After several years of trying to find a way out of their internal political crisis, started in 2007, the Palestinian leaders finally agreed on holding new elections. The legislative elections are scheduled for May 22 and the presidential elections on July 31. Palestinian official reactions showed some enthusiasm. On social media, reactions varied between firm rejection to elections held under the ceiling of the Oslo accords, and some skepticism towards the possibility of the elections even taking place.
The decision of holding the elections has been postponed for 15 years. It came about only as the fruit of discussions between Palestinian factions, that started back in the fall. On September 3, the secretaries general of the Palestinian factions met by video conference, at the call of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting, in which the essential differences between the political factions were heard, despite formulas of brotherhood, aimed to find a common vision to face the plan of the American president, Donald Trump, for the Middle East. The factions who are opposed to Abbas’s policies had once again shown their skepticism about the viability of the peace process, as well as the agreements signed with ‘Israel’. For his part, President Abbas reiterated his attachment to a negotiated solution to the conflict, within the framework of international mediation.
At the end of this meeting, all representatives of the Palestinian political forces, including Abbas himself, displayed a united front against the Trump plan and all signed the final communiqué reaffirming that Palestine was continuing the process of its national liberation and that the main task of the Palestinians was to end the Israeli occupation. Agreeing on the urgent need to regain national unity, they insisted on the need for new parliamentary and presidential elections.
Representatives of Fatah and Hamas a new meeting in Turkey at the end of September agreed to organize the elections within six months. However, no timetable was mentioned to wonder if these elections could take place during the lifetime of the 85-year-old Palestinian president.
This Palestinian attempt to overcome internal divisions is not the first. Since the internal conflict began in 2007, the same leaders have come together every year to try to end their differences, signing a series of agreements. In June 2014, a new Palestinian government of technocrats was formed, for the first time since 2007, for Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians since then have, in theory, one government. However, in practice, the management of ministries remains divided. The ministries located in Ramallah have no real authority in Gaza. A reality that can only be overcome by the election of a new leadership, recognized by all. The succession of President Abbas is therefore an issue in itself.
So far, Abbas has no successor and the prospect of chaos alarms all the political class. By law, the president of the Legislative Council should assume office in case it becomes vacant until new elections are held. The chairman of the legislative council, elected in 2006, was Hamas member Aziz Dweik, but Abbas dissolved the legislative council in 2007 when the split between the two camps occurred.
If a new president and a new legislative council are not elected while Abbas is still alive, the legal process of his succession is interrupted and could fall at the mercy of internal conflicts within the Fatah party itself.
The urgence of the Gaza Strip
In March of 2018, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza marched peacefully towards the separation barrier, demanding the end of the Israeli blockade. Protests continued every week for two years. At least 340 peaceful protesters were killed by the Israeli army during these marches, and thousands more were wounded and maimed, including journalists, medical staff and children, but the protests continued. Simply, Palestinians in Gaza had more to fear from the continuity of the Israeli blockade, than from Israeli bullets.
In September 2018, a United Nations report indicated that the Palestinian enclave would become uninhabitable in 2020, due to the Israeli blockade. The following month, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Michael Lynk, declared Gaza already uninhabitable. The Israeli blockade imposed since 2007 leaves the Palestinian enclave completely destitute, causing a humanitarian crisis, made worse by repeated Israeli military attacks. According to the United Nations, 95% of the water consumed in Gaza is polluted, 80% of families depend on humanitarian assistance, the only power plant operates only 8 hours a day, extreme poverty affects 50% of the population and youth unemployment exceeds 70%.
The Israeli blockade continues, without political objection from the international community, on the pretext that Hamas is ruling the enclave. The Palestinian leadership knows that as long as they are divided, they will not be able to assume their responsibility towards Gaza, and towards the resistance of its population. This does not mean that Palestinian elections will end the blockade, because ultimately it is ‘Israel’ that imposes it. Yet Palestine declared itself a state in 2011, and that state has been recognized by the majority of countries around the world. ‘Israel’ is therefore not officially blocking a rebel enclave, but part of the territory of the State of Palestine.
However, the Palestinian leadership cannot consistently make this argument unless they have one leadership for all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. That should also facilitate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction of the territory, under unified Palestinian leadership. However, despite the political and humanitarian urgency recognized by all sides of Palestinian politics, holding elections and ending the internal division has proved difficult. The announcement of a calendar does not yet guarantee that it will be held.
The price of the American promise
Under Trump’s administration, Abbas and Palestine were abandoned by the US administration, which conducted a monologue with Netanyahu and ‘Israel’ for the sole benefit of the occupation state. But US President-elect Joe Biden arrives with the promise of resuming traditional US policies. That of the management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by relaunching the never-ending peace process.
For Abbas and his leadership, this may represent an opportunity to return to the negotiating table as a main player. This could also lead to the return of US financial assistance to the Palestinian government, suspended by Trump in 2016. This promise will come at a price, and that price could be Palestinian internal reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The end of Trump’s calamitous reign has opened a new window for Palestine’s return to the forefront of American international politics, but the challenge facing Palestinian leaders is to make that move back, united.
It’s not all about a date
All calculations put aside, no one can predict the choices of the Palestinians themselves when voting. In the decade which page the world just turned, an entire generation of Palestinians has grown up. Half of the Palestinians in Gaza are under 18. They have gone through three wars, and never left the enclave. In the West Bank, those under 18 – 42% of the population – grew up in a daily context of arrests, house demolitions, and land colonization, behind a concrete wall. Thinking of them, who will their parents vote for?
However, the main issue facing the coming elections remains the fact that they are held under the ceiling of the Oslo accords, and the political order that they created. An order by which Palestine and the Palestinians are reduced to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not even being sure of counting those in East Jerusalem anymore.
These elections are supposed to unify the Palestinian people, but they completely exclude one and a half million Palestinians living under the state of ‘Israel’ in the 1948 territories, as well as another 5 million Palestinians in exile and diaspora. For many, this fact alone is a consecration of the fragmentation of the Palestinian people. And while the presidential decree states that elections will be held later for the Palestinian National Council, the legislative organ that is supposed to represent Palestinians all over the world, it is still unclear how those elections will be held, and what the role of the PNC will be in the Palestinian political system in the future. All of this remains a reminder, that in a world that is able to tolerate a 54-year-long ongoing occupation, and a 73-year-long ongoing displacement, building a democracy in a country that is not yet free is no simple business.