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The Long Road Ahead of Palestinian Elections

Palestinian elections
Members of the Palestinian Abu Shamsiyeh family register to vote through the Palestinian Elections Committee website, at home in the West Bank city of Hebron, on January 22, 2021. Photo: HAZEM BADER / AFP

By: Nour Odeh

Fifteen years after Palestinians elected a President and a Legislative Council, it seems the Palestinian people will finally get a chance to vote again. On January 15, 2021, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree to convene Legislative Council, Presidential, and National Council elections successively in May, July, and August 2021.

The decree was the result of understandings reached between Fatah and Hamas, encouraged by Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Russia. These regional players pressed the two warring factions to end the ongoing rift, renew their legitimacy, and find a power-sharing arrangement through the ballot box. It is assumed that the Palestinian leadership and Hamas were further motivated to hold elections by the Biden administration’s promised focus on human rights and democracy, preempting any American demand for elections.

The elections’ announcement was welcomed by international players, including the European Union and the United Nations, as well as Palestinian factions and Arab states. However, the Palestinian public remains overly cautious about expending yet more hope on another possibly failed reconciliation attempt like those in past years.

Yet diminished public trust is not the only problem facing Palestinian factions. They must also contend with numerous internal and external challenges that could derail or even cancel the elections in the coming months, including deeply entrenched mistrust between them.

The factions must agree in upcoming talks in Cairo about the technical and practical aspects of holding elections, including security arrangements. In Gaza, Hamas continues to have a monopoly over power and security, while the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority has limited control over cities, villages, and refugee camps in the West Bank. Overcoming the inherent distrust between the parties will be essential to carrying out irreproachable elections under the status quo.

There is also the issue of adjudication for elections. Fatah, Hamas, and the remaining Palestinian factions must agree on the formation of elections Courts and the judges presiding over them as well as the legislation they will use as reference. The discrepancy in the laws between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is one of the many overlooked aspects of the 15-year-division, with Hamas passing its own rules and the Palestinian President passing and amending laws by decree. In 2016, this issue unraveled an agreement between Fatah and Hamas to convene municipality elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, the crisis in the Palestinian judiciary is even deeper, with the Palestinian bar association recently declaring a total boycott of courts in the West Bank to protest Mahmoud Abbas’ expansive intervention into the judiciary. Yet, without functional and legitimate Courts, the prospects of elections will be up in the air.

If these serious hurdles are overcome, Palestinian factions and voters must still contend with several serious external challenges. The most obvious challenge is the Palestinian public’s fear that the international community’s apparent support for elections is contingent upon Palestinians electing the “right” party to power.

Palestinians have not forgotten the bitterness of international sanctions imposed on Palestinians following the surprise Hamas elections win in 2006. At the time, renowned international jurist and UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard decried the sanctions as “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times.” The sanctions regime was so financially and socially crushing that then UN Special Rapporteur on physical and mental health, Professor Paul Hunt criticized international donors, saying their actions threatened the most vulnerable and causing poverty and suffering for Palestinians and were in “breach of their responsibility to provide international health assistance.”

Among others, the European Union and the United States continue to boycott Hamas and other Palestinian factions, classifying them as terrorist organizations. Despite calls for a change in this boycott policy, especially in Europe, it remains unclear whether these international actors will once again penalize Palestinians for their upcoming democratic choices or decide to support the outcome of elections just as they now support holding these elections. This threat continues to loom large as preparations for elections pick up speed.

But of all the dangers confronting Palestinian elections, Israel is the one player that holds most of the cards to disrupt, influence, or otherwise render invalid the upcoming elections. For one, Israel has complete and absolute control over the entirety of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. It controls the candidates’ ability to move and hold campaign activities freely. It also has a track record of detaining and harassing candidates. In 2006, Israel detained 25% of elected legislators and disrupted the legislative body’s very ability to function. Already, there are reports that Israel is warning Hamas figures in the West Bank against running in elections and threatening retribution.

Israel has yet to commit to respect the Palestinian voters’ right to organize fair and free elections, especially in Jerusalem. Of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, approximately 300,000 of them are Jerusalemites. For Palestinian factions, excluding Jerusalem from general elections is a political red line they cannot cross. Amending the election law to complete proportional representation will provide some room for better Jerusalem representation in principle but the extent to which Israel will defend its illegal annexation of the City is as yet unclear. Fears of Jerusalem ID revocations, exile from the city, and/or detention will overshadow the coming months.

Overcoming such seemingly insurmountable obstacles will still haunt the Palestinians. Legislative elections are only the first step in a series of elections they must successfully organize to revitalize their political system and ensure that it is rejuvenated and made inclusive, and functional. The Legislative Council will only represent about one third of the Palestinian people. Full representation will require successfully holding elections of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s National Council, where Palestinians in exile are represented. This representation will not be possible through elections in all locations, especially in countries in the region where democratic processes are unavailable for local populations.

This has provoked fears that Palestinian factions will resort to an inside agreement among them that would bypass independent voices, who form the largest bloc of Palestinian voters. This fear is reinforced by talk that Fatah, Hamas and other smaller factions may be considering the formation of a joint list in upcoming Legislative elections. Such a move would dash hopes that the factions are committed to change and reinforce fears that these elections are intended to legitimize the status quo rather than bring about overdue change.

Ironically, all those elected will have power to legislate on behalf of the Palestinian people and take decisions but they cannot legislate Israel’s occupation and the unbearable and unjust reality it imposes on Palestinians out of existence. Palestinian electors and the elected will be equally oppressed by the Israeli occupation regime. Important as they may be, elections alone will not be the answer to the fundamental Palestinian demands for freedom from oppression and occupation. If done right however, they should bring to office accountable representatives that can advocate for the rights and rightful Palestinian demands for overdue freedom with the needed rigor and required veracity.

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