For the first time in more than 15 years, Palestinians will head to the polls to elect a new parliament and president. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has issued a presidential decree setting dates for legislative and presidential elections in May and July, respectively.
Abbas’ decree comes after intense meetings with rival Hamas on unity talks.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, on Friday welcomed Abbas’ decision to issue a decree setting the elections.
“In recent months, we have worked to overcome obstacles in order to reach this day,” the group said in a statement.
Raafat Alyan, a Fatah leader who lives in Anata in east Jerusalem, told The Media Line the peoples’ will to hold an election is there, but challenges remain.
“The path to these elections is not paved with roses, especially since there is an Israeli occupation that controls the Palestinian territories in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem,” he said.
The last time Palestinians voted for president was in 2005 when President Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four-year term.
A year later, when Palestinians voted in a general election to choose members for their parliament, the Hamas faction swept to a surprise victory. One year later, in 2007, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’ secular Fatah party in a bloody takeover that resulted in a political standoff that has remained until now.
The Palestinian parliament has been inactive for years.
The 85-year-old Palestinian leader did not say if he would throw his hat into the presidential race ring for another term in office.
Abbas’ original term expired in 2009 and he has since ruled by decree.
In addition to holding the presidency, Abbas is also head of Fatah and president of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized internationally as representing all Palestinians.
Jihad Harb, an expert in Palestinian affairs, told The Media Line that despite the apparent agreement on elections, experts mindful of numerous failed attempts at reconciliation say a host of obstacles and challenges to holding these elections remain.
“It is too early to be optimistic about holding elections despite the issuance of a presidential decree. There are a host of obstacles and challenges to holding these elections,” he said. “One of the challenges is whether the PA will be allowed to hold elections in the city of Jerusalem if Israel prohibits the holding of the elections,” he said.
The Palestinian leadership must devise new methods and means for holding elections in Jerusalem, and not make this an obstacle to not holding the elections
Abbas also called for voters in east Jerusalem to be included in the election, but Israel has yet to comment on whether it will allow those Palestinians to cast their ballots as they did 15 years ago.
Israel bans all Palestinian Authority activity in mainly Arab east Jerusalem. Alyan admits that the possibility that Israel will stop Palestinians from holding elections in east Jerusalem is high, but he says this shouldn’t stop them from finding ways to do so.
“The Palestinian leadership must devise new methods and means for holding elections in Jerusalem, and not make this an obstacle to not holding the elections,” he told The Media Line.
He says that the international community must force Israel to allow the Palestinians to vote.
“There are agreements guaranteeing the holding of elections in Jerusalem, and Israel has signed on them. We call on all international bodies, including the United States, to exert pressure on the Israeli occupation to allow for elections in the city of Jerusalem,” he said.
According to The Media Line sources in Ramallah, there is a tentative agreement that the two largest Palestinian factions have in principle agreed to run on a joint list.
While this approach does not have much support and consensus within the Fatah movement, there is partial acceptance by the leaders of the Hamas movement.
A high-ranking Fatah leader told The Media Line that this agreement will spell “the end” of Fatah.
“Our movement is deeply divided, and we must organize our internal house first. Why give legitimacy to Hamas by being on the same ticket,” he said.
Both parties treat the elections as an opportunity to become more relevant – domestically, regionally and internationally.
Harb says the two largest Palestinian factions are looking to “gain legitimacy” following a summer of changing alliances in the region.
“The Arab world and the changes that took place and the new regional alliances are pushing for there to be agreements between Hamas and Fatah,” he said.
Over the summer, several Arab governments normalized relations with Israel. Palestinians condemned the normalization accords, which the United Arab Emirates was first to sign, followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
He also said there are internal motives behind Fatah and Hamas agreeing to hold elections, such as “the fact that governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is no longer able to absorb internal challenges.” For example, Harb says, the lack of funds available to the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza makes it difficult to rule, and it had a major role in their decision.
Harb says the environment must be conducive for the elections and that leaders should not suppress election campaigns or order arrests.
He also called for the setting up of an election court, and questioned whether or not the Hamas police in the Gaza Strip will be allowed to have jurisdiction over protecting the polling stations and boxes.
It is very important to have international monitoring so as not to give anyone a chance to question the integrity and fairness of the election results. Not having monitors will lead to doubts
Basem Hadaida is an election expert who says there are more than a million Palestinians for whom voting will be a new experience, since they have never had the opportunity to cast a ballot.
He says to ensure the results are respected, an international presence is essential.
“It is very important to have international monitoring so as not to give anyone a chance to question the integrity and fairness of the election results. Not having monitors will lead to doubts,” he said.
On Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh urged the European Union to send observers to monitor the elections, emphasizing the need for European Union monitors in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
The announcement to hold elections coincides with the arrival of a new US administration. The Palestinians severed ties with the Trump administration in early 2020 accusing it of being a “dishonest broker” and having a bias toward Israel.
Elyan says that, in addition to popular demand, regional and international pressure played a role in forcing the Palestinians to agree on a date for elections.
“The Biden administration has already interfered in this matter and stipulated the necessity of holding elections. The European Union spoke more than once with President Mahmoud Abbas about the necessity of holding elections,” he said.
Despite the presidential decrees to hold the elections, there are land mines in its path, and it may blow up at any time.
With a lack of public trust, deep internal division, distrust and accusations of widespread corruption, many Palestinians doubt the elections will take place at all, with some questioning the integrity and fairness of the election results even before they’re held.