Palestinian elections: The view from Gaza

Palestinian elections: The view from Gaza
In-depth: Fifteen years after Palestinians last went to the polls, Gazans have seen their living conditions drastically deteriorate. For most, the upcoming elections elicit a mixture of hope and scepticism.
5 min read
22 February, 2021
The Palestinian national movement formally split after Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. [Getty]
"Reform starts from the bottom, not the other way around," says Mustafa, 50, a Palestinian political analyst from the Gaza Strip, referring to the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections scheduled for the summer.

In Gaza, the fifteen years since Palestinians last participated in the democratic process have brought division, desperation and a decline in economic conditions, Mustafa says, all of which decrease the likelihood of successful elections.

"I would not say I'm not happy we are finally going to vote, but I am worried that the current situation of division between Fatah and Hamas, among so many other challenges, will be a real obstacle in front of the process,'' Mustafa told The New Arab

Mahmoud Abbas, the eighty-five-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), elected in 2005, issued a decree earlier in January calling for legislative and presidential elections to be held in May and July, respectively.

The announcement came amid fundamental changes in political conditions in the Arab world and internationally, including the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States and recent agreements signed by the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to normalise relations with Israel.

In Gaza, the 15 years since Palestinians last participated in the democratic process have brought division, desperation and a decline in economic conditions

In February, a month after Abbas' announcement, 14 Palestinian political factions met in Cairo for a Palestinian National Dialogue meeting to come to an agreement over longstanding differences. 

However, just days later a conflict emerged after the Supreme Court of Palestine in Ramallah rejected a decision by Gaza's Supreme Judicial Council that unmarried women would need permission from male guardians to travel outside of the coastal enclave. Following public and international uproar, Hamas authorities said they would review the controversial edict. 

The elections of 2006 failed to fulfil the hopes for change that many Palestinians, especially in Gaza, felt at the time. Shortly after Hamas' stunning victory in legislative elections the party was subjected to economic and diplomatic sanctions by Israel and the international community. 

Read more: Doubt and division cast a shadow over
Palestinian elections

Street battles soon followed between Fatah and Hamas security forces in a violent power struggle which killed an estimated 600 Palestinians in the months that followed, as Fatah forces were ousted from Gaza.

As part of a raft of punitive sanctions, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after declaring the territory a "hostile entity", including border closures, power cuts and the restriction of imports. Nearly two million Palestinians live in the besieged territory, which rights groups call the "world's largest open-air prison".

Yasmeen Salim, 27, has not registered to vote for the upcoming elections. She says that she would rather leave Gaza to look for a better life in a different country, along with her husband. "I'm looking for a better future for us and for our future children, raising children in a place that lacks basic needs is a crime, from my point of view," she told The New Arab

But there is still a long way to go before elections take place, with possible divisions already emerging within Fatah. The movement, which dominates the PA, has not yet agreed on a list of candidates for either presidential or legislative elections. Abbas, however, has been slated as the party's only presidential candidate, while the popular imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti has also reportedly stated his intentions to run for president. 

Despite these barriers, more than 90 percent of the 385,000 eligible voters in Gaza have already registered to participate in the elections. Among these is Ra'fat Junina, 30, who was underage in 2006 and could not vote, but now is excited to be a part of the elections. ''I graduated from university with a bachelor's degree in journalism eight years ago, but I work as a taxi driver due to the lack of jobs here.''

The maximum change these elections can bring to Gaza is to lift or at least ease the siege on people living there - nothing beyond that

Ra'fat, a father of two, says that he hopes that the next rulers will improve economic conditions so he can get a better job. ''I want to live in Gaza with my family for the rest of my life, therefore I want to have a better future here, rather than looking for it outside".

Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, estimated at around 49 percent, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line. Access to clean water is limited, with daily electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours per day.  

Read more: Palestinian elections 2021: Reconciling
competing motives

In recent years, many young Palestinians, including Hamas supporters, have left Gaza to start a new life in Europe, Turkey or other countries. Under the new elections law, those who left will not be able to vote from abroad and would have to return in order to participate in the elections. 

For Wassim Zomlot, 35, a Palestinian from Gaza living in Belgium, it makes little difference.

"I left Gaza in 2011, and neither my wife nor I plan to ever go back. Our two daughters were born here, and I am sure they now have a better life than the life they would have in Gaza.''

Wassim says that the political environment in Gaza is complex and hopeless and needs deeper reforms which go far beyond elections.

"The maximum change these elections can bring to Gaza is to lift or at least ease the siege on people living there - nothing beyond that".

Abeer Ayyoub is a freelance journalist based in Amman. 

Follow her on Twitter: @abeerayyoub