t understand how we can have elections in just half the territory,” said Neda Ahmad, a young woman walking through central Ramallah. “I don’t even know who’s running.”
With Hamas not standing, analysts say the best way to measure support for the party will be to look at voter turnout. Last time around, turnout was estimated at some 80 percent, so a sharp fall-off would show Hamas voters had stayed at home.
Whatever the turnout, pro-Western Fatah could still lose what should have been an easy victory.
It is being challenged by an array of independent candidates, including the West Bank’s first all-female political party which is standing in the city of Hebron. It also faces well-known Fatah dissidents, who have put themselves forward after failing to book a berth on the official party lists.