Why cancelled elections cast a long shadow over Palestinian political revival

A Palestinian boy rollerblades past an election mural in Gaza City on 28 April, 2021. [Getty]
8 min read
20 May, 2021

On 30 April, following a seemingly turbulent meeting with Palestinian factions in Ramallah, minus Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestinian elections would only be held when Israel allows voting in occupied East Jerusalem.

“There will be no concession on Jerusalem and no concession on our people in Jerusalem exercising their democratic rights,” Abbas declared.

The delay came on the day that election campaigning was due to start and after extensive preparations, with 93% (2.6 million) of eligible voters already registered.

Abbas' decision provoked an immediate outcry. Some Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets in protest, while others vented anger over social media. Hamas described the delay as a “coup,” committed against the joint Fatah-Hamas agreement in Cairo earlier this year.

"Internal splits within Fatah have produced several popular rivals competing to replace Abbas, who is viewed by young Palestinians as corrupt and ineffective"

But the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismael Haniyeh, chose to use ‘moderate’ language, calling the decision ‘unfortunate’ and its reasons ‘unconvincing.’ He said: “Delaying the election means confiscating Palestinian political rights.”

“We all agree on the necessity of holding the elections in Jerusalem, but disagree on granting Israel control over our decisions,” he added.

Civil society institutions were particularly scathing. The Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council (PHROC) - a coalition of Palestinian human rights organisations - condemned Abbas' decision, saying that “the popular and constitutional legitimacy of the president and the Legislative Council has eroded since 2005/06.” PHROC stressed the need to hold the elections “within six months.”

To some, the Jerusalem dilemma was a legitimate reason for the postponement. Others, however, saw it simply as a pretext for Abbas' fears of another Fatah defeat. The subsequent Sheikh Jarrah events and the current Gaza war have made the political landscape a lot more complicated and, arguably, improved Hamas' chances of winning the next elections, if they’re held at all. 

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The Jerusalem dilemma

Jerusalem’s religious importance to Palestinians is only exceeded by its political and symbolic value. To include Jerusalem in the PA elections is to emphasise Palestinian statehood and national identity.

The decision to hold the elections in Jerusalem “is not a technical matter; rather, a political position that needs to be emphasised,” Rasem Obaidat, the spokesman of Jerusalem's National Action Committee, told the media.

Articles III and IV of the 1995 “Interim Agreement” between Israel and the PA states that Palestinian Legislative Council members will be “directly and simultaneously elected by the Palestinian people of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.”  It also expressly states that Jerusalemites “will vote in the elections through services rendered in post offices in Jerusalem.”

In 2006, Israel was reluctant to allow Jerusalemites to vote in the Palestinian elections, emphasising its sovereignty over the occupied city.  As a ‘compromise’, mainly due to US pressure, Israel allowed East Jerusalemites to cast their ballots either in the post offices in Jerusalem (as with the 1996 elections), or to vote in person in suburbs outside the city, but vowed to prevent Hamas candidates from appearing on ballots.

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A few hours after the 2006 decision, Israeli authorities arrested the second candidate on Hamas’ list on charges of ‘illegal campaigning.’

Such obstacles have been substantiated by Israeli law, seemingly implementing the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement, which bans the PA from engaging in political, governmental, or other related activities in Israel, including East Jerusalem. In 2019, the ban was extended by Israel's Security and Strategic Affairs Minister, Gilad Erdan.

Former US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, followed by the relocation of the US embassy, gave Israel the freedom and confidence to insist on banning the elections in Jerusalem.

Not only that, it also encouraged Israel to unilaterally attempt to change the status quo with impunity, going well beyond barring elections to removing Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other Jerusalem neighbourhoods.

"Delaying or cancelling the elections effectively means maintaining the status quo, which ensures stable economic and political interests for the PA elite and deepening Palestinian political disunity"

Fatah's internal divisions

Long before Israel made the decision to bar Jerusalemites from voting, the mantra “no elections without Jerusalem” voiced by Abbas’ associates noticeably increased as the date of the elections approached.

They ignored other parties’ suggestion to hold the elections in Jerusalem regardless of Israel’s decision, including proposals to set up polling stations in UN buildings, churches and mosques, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and going door-to-door with ballot boxes, or even putting more polling stations in the parts of the Jerusalem that Israel hasn’t officially annexed.

Even though Palestinian parties are ostensibly unified on Jerusalem, Abbas' decision to delay the elections was received with much scepticism. The fact he didn’t put forward a plan on the next step following the delay signalled to many that Abbas was reluctant to hold elections in the first place.

With 36 lists set to compete for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the results of the elections were not guaranteed. Surprises that could have compromised the current power hierarchy were more than likely. Some have suggested that dividing the elections into two rounds - legislative and presidential – was meant to test the water and explore Abbas’ chances of remaining in power, well before committing to holding presidential elections.

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Internal splits within Fatah have also produced several popular rivals competing to replace octogenarian Abbas, who is viewed as corrupt, ineffective, and antiquated, especially by young Palestinians.

The splits created two splinter groups which made a Fatah majority in the parliament unlikely. The first group was led by Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, while the other was headed by exiled Fatah official and former head of the PA’s Preventative Security in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan.

In an opinion poll, carried out by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, Barghouti was projected to win the presidential elections (22%) against both Abbas (9%) and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh (14%).

With these issues in mind, Abbas feared that Fatah was headed for a defeat similar to 2006 when Hamas won the majority of the parliament seats. Only this time, Hamas would have expanded its influence to the West Bank, a scenario both the PA and Israel, and the US and the Europeans, dread.

As Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow in The Washington Institute's Irwin Levy Family Program, points out, “Abbas’s hopes of predetermined election results that will renew his legitimacy without upsetting the status quo with Hamas proved illusory.” 

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For most Palestinians, political renewal is a must for creating a unified national strategy to face Israel’s occupation and its broad and intensifying ramifications. The fact that Abbas didn’t announce an alternative date for the elections points towards cancellation rather than delay.

The United States offered no statements in defence of Palestinian democracy, and the European positions were somewhat reserved and often vague. To Palestinians, this confirmed that the call for elections was a political tactic from the outset and was never intended to materialise if it would upset the current power hierarchy.

For many, there’s a sense that the international community is also to blame, not least the Quartet (the US, EU, UN, and Russia). In 2006, the Quartet declared that the recognition of a newly elected Palestinian government was contingent on accepting Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and honouring all previous Israel-PA agreements.

"The consensus now is that the PA is no longer in touch with reality and hasn’t been for a long time"

Clearly, while Hamas has expressed willingness to accept Israel as a de facto state, the chances of the movement (and other factions) endorsing the Quartet’s conditions were almost nil. For many, the Quartet’s position is counterproductive and has helped tighten Hamas’ rule in Gaza, weakening the emergence of a functional Palestinian government, much less a viable electoral system.

Thus far, according to the International Crisis Group, the Biden administration has shown no interest in rethinking the Quartet’s position and is, in fact, seeking to restore bilateral relations with the Fatah-led PA and PLO, to the exclusion of other Palestinian players, especially Palestine’s second-largest party, Hamas. 

Delaying or cancelling the elections effectively means maintaining the status quo, which ensures stable economic and political interests for the PA elite and deepening Palestinian disunity. Both are detrimental to Palestinian national goals and play to Israel’s interests.

Ballots and rockets

Although Hamas’ sweeping victory in the 2006 elections was largely attributed to the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, it was the movement casting itself as a principled party geared toward resisting Israel’s occupation that also gave Hamas an edge. This contrasts with the PA’s reconciliatory approach toward Israel, which has thus far produced no independent state and diminished the PA’s legitimacy and credibility amongst Palestinians.

Today, as the brutal bombardment of Gaza continues, Hamas’ popularity continues to climb. Whilst Hamas’ military commander Muhammad Deif made promises to Palestinian Jerusalemites and delivered with rockets from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority stood helpless as Israel’s violations in Jerusalem worsened.

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In some cases, the PA deployed its security forces in Jenin and Ramallah to block Palestinians from engaging with the Israeli army outside West Bank cities in protest over the violence in Gaza and forced displacements in Sheikh Jarrah. The consensus now is that the PA is no longer in touch with reality and hasn’t been for a long time.

It’s only reasonable to assume that should Palestinian elections be held in the coming six months, and provided that Hamas comes out of the current battle with some strategic achievements, it’s almost guaranteed the movement will harvest significant wins in the Palestinian Legislative Council, repeating the 2006 scenario.

The question remains, however, whether a Hamas victory in the next elections would strengthen the movement’s political stance or limit its options in terms of armed resistance.

Can the movement achieve some form of balance? After all, Hamas’ experience of governance in Gaza since 2007 has proved challenging, not least in terms of international acceptance.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa