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Palestinian elections will not change the reality of occupation

Mar 23,2021 - Last updated at Mar 23,2021

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip edged closer towards the legislative elections, the first in 15 years, as the central election committee began receiving applications for registration of lists contesting the 132-seat legislature in the May 22 poll. Last week Palestinian factions signed a “code of honour” pledging to respect elections results and committing to the elections law in all transparency and fairness. The two main players are Fateh and Hamas; one that is in control of the West Bank and the other of the Gaza Strip.

Last time fair elections were held, in 2005, Hamas swept the legislature. President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was forced to name Ismail Haneyeh as prime minister only to sack him few months later triggering a rebellion by Hamas which took over Gaza after a bloody confrontation with Fatah and the PA. Many attempts to end the rebellion and reach reconciliation have failed. Even as Hamas says it is ready to contest the upcoming elections it is yet to commit to ending its grip over Gaza.

President Abbas, who rules by decree, was forced to call for legislative elections, which will be followed by a presidential poll in July, by European countries that are the main financial sponsors of the PA. The move aims at renewing the legitimacy of Palestinian institutions ahead of a possible resumption of peace talks with Israel. Abbas issued a number of controversial decrees in the past months that critics say constricts the role of the judiciary and prevents younger activists from running.

Fearing a sweep by Hamas candidates, Abbas considered forming a joint list between Hamas and Fatah to guarantee a majority in the next legislature. But pressure from Israel, and possibly the United States, has derailed this unusual plan. Without a commitment by Hamas to hand over power to the PA, a joint list would end up cementing the political and geographical division of the Palestinians. It will most likely legitimise a new duality that will weaken the Palestinian cause. For Israel the joint list would lead to a power sharing deal in the next Palestinian cabinet; an anathema for Israel and the United States; both label Hamas a terrorist group.

But what Palestinian critics of the election saga fear is that it will only lead to normalising occupation and give a new lease of life to the Oslo Accords. They say that it is not normal for people under occupation to hold elections where the occupier controls the land and can thwart the election process and its outcome. Israel had arrested a number of lawmakers in the previous legislature underlining the fact that it has the final say and that no elected official has immunity.

Furthermore, critics say that after more than 25 years, the Oslo Accords have proven to be an utter failure. Israel has reneged on most of its commitments and continues to expand settlements, demolish Palestinian houses, allow settlers to intimidate Palestinians on daily basis and breach areas under PA’s control with impunity. Israel is yet to commit to allowing Palestinians of East Jerusalem to vote.

Meanwhile, Fateh, which is the largest Palestinian faction, is riddled with internal divisions. Young Palestinians, who make up the majority of the population, are fed up with a ruling class whose average age is around 70. Within Fatah there have been attempts to name Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in Israeli jail, as presidential candidate. A long-time Fatah leader and friend of Barghouti, Nasser Al Kidwa, was expelled by Abbas for deciding to form his own list to contest the elections.

Despite clearing the way to hold the elections, some observers say that Abbas, 85, may still postpone the poll if he feels that Fateh may lose the majority in the next legislature. It is also unlikely that the presidential elections will be held on time. It is worth noting that a number of Arab and foreign capitals will be watching nervously the outcome of the legislative elections. They include Amman, Cairo, Ankara and Doha. At stake will be the performance of Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

The Palestinian elections will be held two months after Israelis go to the polls for the fourth time in two years. Occupation and the fate of the peace process are not a priority for Israeli voters and candidates. The outcome of the Israeli poll will not change the reality of occupation for more than five million Palestinians. Assuming that the Palestinian elections will be free and fair it could turn out to be the most consequential event since the signing of the Oslo Accords or, ironically, it could cement the sad political reality that Palestinians have been facing since 1993. 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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