Wednesday, November 27, 2019

HEBRON, West Bank — It will be the first vote of its kind in more than a decade, but proposed Palestinian elections face a wall of apathy from voters tired of infighting and corruption among their leadership and frustrated by the increasingly remote prospect that they will ever secure their own homeland.

After lengthy haggling, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions have agreed to hold elections for parliament and then for president early next year, even though many voters say they don’t expect the results to make much of a difference in their lives.

“The Palestinian Authority is swamped in corruption,” said Mariam, 24, of Bethlehem, who is unemployed. “Whether there is an election or not, the entire organization and policies of the Palestinian Authority are mired in corruption. Therefore, the election has no significance; it can’t change anything.”

Fourteen Palestinian factions agreed to a request this week by Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to hold parliamentary and presidential elections within the next year. Even so, Gaza-based Hamas postponed its signoff until the very last minute Tuesday to protest the Palestinian Authority’s decision to stop demonstrations in Ramallah in support of Palestinians jailed by the Israelis.

“Hamas has agreed to participate in the elections, a possible first step in ending the rupture between the Palestinian political factions,” said Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. “We now hope that we manage to hold fair elections as [was] the case in 2006.”

Hamas and Mr. Abbas tentatively agreed in October to hold parliamentary elections followed by presidential and National Council elections three months later.

Parliamentary elections were last held in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in January 2006. The unexpected win by the more militant Hamas movement stunned the George W. Bush administration and set off a geopolitical earthquake. A year earlier, Mr. Abbas won the last presidential elections in the Palestinian territories.

In subsequent years, Palestinian politics has mostly been divided between Fatah, which controls the occupied West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

The hope is that elections will unite Palestinians across Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to more effectively fight off external threats, they said.

Israel is facing its own political turmoil, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s future hangs in the balance.

“We are facing major threats, the latest being the U.S. decision to legitimize [Israeli] settlement activity and the ongoing attempts to dominate our people and our families,” Ismail Haniyeh, chief of Hamas’ political bureau, said at a press conference Tuesday evening. “These serious developments should prompt us to reorganize ourselves.

“Hamas will join the elections because it is one of the ways to get out of the current Palestinian impasse, end the internal split and establish a Palestinian system based on partnership,” Mr. Haniyeh added.

Weary voters

Many voters say they are tired of the poverty and infighting in the territories and see both camps as ineffective and corrupt.

“The young suffer from plenty of obstacles [here], especially corruption. For example, it is necessary to have a connection in order to find work because only the connected have jobs in Palestine,” said Mariam, who has been searching for work for almost a year after she graduated.

Corruption is a huge topic among voters in the West Bank. The Anti-Corruption Commission recently announced an investigation into the Palestinian Authority, which is suspected of illegally transferring European aid money to accounts held by members of Fatah.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Palestinian territories continues to deteriorate.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate this year reached 46.7% in Gaza and 15% in the West Bank. Poverty rates are 53% in Gaza and 14% in the West Bank. Analysts say those figures understate the scope of the economic crisis.

Abd al-Sattar Qassem, a political analyst at An-Najah University, said people in both the West Bank and Gaza are growing angry with their leadership but are increasingly resigned that little will change. At the same time, he said, voters question the legitimacy of the elected leadership because of infrequent elections.

“Abbas is not a legitimate representative for the Palestinians, nor is Hamas,” he said. He noted that Mr. Abbas was elected 14 years ago for what was supposed to be a four-year term, and “he is illegitimately representing the Palestinians.”

Hamas, Mr. Qassem said, “is not different.”

Some voters still hold out hope that any election could produce a new generation of leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. Mr. Abbas is 84 and has suffered a number of physical setbacks in recent years.

Mohammad Jabrei, a 36-year-old father of five from Hebron, teaches in a government school but also works in Israel during the holidays to earn extra money. He said he is tired of the grind but can’t find another way to make ends meet. He blames the Palestinian Authority.

“We build, repair things for the Israelis, we help them build their settlement on our lands,” he said. “It’s the Palestinian Authority that forces us to only be able to focus on earning enough to survive. I hope the election will give us the space to choose someone who cares about Palestine’s future, not Israel’s.”

Many in Gaza feel the same.

Rami, a 25-year-old from Gaza City, said he wants Hamas to be voted out of office.

“I have been arrested for four times by Hamas, I have been tyrannized in their jails,” he said. “I hope the election will offer us some freedom of expression and brings democracy to Palestine.”

Since the rift between the West Bank and Gaza, political detention becomes an instrument for Hamas and Fateh to cling to power, Mr. Qassem said.

Even with Hamas and Fatah having agreed on elections, hurdles remain. The biggest question: Will Israel and the Trump administration allow an election and accept the results even though Hamas could win a huge share of the vote? The U.S. labels Hamas a terrorist organization, and the group is behind a recent flare-up of violence and rocket attacks with Israel.

Mr. Qassem also said Palestinians might not be ready to go to the polls.

Residents of the West Bank and Gaza “have experienced years of political detention, torture and persecution from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” he said. “The Palestinians need at least a year to be mentally and psychologically prepared for the elections.”

But Yousef Al Krunz, 20, a student from Gaza, insists he is ready. He was wounded during a protest on the Gaza border last year and lost a leg because he wasn’t allowed to leave for the West Bank to get medical treatment.

“I lost my leg because of the rift between Fatah and Hamas,” he said. “Elections are an opportunity to reunite the Palestinian territories … and improve the quality of our lives.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.