Analysis |

Real Challenge in Palestinian Elections: Convince Jerusalem Voters to Cast Their Ballots

The multiple party tickets express the Palestinian thirst to take part in the decision-making process in a society split between two authoritarian regimes, and lacking power in the face of Israel's occupation

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Members of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission register voters in Hebron in February.
Members of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission register voters in Hebron in February.Credit: Hazem Bader / AFP

The unique name of one of the 36 parties aiming to compete in the May 22 Palestinian parliamentary election might be translated as We’ve Had Enough. This slate defines itself as young people from protest movements active mainly in Gaza in recent years against the internal Palestinian rift and its economic repercussions.

And while its name faithfully represents the general mood, it’s only one of 25 small, independent tickets that have cropped up in recent months, whose founders are little known to the public and are unlikely to win the approximately 28,000 votes needed for one seat or even pass the electoral threshold (1.5 percent of the vote).

The multiplicity of party tickets expresses people’s great thirst to make their voices heard and take part in the decision-making process in a society split between two authoritarian regimes and lacking authority and power in the face of Israel’s control and policies.

Eleven of the rosters represent known political movements or are headed by known people. As required by the Palestinian election law, women must make up at least 26 percent of the slate, at least two in the top 10.

Fatah is split into three parts: the roster compiled by the Fatah Central Committee led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (named the Storm after Fatah’s first military wing); the Freedom Party, headed by Nasser al-Kidwa and supporters of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti; and the Future party, associated with Mohammed Dahlan.

Marwan Barghouti at a Jerusalem court in 2012.Credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters

The many slates running for the legislative council could actually break the binary nature of Palestinian politics over the past 15 years and obviate the need for voters to choose between one ruling movement (the official Fatah) and the other (Hamas). In the 2006 election, the second since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority but the first in which Hamas took part, many people voted for Hamas to express their disappointment with Fatah and disgust with the customs of corruption in the PA, though they didn’t support the political-religious platform of the Islamic resistance movement. Now they’ll have other alternatives for a vote of protest, anger or hope.

This past week, all media attention was on the announcement at the very last minute, right before the deadline for submitting party slates Wednesday night, that Barghouti’s supporters would join Kidwa – whom Abbas removed from the Central Committee after he formed an independent slate demanding fundamental change in the movement and in the PA’s policies.

But there are more surprises: No. 2 in Dahlan’s Future party is Sari Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor and former president of Al-Quds University. In 2002, Yasser Arafat appointed Nusseibeh as the PLO’s representative in Jerusalem, and in that same year he wrote, with former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, a declaration of principles for a peace agreement based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (as opposed to the Oslo Accords, which didn’t mention a Palestinian state). His close association with Dahlan, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates since Abbas expelled him from the West Bank, was known to all.

Since 2019, Nusseibeh has headed the Jerusalem Council for Development and Economic Growth, which received a donation of $12 million from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and which provides grants to institutions and individuals in Jerusalem. Even those not considered Dahlan supporters note his talent for pouring in money and encouraging his followers to work in places were the PA is conspicuously absent: Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank refugee camps.

The philosophy professor somewhat softens the thuggish image that Dahlan’s slate may have, based on his past as the head of the repressive Preventive Security Service in Gaza, and the fact that many ex-security people support him. No. 3 in the list, Nayrouz Qarmout, an author and a feminist, also has a softening effect. She was born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and moved to Gaza at age 11 in 1994.

No. 1 on the list is indeed a Preventive Security veteran, Samir Masharawi, who recently returned to Gaza after 14 years of exile. After the brief and painful civil war in 2007 in which Hamas (the victor in the 2006 election) took over the security forces in the Strip, Fatah leaders and members fled. Hamas has allowed them to return in recent years, and many have returned in the past few weeks to promote the Future slate.

Heading the official Fatah roster are five members of the movement’s Central Committee, despite Abbas’ earlier declaration that there would be no officials from Fatah’s higher institutions on the list. No. 1 is Mahmoud Aloul, Abbas’ deputy. Jibril Rajoub, former head of Preventative Security in the West Bank, is No. 4.

To the surprise of many, No. 7 on the list is Qadura Fares, a close ally of Barghouti. The general expectation was that he would be on the slate established by Kidwa after Abbas and Rajoub strived for years to push him out of the circle of Fatah’s decision-makers, despite and perhaps because of the broad public support for him. As required of candidates, he resigned his position as head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club.

It seems that Palestinian voters now attribute more importance to the candidates on each slate than to its platform. And so, over- or under-representation of a certain district or a lack of a representation of Gaza, of released prisoners or people born in refugee camps are considered weaknesses.

Since Wednesday night it has been reported that Fatah supporters protested the final composition of the official slate, including by firing into the air and at buildings. The first 10 names of Kidwa’s Freedom Party heavily represent residents of the Ramallah district (even if some of them hail from other districts like Nablus or Jerusalem) – seven out of 10, two of them from the village of Kobar – Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s wife, and Fakhri Barghouti, a former prisoner. Kidwa is a native of Gaza and has family there, but he lived abroad for years and now lives in Ramallah – so in the Strip people feel that he has “neglected” them, as one potential voter put it.

Men waiting outside a hospital in the Palestinian town of Tul Karm as relatives with COVID-19 are treated inside, Tuesday. Credit: Moti Milrod

Kidwa and his supporters, who emphasize that they do not receive money from foreign countries, will have to work hard in the coming weeks to explain that the most important thing is the political program and ways to realize it. Meanwhile, at week’s end, Kidwa was reproached from all sides for daring to criticize political Islam in an interview on the France 24 TV network.

The Hamas roster is called Jerusalem – Our Promise, and contrary to early assessments, 55 percent of its 132 candidates are residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As experience showed in 2006, Israel might arrest many of the candidates if and when they’re elected to parliament.

The Shin Bet has already warned activists in the West Bank who are identified with the movement not to run on the slate. At the top of the list is a veteran member of the movement from Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, whose wife and three children were killed in bombing by Israel in 2014.

No. 2 is Mohammed Abu Tir, a Jerusalem native whose residency status was rescinded by Israel, which also expelled him from the city when he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. He spent 35 of his 70 years in Israeli prisons, whether after sentencing at trial or as an administrative detainee without trial. In early March he was released from 11 months of administrative detention.

No. 3 on the list is Lama Khater, 45, from Hebron. She is known for her opinion pieces in the press and on social media. In 2018, the Shin Bet arrested her and other women on suspicion of social and religious activities in Hamas. Although there was no suspicion of military activity whatsoever, she and the other women were severely tortured.

The small Palestinian left wing is split into four factions. Of these, two have a chance of entering the legislative council with a few seats; one is the People’s Pulse identified with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by prisoners Ahmad Sa’adat and Khalida Jarrar (who is to be released this year). Of this faction’s 65 candidates, 40 are residents of the Gaza Strip.

The second slate is called Change and an End to the Rift, headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian National Initiative. Another list with a chance to gain a few seats is Together We Can, headed by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. No. 12 (not likely to make it into parliament) is Mohammad Khatib from the village of Bil’in, a founder and activist in the popular resistance movement against Israel’s separation barrier, who was arrested and sentenced for this activity.

The Palestinian election law requires voters to pre-register, and around 93 percent of eligible voters have done so. Among the 5.5 million Palestinians in the territory occupied in 1967, about 2.5 million are on the voter rolls: about 1 million in Gaza and 1.4 million in the West Bank (including Jerusalem). About half are below 40, and most are first-time voters.

Voter preferences are still unclear. Will young people be attracted mainly to the new rosters and not to the traditional parties? Will the vote be influenced by financial promises? How many fear needless shocks and therefore will vote for the two ruling parties (official Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza)? How many people will feel a patriotic urge to vote for parties whose supporters are mostly aimed by Israel – Hamas and the Popular Front?

Despite an intensive preoccupation with the election to the Palestinian Legislative Council, people are still wondering whether Abbas will postpone or cancel the vote and on what pretext. Some believe that the process has already reached the point of no return, and that because Israeli officials have expressed opposition to the election, Abbas will insist on holding it.

The wide media coverage of voter registration raised the profile of the election. Canceling or postponing it now would make Abbas and his followers seem even more ridiculous, a fact they’re probably aware of despite the thick skin they’ve developed against criticism. Representatives of the European Union – which contrary to previous guesses did not pressure the PA to hold the election – were surprised when Abbas announced in January that the vote would take place. They’ve expressed their clear support for continuing the process. If the PA now calls it off, it’s expected that the Europeans will find material means of expressing their displeasure.

But on Saturday, the former governor of Khan Yunis and one of Fatah’s founders, Hosni Zurob, openly recommended postponing or canceling the election. Along with his concerns about a failure by Fatah and the “national project,” he mentioned Israel’s objection to allowing polling stations in Jerusalem and the continued spread of the coronavirus among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza enclaves.

Abbas has declared a number of times that the election will not be held “without Jerusalem.” Various Fatah supporters have demonstrated recently against an election “without Jerusalem.” Hamas has warned that this is a pretext for calling off the vote, and a member of the People’s Party (the former Communist Party) has rebuked it for that.

According to the Oslo Accords, Israel must allow the Palestinians to set up polling stations at a number of post offices in East Jerusalem. They can’t contain more than 6,300 voters all Election Day.

Most voters are expected to turn out in neighborhoods beyond Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries or beyond the separation barrier. Among the districts, registration in the Jerusalem district was the lowest – about 74 percent (less than 89,000 voters). In 2006, turnout was lower (less than half at post offices and about 18 percent at polling stations on the outskirts of Jerusalem).

Therefore, the real challenge of all the Palestinian factions, especially Hamas and Fatah, is not only the relatively symbolic voting in Jerusalem but to ensure that all Jerusalem voters go out to vote one roadblock from their homes, and over the separation barrier.

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