Why Israel Should Let Palestinians Hold Elections

Palestinians are fed up with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The planned elections could allow new, pragmatic parties to emerge and offer a way out of the deadlock in Gaza Strip

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A Palestinian woman prepares to cast her vote at a polling station in the West Bank town of Kabatyeh, near Jenin, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012
A Palestinian woman prepares to cast her vote at a polling station in the West Bank town of Kabatyeh, near Jenin, during municipal elections in 2012Credit: AP
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

Palestinian political parties finally agreed in November to hold long-awaited parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2020 and there is cautious optimism that the political landscape might be revived, making the Palestinian public and their grievances visible to an oblivious and ruthless political elite.

The elections would also be a solid pathway to intra-Palestinian reconciliation; they could bring an end to more than 13 years of division and contested legitimacy between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; and they would be akin to a referendum on who's most deserving of leading the Palestinian the struggle, and in what direction.

The path to the polls, however, ran into a possible dead-end earlier this month, when the PA asked Israel to allow East Jerusalem residents to vote in the election.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem were allowed to vote and run for office in the 2006 elections, a year before Hamas staged its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel has yet to respond to the request by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian parties agree that holding elections is entirely contingent upon securing the right to vote for East Jerusalemites.

Israel's unwillingness to let this happen can be easily predicted from its systematic crackdown on any PA activities in East Jerusalem in recent years. However, standing in the way of such a crucial milestone would mean fueling a ticking bomb planted under an inherently destabilizing status quo. The opportunities presented to Israel by these elections far outweigh any risks, and range from encouraging the emergence of new and more pragmatic views in Palestinian politics to offering a way out of the stalemate over the Gaza Strip.

Hamas nightmare

Of course, the first question on everyone's mind is what happens if Hamas wins the elections and becomes in charge of the PA in the West Bank and Gaza.

 Hamas has developed multiple ideas to avoid repeating the mistakes it made in 2006, when it won a majority in the legislative council and formed a Hamas-led government under Ismail Haniyeh which was widely boycotted by the international community.

There is now broad consensus amongst the movement's leaders that if they were to win parliamentary elections, they should form a technocratic government unassociated with Hamas and inclusive of all Palestinian factions to preempt any boycott. This would allow Hamas to retain legitimate representation of the Palestinians without taking on the burden of administrating civil affairs.

Many Hamas leaders are also considering running through a new political party independent of its armed wing. Haniyeh, Hamas' current leader, co-founded a similar party called the "Islamic Salvation" through which he ran in the general elections of 1996. The party was then dissolved during the second Intifada.

Several other Hamas leaders advocate running through a slate of independent technocrats unaffiliated with – but somewhat sympathetic towards – the organization. This is what Hamas did for the 2016 municipal elections, which were eventually canceled in Gaza. 

Palestinians casting their vote in 2006, the last time parliamentary and presidential elections were heldCredit: BAUBAU/EYAL WARSHAVSKY

New players

Regardless of Hamas' plans, most Palestinians by now don't trust Hamas and the Fatah-led PA altogether and are unlikely to vote for either. A recent survey conducted by al-Aqsa University in the Gaza Strip found that 65 percent of nearly 1,000 respondents would not vote for incumbent Hamas and Fatah lawmakers.

It's only natural that a disenfranchised generation of young Palestinians who came of age in this time of division has become disenchanted by both the “peace process” and “the armed resistance” and yearns to create its own platforms. Elections would present a unique opportunity for grassroots youth mobilization and the creation of new, untraditional and more pragmatic parties, without fear of a crackdown on dissent by Hamas.

That's because as a condition for agreeing to elections, Hamas demanded full respect for freedom of association, assembly and political work to guarantee that PA security forces wouldn't impede its election campaign in the West Bank. The PA will have to honor this demand if it is to similarly enjoy those public freedoms in Gaza under Hamas' rule.

If a movement like Gaza's "We Want to Live" – which Hamas violently suppressed in March  – were to reemerge during the election race, Hamas would not be able to move against it without risking retaliation from the PA in the West Bank.

In an environment of free mobilization, which can only emerge through elections, it will not be difficult for young Palestinians to create new movements to carry their voice, as their healthy use of social media would substitute traditional and expensive electoral campaigns.

A way out for Gaza

Finally, and most importantly, a new government ruling over Gaza produced through free elections would be conducive to reopening the besieged enclave to the world.

After the last round of escalation in November, Hamas has been acknowledged by some in Israel as an "unlikely ally" for its demonstrated ability to enforce the cease-fire and contain the Islamic Jihad group. However, despite this recognition, the ceiling of current "understandings" between Hamas and Israel remains confined to allowing meager relief projects in Gaza or letting in Qatari money to pay Hamas salaries.

Relying on such painkillers and bribes to pacify Gazans as the enclave's 2020 uninhabitability deadline nears is a recipe for disaster, for all sides, including Israel. Eventually other armed groups will manage to slip Hamas' security grip and violently shake this unbearable status quo, potentially sparking a new war.

Although the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service recommend easing the blockade, Israel's political leadership will not take further steps to improve life in the strip as this would go against electoral expedience and the prevalent masculine rhetoric of violent "deterrence" as the only way to deal with Gaza.

On the other side, Hamas is unlikely to take the step of recognizing Israel or renouncing the use of violence because the only way it can contain other armed factions in Gaza is by holding a superior ideological and moral ground by maintaining that it rejects (at least rhetorically) Israel and the peace process.

In this scenario, the only way forward would be for the PA to resume ruling over Gaza; but Abbas will not return to Gaza without full control, and Hamas would never give up control of its security apparatus, which it needs to shield its armed factions from the collaborationist PA.

Palestinian elections, in that sense, may drastically change this landscape. Fresh political blood and a new, broad government legitimized by a people's vote could offer a way out of this persistent conundrum and finally break the perilous deadlock in the Gaza Strip.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2