Palestinians face major obstacles to hold first legislative elections since 2006
Palestinians in the West Bank have not been able to choose their leaders for 13 years. This week it looked like that might change, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas initiated steps to prepare for legislative elections. But major obstacles stand in the way.
Abbas said any Palestinian election should take place in “the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip” - the three locations where Palestinians eligible to vote in the elections reside. Yet Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), only has the power to ensure elections in the West Bank.
With the rival Palestinian militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Israeli authorities in power in Jerusalem, Abbas faces an uphill battle to secure elections in either location.
Palestinian officials and experts told Al Arabiya English of the challenges ahead.
The first major obstacle is East Jerusalem, home to 360,000 Palestinians and considered the capital of a future Palestinian state by the PA.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, a move condemned by the UN and the international community. Israel considers Jerusalem its capital and is unlikely to allow Palestinians to vote within its municipal boundaries.
Lawmakers are looking at “creative solutions” for the question of how to conduct elections for Palestinians in Jerusalem, according to Palestinian political analyst Zaha Hassan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
One way is to set up polling booths outside of Israel’s current boundaries, Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) representative for Jerusalem, Bernard Sabella, told Al Arabiya English in an exclusive interview.
The method has been tried before. During the last Palestinian elections in 2006, voting stations for Jerusalemites were erected in Al Ram, a Palestinian town northeast of Jerusalem. However, the location requires voters to travel a longer distance.
Another option is online voting.
“One other alternative, although its practicability has not been tested, is to vote online with special codes given to each of Jerusalem’s residents based on her or his identity card,” said Sabella.
All Palestinian residents of Jerusalem over the age of 18 are automatically registered to vote in the Palestinian election, which Sabella said would make online voting possible.
The second obstacle is the Gaza Strip, which the Israeli government has blocked since Hamas took control of the area in 2007.
The Israeli blockade sets up physical challenges to holding and monitoring elections with the West Bank.
But just as difficult is the ideological divide between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party, which rules the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Fatah and Hamas are long-standing rivals and clashed in 2007, with over 100 people killed in the fighting.
“Successful holding of parliamentary elections would depend on the cooperation and agreement of Hamas. If it does not cooperate, there will not be elections or would be too complicated to have elections without a clear ‘OK’ from Hamas,” said Sabella.
Cooperation between Hamas and Fatah has faltered historically. Following Hamas’ upset victory in the 2006 elections, Fatah initially refused to join the government. In June 2007 Hamas seized Gaza from the Fatah-led PA, after talks faltered between Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh and Abbas. Multiple agreements have been signed between the two since, but all collapsed.
There are some signs of a reconciliation. Hamas welcomed Abbas’ public call for elections during the UN General Assembly last month, and this week a delegation of PA ministers including Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited Cairo to discuss reconciling and elections.
But substantial hurdles remain.
“PA officials argue certain issues need to be agreed upon first with Hamas before presidential elections may be called. It isn’t clear what those issues are,” said Hassan in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
“The most we can hope for is that Hamas will agree to the parliamentary elections, as they have already indicated,” said Sabella, who added current reconciliation efforts are “going nowhere.”
Abbas’ insistence that Palestinians be governed under the PA “in the framework of one Palestinian political system, one sole legitimate authority, one law and one legitimate weapon” could serve as a key sticking point. Hamas is committed to armed resistance by its founding charter and maintains its own military forces independent of the PA.
If elections were held and Fatah and Hamas did manage to form a unity government, their relations with the international community would be a further challenge.
Much of the international community, including the US, designates Hamas as a terrorist organization due to the group's use of violence, which is supported in part by Iran through financial and military backing.
Any involvement of Hamas in the PA therefore risks sabotaging donor aid, a key source of funds.
“Holding another election wouldn’t solve this dilemma but only put an exclamation mark next to it,” said Hassan.
Given these obstacles, Abbas has not given a timeframe for the elections.
Irrespective of the hurdles, the need to hold elections is urgent to ensure “average Palestinians can be involved in decision making processes,” said Sabella.
“We have to do it in order to get our people's voice heard. Without it the whole political system in Palestine would continue to suffer,” he added.