Sunday, February 14, 2021

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian elections slated this year could finally put an end to the political infighting and turf battles between leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have immobilized politics in these divided territories for 15 years.

But with the economic and security imbalance with Israel vastly wider than in the 2006 elections, ordinary Palestinians are deeply skeptical about whether recently announced national elections will bring positive change.

The last elections created separate and largely hostile spheres of influence for the Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas movement. The bloody aftermath left the Palestinian Authority holding sway in the West Bank and Hamas exercising effective control in the Gaza Strip.

Raghad Adwan, a student majoring in human rights at Al-Quds University who is a political independent, said elections wouldn’t help the Gaza Strip’s devastated economy and wouldn’t liberate the territories of the West Bank occupied by Israelis.

Israel and its control in Palestinian lands are the main dilemmas,” Mr. Adwan said. “This election might not be the solution. It may change the current Palestinian landscape for the worse.”

Palestinian Authority officials announced legislative elections on May 22 and, for the first time in 15 years, a presidential vote on July 31. The delay stems from conflicts between President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah political party controls the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which the U.S., European Union and Britain have designated as a terrorist organization because of its unwillingness to formally recognize Israel’s right to exist.

To the consternation of Israel and the George W. Bush administration, Hamas won the Palestinians’ last parliamentary elections in 2006. Bloody clashes between Fatah and Hamas erupted. Mr. Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led government, appointed a new prime minister and stayed in his post. Technically, his term ended more than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Israel fought three wars that devastated Gaza. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade further undermined the territory. More than half of the Gaza population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations.

With Palestinians divided and distracted, an increasingly assertive Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded settlements and land claims that would be hard to reverse in any peace deal.

Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign was turbo-charged by the support and diplomatic gifts he received from the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidency. The administration dropped legal objections to the settlements, reduced aid and contacts with the Palestinian Authority and moved the U.S. Embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.

A series of U.S.-engineered normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states has eased Israel’s regional isolation and left many Palestinians feeling betrayed.

Early doubts

Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and Russia have pledged to help the Palestinians hold a fair election, but Fatah and Hamas have raised questions about whether they can trust vote counts in areas they don’t control. Hamas leaders are also questioning the fate of their fighting forces in Gaza in the event that Fatah wins a majority of the vote in the territory.

“There are many obstacles that are not discussed or solved, such as Hamas’ weapons and security in Gaza,” said Wasfi Qabha, a senior Hamas official. “The environment in the West Bank is not ready to hold a democratic election. The Palestinian Authority committed political repression by arresting political figures, Hamas members and activists.”

The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly promised to hold elections in the years since 2006, only to renege or give up in the face of insurmountable logistical hurdles.

But one senior Fatah official suggested there is cause for optimism, if only because of the bleakness of the present and recent past.

“We need these elections, because without them we will simply be heading in vicious circles,” Fatah Secretary General Jibril Rajoub told reporters on the sidelines of the conference in Cairo last week that produced the blueprint for holding the elections.

Those issues highlight how the elections could tear Palestinians further apart rather than bringing them together.

“If these elections happen, accepting its results from both parties is the main obstacle that may widen the gap between the Palestinians,” said Adnan Abu Amer, a political scientist at Al Ummah University in Gaza City. “Hamas has strong military power that makes it difficult to give it up or to make it under Fatah’s control and supervision.”

Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasm said those issues would be cleared up before polls open. Although holding a vote would be difficult logistically, he said, it is the only durable way to resolve the rift between the two sides.

“The election is the only way to fulfill the national interest,” he said.

It’s not clear whether or how the vote will be held in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital but which Israel considers its sovereign land. Israel permitted Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote in 2006.

In December, a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll found that more than half of Palestinian voters doubted elections would be free and fair.

“Transparency is still a main issue,” said Wijdan Radidiah of the Palestinian Center for Democracy think tank. “Bribes and brainwashing from both parties may affect the decisions of ordinary people.”

Fatah is under pressure to hold a vote, and the Biden administration represents a critical new variable in the equation.

President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu have nothing like the personal rapport that the longtime Israeli leader had with Mr. Trump, and the new administration already has restored some of the aid flows to the Palestinians that Mr. Trump severed.

Other donors have raised concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy, Mr. Amer said, and Mr. Abbas, who is 85 and has health problems, can’t jeopardize that crucial aid.

“The international donor community has been dealing with a president who was elected over a decade ago,” Mr. Amer said.

Even if the elections are free and fair, many voters, especially young Palestinians, would remain disillusioned with their politics, Ms. Radidiah said. Hamas could escalate conflicts with Israel. Mr. Abbas, who is running for reelection, offers a business-as-usual approach unlikely to excite a frustrated rising generation.

“We need new faces,” she said. “The opportunity now should be for the Palestine’s youth to create change. Otherwise, no changes will happen if we still have the same people.”

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