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Palestine elections: What’s the point of this futile exercise?

How can one expect democracy to work under occupation and when the international community will not accept the results of the election if Hamas won
Palestinians demonstrate in centre of the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 29 April, 2021 against any postponement of the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections (AFP)

Following Hamas's stunning victory in 2006 elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, one would have thought no more elections would ever be called for by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Many Hamas officials never trusted Abbas - some were  confident he would never dare go ahead with an election he knew he was going to lose

In fact, had it not been for the insistence of former US President George W Bush as part of his drive for "democratisation" in the region, Abbas would not have held the elections at the time. But instead of celebrating democracy, the elections resulted in a tribal war between Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas, which professes resistance against the Israeli occupation.

The former could not concede defeat while the latter could not gain world recognition as the legitimately elected government of the Palestinian people. This "war" resulted in division and bitter hostility with Gaza under Hamas control but besieged by both Egypt and Israel, while the West Bank fell under joint Israeli and PA control thanks to Fatah's collaboration.

Yet, a few weeks back, and 15 years later, Abbas seemed determined to go ahead with holding fresh elections at three levels and in three stages: the Palestinian Legislative Council, followed by Palestinian presidential elections and then, perhaps, elections for the PLO Palestine National Council. The decision, the fruit of many rounds of reconciliation talks with Hamas, was expected to usher in a new era of Palestinian politics, one in which Palestinians unite in the face of Israeli expansionism, international collusion and Arab indifference. 

Many reasons were suggested for going down that route. Yet, one word sums up the motivation on both sides of the divide, and that is "predicament".

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The predicament

Abbas’ predicament emanated from the steady erosion of his personal legitimacy as well as the legitimacy of the despotic and corrupt authority he presides over in Ramallah. He is believed to have decided to hold the elections because of pressure from European and other donors.

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Hamas’ predicament, on the other hand, emanated from the siege imposed on it in the Gaza Strip, the war waged against it constantly by both Israel and PA security agencies in the West Bank, and the continued haemorrhage of regional logistical, financial and political support amid the rising tide of Arab normalisation with Israel

Abbas did not foresee the impact the election process was to have on his own organisation, Fatah. He probably thought that he could easily handle the rivalry posed to him by one dissenting faction, the one led by Mohammad Dahlan, who has been based in exile in the UAE since being expelled from the Fatah movement by Abbas in 2011.

However, for an iconic figure like Marwan Barghouthi, who languishes in Israeli captivity for his role in the Second Intifada in 2000, to challenge Abbas from within his own movement is a much higher risk to take. Barghouthi’s list quickly gained the support of a number of influential figures within Fatah, the faction that constitutes the backbone of the PA, which appeared to be on the verge of disintegrating.

People watch a televised speech by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas regarding the upcoming Palestinian elections at a coffee shop in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on April 29, 2021.
A Palestinian watches Mahmud Abbas speech on the Palestinian elections in the occupied West Bank on 29 April, 2021 (AFP)

Consequently, and despite its own difficulties, Hamas was likely to emerge victorious out of the elections. With Hamas' prospects enhanced by a Fatah in turmoil, neither Israel nor the US, let alone the PA, would be eager for the elections to proceed. 

A futile exercise

But Abbas needed a good excuse to break his promise and go back on his agreement with Hamas. No one could serve him with a better excuse than the Israelis themselves,  and there was nothing better than the highly emotive issue of Jerusalem.

How can one expect democracy to work under occupation, when the entire Palestinian population is either in shackles or under siege?

For some weeks, Palestinians were expecting the elections to be cancelled simply because the Israelis were adamant that the Palestinians of Jerusalem would not be allowed to take part in the voting process, while Abbas was insistent that he would not proceed without them.

Of course, Jerusalem is important for the Palestinians, and not just because of its symbolism, but should the barring of its inhabitant from voting in a Palestinian election be a convincing justification for calling off the entire process? Abbas and his entourage believe so although many other Palestinians do not agree with them. 

Sceptics, like myself, feel vindicated. First of all, how can one expect democracy to work under occupation, when the entire Palestinian population is either in shackles or under siege. How can people make a free choice when they are not free at all? One of the principal stipulations of a genuine democratic process is freedom: freedom of speech, of assembly, of movement and of choice.

Second, as far as Israel and the international community are concerned, only an election won by Fatah would be acceptable. But what if elections were held and Hamas won, as it did in 2006? Would the international community - again - insist that Hamas would not be recognised or dealt with until and unless it accepted the three Quartet conditions?

If so, what’s the point of this futile exercise? Arabs have a saying that goes as follows: "Only a fool insists on trying what has already been tried!"

The real issue

Some Hamas leaders, as I know personally, are no less sceptical. Yet, the movement reckoned that any dynamic would be better than stagnation. Furthermore, they did not want to provide Abbas with any pretext to cancel or postpone the process, which was supposed to lead to the long-awaited national reconciliation, and blame that on Hamas.

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Despite all their public statements, many Hamas officials never trusted Abbas. Some were even confident he would never dare go ahead with an election he knew he was going to lose. They have dealt with him enough to know him well. 

Putting aside the predicaments of both Abbas and Hamas, the Israeli occupation and not the election is the real issue for the Palestinian people as a whole.

Looked at from the perspective of those who negotiated peace with Israel and signed the Oslo accords in 1993, the creation of the PA was supposed to have been the first step along the march towards statehood. However, since its inception, the PA has, in reality, only served the occupation.

As Israel continued at an ever-increasing pace its usurpation of Palestinian land and expansion of illegal settlements, the PA never ceased to act as the security apparatus mandated with the task of controlling the Palestinians and curtailing their response to Israeli violations of their basic rights. 

More and more Palestinians have come to realise that Oslo was nothing short of another Nakba (catastrophe). Therefore, undoing Oslo, dismantling the PA and reviving resistance in all possible forms and with all available means is what the Palestinians need to unite over and not some electoral process that is no more than an illusion.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Azzam Tamimi is a British Palestinian academic and political activist. He is currently the Chairman of Alhiwar TV Channel and is its Editor in Chief.
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