As diaspora Palestinians, our votes should count too

As diaspora Palestinians, our votes should count too
Comment: Palestinians in the diaspora are a significant intellectual and economic force that aids the Palestinian cause. We should be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections, writes Imad Moussa.
6 min read
24 Mar, 2021
Palestinians in the diaspora make up approximately half of the total Palestinian population [Getty]
As of mid-February 2021, 93.3 percent of eligible voters in Palestine had already registered to take part in the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years, scheduled for May and July respectively. 

The significant turnout can only mean a strong public desire to end the internal schism and break free from the current impasse. A thirst for change indeed, but not without being overshadowed by grim expectations and deeply rooted distrust in the political elite. 

Since the last elections in 2006, the Palestinian situation has grown ever more complex. The sad truth is that much of the internal erosion has been self-inflicted, and the usual pinning of anything and everything on Israel's "malicious intent" has lost its meaning, even becoming a source of amusement among many Palestinians.

The air of optimism that followed the Cairo talks last February and which led to the decision to hold the elections, has started to give way to concerns about political monopoly being the defining feature of the next phase. There are signs that voting may only be a facade for power-sharing between the two ruling parties - Fatah and Hamas - which would only consolidate the gains they've made since the 2006 elections. 

Fatah seeks to renew its expired legitimacy in the West Bank, and Hamas hopes that the ballots will help the movement legitimise its de facto control over Gaza. Despite the declared "aspirations for national unity," Hamas wants to maintain control of Gaza, yet play a role in West Bank governance.

  A stateless and geographically scattered people, the majority are more concerned about issues related to national liberation  

Fatah wants to re-establish full control over the Gaza Strip without sharing power in the West Bank with Hamas. Non-affiliated figures and small parties may complain about such disturbing polarisation and dysfunctional, selfish politics, but no-one will listen.

The recent changes to the electoral law serve to consolidate this monopoly. The changes made it virtually impossible for ordinary Palestinians to run against those currently in power, otherwise known as the "Oslo relics". The age requirement for candidates is 28, in a society where the average age is 21, set against a majority of leadership with an average age of 70.

To run, candidates have to pay a fee of $20,000, a ludicrous requirement in a society where unemployment is rife. Furthermore, the elections decision was announced with only a few months' lead-up time under a new voting system built on proportional representation, which favours established, strong parties and disenfranchises young, fresh political figures. 

That's only one part of the story. The other part is the crisis of "true representation". 

Read more: Palestinian elections 2021: Reconciling competing motives

Indeed, problems related to government performance and corruption matter to Palestinians, but they're not at the core of Palestinian political legitimacy. A stateless and geographically scattered people, the majority are more concerned about issues related to national liberation, a prospect that places the Palestinians outside the PA jurisdiction, especially those in the diaspora, at the heart of the representation crisis.  

Israel is unlikely to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in the Palestinian elections. Its motives are not a mystery, and neither is the legitimacy of the Palestinian concerns that excluding Jerusalem will serve to substantiate Israel's sovereignty over the Old City. In this instance at least, blaming the lack of "true representation" on Israel's occupation is justifiable. 

What's hard to justify, however, is the exclusion of Palestinians abroad.  

The elections will only be held in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which inevitably excludes all Palestinians who don't reside in these territories from voting. Whenever mentioned, if at all, the exclusion is justified with a list of reasons such as the logistical and financial difficulties, jurisdiction, and issues related to the conflicting mandates between the PA and the PLO.

  For the majority of Palestinians, the diaspora is an enforced reality  

We also continue to hear the old argument that a Palestinian president's responsibilities are confined to the Occupied Territories, and that only the PLO - an organisation in rapid decline since Oslo - is responsible for Palestinians in the diaspora. This may apply to the Palestinian refugees in neighbouring countries, but what about Palestinians in Europe and the United States, especially those who are also nationals of Palestine?  

Of course, not all countries grant their citizens abroad the right to vote. In Israel, this has been a subject of contention for years. The difference, however, is that for most Israeli expats, returning home to vote is a matter of choice. For the majority of Palestinians, the diaspora is an enforced reality and has since 1948 grown into a natural state of existence and a chief proponent of Palestinian identity. To return is not always feasible. We either vote remotely, which is unavailable, or don't vote at all and lose the chance to be part of the "active collective". 

The exclusion of the Palestinian diaspora, which began with Oslo, has seemingly divided Palestinian national identity in two: A "true identity" applicable only to those residing in the Occupied Territories and living under the PA, and who experience first-hand the hardships under Israel's military occupation. And a "complementary identity", which includes Palestinians abroad outside the PA control, whether they were born in Palestine or are post-Nakba refugees born in exile. 

  The exclusion of the Palestinian diaspora, which began with Oslo, has seemingly divided Palestinian national identity in two  


Palestinians in the diaspora are a demographic block to be reckoned with, making up approximately half of the total Palestinian population. Not only do they add a sense of wholeness to the Palestinian struggle, enhance its strategic depth, and strengthen its legitimacy, they're also a significant intellectual and economic force that aids the Palestinian cause.

Over the last decades, these Palestinians have 
launched important initiatives and movements that effectively internationalised the Palestinian cause, connecting Palestine with the world's anti-racism movements, and against fascism and populism in which Zionism has been a key player. Importantly, the diaspora has been the key source of a fresh Palestinian intellectualism, one largely based on activism rather than on revolutionary rhetoric that the modern world no longer identifies with.

To exclude the diaspora is to weaken the Palestinian national narrative and the claims to certain inalienable rights. After all, Palestine is not merely a spot of land; rather, a state of consciousness derived from a human tragedy so profound and so saturating that, to quote Edward Said, continues to "hang over our lives with undiminished weight."

This makes Palestinian nationality a state of mind more than a legal status, one that transcends geography and entails equal rights for all Palestinians, including the right to vote. 

If we can hold elections under occupation, it's possible we can do it abroad.  

If we don't, we're running the risk of further schisms.

So far, the signs are not encouraging. 

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

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.