Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the 74th Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 26, 2019. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Palestinian Officials: No Elections Without East Jerusalem, Gaza

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to The Media Line: ‘I can’t sit in an office without being elected.’

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas used the UN General Assembly podium in September to announce to the world his intention to hold general elections in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Palestinians last did so in January 2006, when they elected a Legislative Council; Hamas won. The last presidential elections took place in January 2005; Abbas, representing the Fatah movement, won.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs the Gaza Strip, shocked many when it accepted Abbas’ September call for elections.

Abbas has yet to issue a decree setting a date for elections. He’s expected to sign one scheduling legislative elections to be followed by presidential elections within a set period, likely three months.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Abbas’ spokesman, told The Media Line that the votes will either be held in all of the Palestinian territories or in none of them.

“Unless we are able to run elections in Jerusalem, and in Gaza, there won’t be elections in the West Bank,” he said.

Israel claims sovereignty over East Jerusalem and works to prevent any Palestinian Authority activity there.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Media Line that he is asking foreign diplomats to intervene.

“Before you [The Media Line] came in, I had [in my office] a foreign diplomat whom I was asking officially that they help us in not allowing the Israelis to prevent elections in East Jerusalem,” he said, referring to the British consul general in Jerusalem, Philip Hall.

Erekat said there were signed agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis according to which elections could be conducted in East Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority elections were held there in 1996, 2005 and 2006, he said.

“We don’t want the Israeli government to sabotage the elections by preventing Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting,” Erekat said.

The two largest Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have been entangled in a bitter power struggle ever since the Islamist movement seized control of Gaza in June 2007, in a bloody takeover.

Erekat said a vote would help to unify Palestinians. “We hope these elections will end the coup in Gaza and facilitate the way for national partnership.”

The division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has greatly hurt the Palestinian cause, with no clear end in sight. “We tried for 13 years to do that [end the division] and we’ve signed so many agreements [between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas], and the best way is to go to the ballot box. Hamas can run, Fatah, PFLP, DFLP; we have many parties,” Erekat said. There is one way forward, he insisted: “It’s ballets and not bullets.”

Ghassan Khatib, professor of cultural studies and contemporary Arab studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told The Media Line that there were two reasons Abbas called for elections.

“One of them is internal: namely the Palestinian political system, which is stagnant and in a complete unhealthy situation, mainly because of a lack of elections. In addition, there is a problem of legitimacy because of the delay in holding elections. And I think there are also some external factors like attempts by countries friendly to the Palestinian Authority to convince Abbas that elections are a good idea,” Khatib said.

Some say Abbas was under heavy pressure to do so. Khatib disagrees.

“I don’t call it pressure; I think that European countries, from a friendly point of view, advised the Palestinians that elections would be a good idea.”

Both Erekat and Abu Rudeineh vehemently denied any international involvement in Abbas’ decision.

Alaa Rimawi, an independent Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah, disagreed. He told The Media Line that Abbas was coerced into making the announcement.

“There is no doubt the Europeans applied pressure,” Rimawi said. He added that the Americans have a “vision for change” and said this may have contributed to the decision.

Abbas is in a predicament: His term as president expired in 2010. He is desperate for political legitimacy and to stay relevant.

“The elections would provide him [Abbas] with what could be his last lifeline,” said Rimawi.

Critics of Abbas said the call for elections is little more than a political ploy.

The 83-year-old leader’s approval ratings are on the decline.

Sixty-one percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas to step down, according to a poll the Palestinian Center for Political and Polling Research conducted in September.

Political, social and economic unrest throughout the region, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, may have played a role in Abbas’s decision.

“There’s an environment now of democracy across the entire world, and we keep telling everybody that we should go back to elections and whoever wins should run the country,” said Abu Rudeineh.

Erekat insists that “only the Palestinian people has the right to choose its leaders.”

He continued: “It’s your [referring to Hamas leaders’] right to say you don’t want to participate, it’s your right to say your vote doesn’t count, but it’s not your right to say you will exercise a veto and prevent people from voting.”

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