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Will the Palestinian Authority Dare Turn the Parliamentary Election Into Civil Disobedience?

Opponents of President Mahmoud Abbas are demanding that the general election be held in East Jerusalem too, saying that an Israeli veto of Palestinian democracy must not be accepted

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Women in Gaza registering for the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, February 10.
Women in Gaza registering for the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, February 10.Credit: Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Will the PLO’s Executive Committee have decided after its meeting Sunday night to “postpone” (in effect cancel) the Palestinian general election and say the reason is that Israel won’t let it be held in East Jerusalem as well?

Or maybe this decision will be announced later in the week, ostensibly unrelated to the forum that’s supposed to represent the entire Palestinian people (including the diaspora), and that in practice is covering up for President Mahmoud Abbas’ authoritarian rule?

Last week saw an acceleration of the guesswork that began almost immediately after Abbas announced in January that the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council would take place on May 22. This guessing revved up again after it turned out that Hamas was likely to come in first among the 36 slates that plan to run in the election. Two consist of Fatah members and activists competing with the official Fatah (of Abbas loyalists).

The issue of East Jerusalem Palestinians’ participation in the election is a sort of test. Through it, one can gauge the (un)willingness of Abbas and his Fatah loyalists to allow a democratic process, and the limits of the Palestinian Authority’s desire to act contrary to Israel’s dictates.

Also, one can examine the ability – not only the desire – of other Palestinian organizations to weaken Abbas’ hold on Palestinian politics. Hardest of all is the task of measuring the Jerusalem Palestinians’ sense of belonging to the political process in the PA enclaves, their willingness and ability to challenge the Israeli regime while expressing their involvement in that process.

Israel has yet to reply, whether no or yes, to the PA’s request to let about 90,000 Jerusalem Palestinians vote at polling places in the city. Whenever an official very close to Abbas declares that “there is no election without Jerusalem,” or whenever there is a “spontaneous” demonstration under that slogan, it’s interpreted as paving the way to a postponement/cancellation. Last week that happened very frequently.

Abbas’ loyalists are demanding that Europe pressure Israel to promise that voting will take place in Jerusalem as well. For example, that’s what Fatah official Jibril Rajoub told Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the EU representative in the 1967-occupied territory, last week. And Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki is expected to say the same thing this week to the European foreign ministers.

The sharp-eared and suspicious hear a veiled message here: “It will be the responsibility of the Europeans [who support the democratic process and the election] if Israel puts up obstacles that make us cancel/postpone the election.”

But why, 26 years after the signing of the interim agreement (that approved Palestinian voting, if only symbolic, at post offices in Jerusalem) does the PA have to be faithful to the framework that Israel constantly ignores and that anyway was supposed to be replaced in 1999? After all, the request to the International Criminal Court also deviates from it. Why is it that just when there’s an election there’s a need to await Israeli consent?

In Jerusalem, the Israeli police and Shin Bet security service don’t miss an opportunity to arrest Palestinians, disperse conferences and repress popular activity. If the election is so important and is proof of Palestinian democracy, as Abbas and his loyalists keep repeating, it can be turned into a tool in the struggle against the occupation, a tool of mass civil disobedience.

“We must not let Israel veto the Palestinian election,” says Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian National Initiative party, as do activists in other organizations that are running in the election – for example, Sufyan Abu Zaideh of the Future slate. An insistence on holding the vote in Jerusalem too, against Israel’s wishes, is likely to revive popular resistance to the foreign rule, revive national, as opposed to factional, activity, and return Jerusalem to the discourse as a Palestinian city, as well as the fact that this is territory captured in 1967. And it would even challenge the Biden administration and maybe the Arab countries that are normalizing relations with Israel.

The problem isn’t a technical one, the activists say. There can be polling booths at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, UNRWA institutions and schools. There can also be e-voting and additional polling places outside the city.

In the month remaining until the election, Palestinian organizations and the PA, can and must encourage Jerusalemites to dare go out and vote. If Israel tries to sabotage the democratic process in front of the TV cameras from around the world, it will suffer embarrassment and damage to its image, serving as an engine for renewing solidarity.

Everyone recalls how in 2017, the Jerusalemites objected to the metal detectors that the Israeli police had installed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound. Jerusalemites refused to enter the mosque plaza, and demonstrated and prayed en masse outside it. They portrayed Israel as the one sabotaging religious freedom, until Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to order the detectors removed.

This success is often cited as an example of the power of a mass popular struggle (as opposed to armed activities by individuals), and of the need for it to change the balance of power.

But even if Fatah and Abbas don’t cancel the election, the question remains: Will Jerusalemites think that voting for the Palestinian parliament is as important as defending a religious principle, worth enough to risk Israeli harassment, and a way to advance the national objective? The answer is likely to be very painful.

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