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Are Palestinian leaders serious about elections?

While Hamas and Fatah both publicly embrace the call for general and presidential elections, it appears that division and distrust, once again, are getting in the way of moving forward, writes Haitham Ahmed

Haitham Ahmed , Tuesday 12 Nov 2019
Are Palestinian leaders  serious  about elections?
People gather near the home of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Field Commander Baha Abul-Atta after it was hit by an Israeli strike that killed him (photo: Reuters)

Palestinian political analysts and writers believe all signs indicate that Palestinian factions want to hold legislative and presidential elections, which President Mahmoud Abbas called for at the UN podium so the world is witness to the determination of the Palestinian people and their leaders to uphold democracy despite the oppression of Israeli occupation, violations, assaults and attempts to obstruct these elections which are a national and people’s right.

However, they caution against over optimism since the issue is not measured by rosy statements while the devil is in the detail during implementation. They believe that discussions held by the Central Palestinian Elections Commission headed by Hanna Nasser in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are so far on the right track to hold elections to face current challenges, especially conspiracies surrounding the Palestinian cause — primarily, what is referred to as the
“Deal of the Century,” which in reality is a futile attempt to dissolve the Palestinian cause and end the Palestinian national struggle.

For his part, top leader of Hamas movement Ismail Haniya also voiced his support to the electoral process. “We have dealt with the elections with high flexibility and national responsibility, and made concessions in order to open the door for the elections to begin, and achieve the desired goals,” he said.

In a news briefing following a meeting with representatives of Palestinian factions and political powers in Gaza, Haniya demanded reactivating the Legislative Council (PLC), or the parliament of the Palestinian Authority, which has become inoperative after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip by force in 2007.

According to observers, if elections are held, it will be an opportunity to end the ruinous divide which has harmed the Palestinian cause and resulted in it falling off the priority list of the Arab and Muslim world, and allowed the occupation state and the administration of US President Donald Trump to work on erasing the national cause of the Palestinian people.

Riham Awwad, a Palestinian analyst, said indicators show that there is serious intent to hold elections, especially in light of Nasser’s meetings and discussions with Hamas and Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. This means that President Abbas is serious about holding elections, but she believes there are real obstacles to overcome, including distrust between Hamas and Fatah, and doubts about holding elections or accepting their results in the West Bank and Gaza.

Awwad said there are several possible scenarios, the worst case being that elections are held in the West Bank first and then the Gaza Strip, or in the West Bank only and not Gaza. She warned that backtracking on elections would be very embarrassing for all Palestinians in the eyes of the world, especially since no one can reject these elections — neither Hamas nor Fatah — because if they do, they will be held accountable by the Palestinian people. She hoped that things will go well in Gaza and that elections take place.

Despite being optimistic, Awwad expected several bureaucratic obstacles such as scheduling, if they will be held simultaneously in the West Bank and Gaza, will there be simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, or will there be a gap between the two, and will there be international and Arab election monitors?

Ziyad Abu Ziyad, a writer and lawyer, said: “First and foremost we need to erase all the repercussions of the calamitous division, and after that we can think about elections. We may not have time for this, so no one should be surprised that if something happens to President Abbas, God forbid, we will return to square one and try again because we do not have the luxury of surrendering to the reality of occupation.”

Ziyad continued that, “even if the two rival leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have agreed to hold elections, how can this take place in light of two judicial systems and under the supervision of two different agencies (the police in the West Bank and Internal Security in Gaza)?” He pondered: “Will the Judicial Council in Gaza be dissolved, along with the position of attorney general, the judicial apparatus and public prosecutors in both areas, to unite once again under one umbrella of de facto legitimacy in Ramallah? Will Hamas dissolve its internal security apparatus or terminate the staff, and withdraw weapons from the streets to create the needed civil atmosphere to hold elections, and allow the return of Palestinian police who take their orders from their leadership in Ramallah?”

He further asked: “Will President Abbas issue a decree placing conditions on every faction or party or individual who wants to run for elections, such as demanding they sign an agreement recognising all agreements signed between the PLO and Israel in order to avoid what happened in 2007?” In 2007, Hamas backtracked on recognising agreements signed with Israel, such as the Oslo Accords and dealing with Israel directly via Egyptian mediation.

Ziyad further wondered, how can they hold elections in Jerusalem? “Will there be alternatives and symbolic measures without Jerusalem being at the heart of the electoral process? Will there be excuses to cancel or postpone elections due to Israel preventing elections in Jerusalem? There cannot be elections without Jerusalem. Or will we unleash an international campaign and mobilise world pressure on Israel to force it not to obstruct the electoral process? This is needed and possible, and insistence on holding elections in Jerusalem enforces our political and national rights to Jerusalem as the capital of our future state.”

Writer Anwar Rajab believes that despite enthusiastic statements by Hamas leaders to hold elections, the majority of these statements are too vague. “Sometimes there is talk that Fatah must agree to the factions’ initiative since it is a good precursor for holding elections, and other times they talk about the need for ‘national consensus’ before holding elections. They also talk about the need for guarantees of transparency, freedoms, handing over results, and ending security interference. The enthusiasm of Hamas leaders, most prominently Yehia Al-Sinwar, reminds us of his enthusiasm when he declared he would ‘snap the neck of anyone who blocks the implementation of the conciliation agreement’. Indeed, he crushed the youth in the ‘We Want to Live’ protests.”

As for national consensus, it is common for people to resort to elections when opposing sides cannot reach agreement. This also applies to the factions’ initiative, which is also controversial.

On guarantees on transparency, honesty, handing over results and other requirements, the integrity of the 2006 legislative elections which brought Hamas to power was recognised the world over and the group was tasked with forming a government. “We all know the rest of the story, and since Hamas came to power in Gaza through the power of the gun, all forms of democratic process were suspended, and elections at all levels were erased from the administration’s lexicon. It even invented a new form of democracy called ‘the democracy of the elite’ by appointing heads of local municipalities, such as the cities of Gaza and Rafah. It also arrested youth who launched the hashtag ‘We want elections’ on social media, and humiliated them by shaving their heads, beating and abusing them in prison.”

“Not to compare, but to clarify: towns, villages, universities and syndicates in the West Bank have held routine elections, and as a model of transparency, integrity, accepting results and freedom of campaigning, the Islamic bloc affiliated with Hamas won several times at Birzeit University,” Rajab said.

He explained that this means we should not be overly optimistic that Hamas is serious about holding elections with integrity or honesty. “We are concerned that all its positive talk and enthusiasm is false and deceptive, and the embodiment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s way of evading national rights, whether elections or otherwise.”

Abbas recently asked Nasser to immediately restart talks with factions and other parties to prepare for parliamentary elections which would be followed a few months later with presidential elections. Hamas agreed on holding elections, but demanded that legislative and presidential elections are held simultaneously and not consecutively as Abbas asked.

Hamas has ruled Gaza while Abbas’s faction Fatah has been in power in the West Bank since the start of the Palestinian fracture in 2007. Speaking to the media, some Fatah leaders called on Hamas to accept holding elections as “a gateway to end division”. Meanwhile, Hamas insisted that general elections (parliamentary and presidential) must be held simultaneously and called on Fatah to accept a recent initiative by eight factions to end divisions. The initiative is comprised of four articles stating that the previous conciliation agreement is the basis to end division; the need to hold a meeting of the committee to revive and overhaul the PLO; that between October 2019 and July 2020 is a transitional period to achieve unity; and that legislative, presidential and National Council elections be held by mid-2020.

Fatah has not issued an official response to this initiative, but some of the group’s leaders told the media it is “unnecessary” and “Hamas must implement the last conciliation agreement”, in reference to the agreement signed in Cairo in 2017.

The last presidential elections were held in 2005, and the last parliamentary elections were in 2006.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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