Palestine goes to the polls

Bassem Aly , Thursday 21 Jan 2021

Domestic, regional and international conditions have all facilitated the holding of Palestinian general elections

photo: AFP

For more than a decade, the Palestinian factions have been negotiating the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections. They reached consensus four days ago when the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that legislative elections using a proportional representation system would be held on 22 May followed by a presidential race on 31 July.

The decree said the elections would take place “in all the cities of the homeland” including the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh said he wanted the EU, which has welcomed the announcement, to “prepare a team of international observers to help us, mainly in the election process in Jerusalem.”

As Israel prohibits any activities by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Occupied West Bank, Shtayyeh said he would ask Israel “to allow our people in Jerusalem to participate in the elections.”

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group which rules Gaza, showed a readiness to cooperate in the process despite the divisions between itself and the PA, which is mainly composed of the Fatah group.

“We have worked over recent months to resolve all obstacles so that we can reach this day,” Hamas said in a statement. The elections will be the first national elections in Palestine in 15 years.

There has been strong regional backing for a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, carried out over the past 12 months under Egyptian sponsorship. Allies of Hamas such as Turkey and Qatar have also seemingly backed rapprochement between the Palestinians.

The intra-Palestinian split started after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006. The group is considered to be a terrorist organisation by some Western governments and Israel, making it almost impossible for these governments to work with a Palestinian government in Gaza that is affiliated to a movement they do not recognise.

Dozens of people lost their lives following Fatah-Hamas clashes in Gaza that ended with Hamas taking control of the coastal enclave. The PA as a whole has not been able to extend its control beyond its autonomous areas of the Occupied Territories, making it difficult for the factions to cooperate on holding new elections.

The image of a Hamas militant sitting in the chair of Abbas in his former Gaza office in 2007 has been difficult to forget.

“Hello Condoleezza Rice [the then US secretary of state]. You have to deal with me now; there is no Abu Mazen anymore,” he said, holding the phone and referring to another name for Mahmoud Abbas. During the subsequent negotiations, the most that the two sides reached were fragile reconciliation agreements that were never implemented.

Abdel-Mahdi Metawei, a Palestinian political analyst close to the PA, believes that the elections will be held successfully this time round. The election of Joe Biden as US president had changed the positions of many on the Palestinian issue, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was facing difficult circumstances in Israel.

Such reasons combined with the proportional electoral system would mean fair representation for the Palestinian factions in the Palestinian parliament and guarantee the success of the electoral process, Metawei said.

He said the failure of the negotiations between the Palestinian groups over recent years had been due to a camp inside Hamas opposing any agreement on elections as it benefited from existing divisions.

“The long delay in holding elections was due to the Hamas coup that happened in Gaza that led to divisions. After this, Hamas took control of all the state institutions in Gaza. The new elections represent a means of ending the divisions, as the rounds of talks were fruitless,” Metawei told Al-Ahram Weekly.

It has yet to be seen how Israel will respond to the news. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process has been in deadlock since 2014, one of the results of the Palestinian divisions.

Netanyahu’s government announced a unilateral suspension of talks with the PA after it reached a reconciliation deal with Hamas, accusing the latter of being a “terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel.”

Hamas and Israeli have fought each other several times over the last decade, and there have been frequent border skirmishes.

 Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, said that the collapse of the peace process had positively affected Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

 “The disappearance of meaningful options for a two-state solution and the virtual abandonment of the Palestinians by the United States have forced President Abbas to find something to do to increase his political capital by rallying Palestinian sentiment and strengthening ties with Europe and the new American administration under the flag of democracy,” Lustick said.

He referred to other factors that had led Abbas to announce the elections, including the ability of both Fatah and Hamas to “call them off if they appear to be developing in ways that would threaten their interests.” He added that the long absence of elections had “drained the PA’s legitimacy.”

Even so, Lustick believes that the elections will likely not happen and there could be moves towards a new conflict between Hamas and Israel.

“Israel has shown itself to be very reluctant to enter Gaza both because of the fear of casualties and because it has no real plans for what to do with Gaza if it enters the Strip. I think the situation is slowly moving towards a modus vivendi between Israel and Hamas, which would allow Israel to play one off the other. My own view is that the elections are unlikely to take place,” he said.

Palestinian-Israeli relations have been improving, and the two sides began to meet again recently after a cut in ties that was economically costly for the Palestinians.

Israel decided in early December to begin transferring money again to the PA. “The Israeli government transfers all financial dues to the account of the Palestinian Authority, amounting to three billion and 768 million shekels,” Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter, referring to taxes, including customs, that Israel collects on behalf of the PA.

But the scale of disagreements is still large. Israel has been close to annexing new areas of the West Bank, a project that only normalisation agreements with some Arab states has halted. The annexations would have ended Palestinian hopes to have East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, for example.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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