Facing the first elections since 15 years, young Palestinians demand reforms

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Facing the first elections they have ever been able to vote in, young Palestinians are demanding reforms in the parliamentary and presidential polls later this year.

Initially many were skeptical about whether the Palestinian elections - the first for 15 years - would even take place after they were announced by President Mahmoud Abbas in January.

Many saw the timing as a bid to reset relations with Washington under President Joe Biden, and as a long-overdue response to criticism of Abbas’s legitimacy given that he was elected in 2005 and has ruled by decree for more than a decade since his mandate expired.

The May 22 parliamentary election moved a step closer to reality last week when the main parties - Abbas’s secular nationalist movement Fatah and its Islamist rival Hamas - registered party lists.

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But it was thrown into turmoil by internal Fatah splits as jailed West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti and Yasser Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qudwa registered a rival slate of candidates in a direct challenge to their leader.

Both are in their sixties but still a generation younger than 85-year-old Abbas, who flew to Germany on Monday for medical checks.

Young Palestinians say the stagnation of the democratic process has marginalized their generation in a society in which more than half the 5.2 million Palestinian population are under 29.

No Palestinian under 34 has voted in national elections and no election has taken place in the social media era - the last parliamentary ballot was in January 2006.

Writing on a wall calling for young people to vote in the coming Palestinian elections, in Gaza City, Gaza, April 5, 2021. (Reuters)
Writing on a wall calling for young people to vote in the coming Palestinian elections, in Gaza City, Gaza, April 5, 2021. (Reuters)

“We call ourselves the ignored generation because we have not been given the space within the political system to participate and have our voices heard,” said Salem Barahmeh of the youth movement Jeel Al-Tajdeed Al-Democraty, or Generation for Democratic Renewal.

“We come from a generation that has never elected its representatives,” Barahmeh, 31, told Reuters in Jericho.

His group urges reform of laws which require parliamentary candidates to be at least 28 and for lists to pay $20,000 to register, measures they say block youth participation.

Virtual list

The group has set up an alternative virtual parliamentary list to show how they believe democracy and political participation should work.

In Gaza, young people created a Facebook page called “15 years,” accusing Hamas and Fatah of prioritizing their political rivalry over youth unemployment.

“For 15 years, we have been neglected and isolated,” said one of the founders, who asked not to be named, fearing punishment in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “We wanted to raise our voices and hold those leaders accountable.”

The election is likely to be dominated by Fatah and Hamas, who have been in a protracted - and sometimes violent - power struggle since Hamas unexpectedly won the 2006 election.

It remains unclear whether the parliamentary election - and the later presidential vote on July 31 - will take place as planned in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with all three areas under different control.

Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since 2007, Abbas’s western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank and Israel controls East Jerusalem.

Israel has just held its fourth election in two years, amid unprecedented political turmoil. It is unclear whether Israel will permit Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem as it did last time, as direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down in 2014.

Fatah and Hamas have yet to begin formal campaigning, which is not permitted until April 30.

Both have sought to appeal to their long-standing bases in their choice of party names - Hamas choosing “Jerusalem is our Destination”, using the Arabic name for the city, Al Quds, and Fatah selecting the name Al-Asifah - the Storm - harking back to the name of its military wing in the early Arafat era.

Both parties say they are engaging with the youth vote.

“We wanted to make sure that young people have a say in politics and decision-making, so we included several of them in our list,” Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters.

“Young people are the basis of the Fatah movement,” said a Fatah spokesman.

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