Palestinians demand elections as discontent with leadership grows

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Abdel Kareem Salameh: "The people want change. These are the initial signs of a revolt against the Palestinian leadership."

 PALESTINIAN LAWYERS protest against the Palestinian Authority’s rule by decree and demand a return to normal parliamentary lawmaking, in Ramallah last week. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN LAWYERS protest against the Palestinian Authority’s rule by decree and demand a return to normal parliamentary lawmaking, in Ramallah last week.
(photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

Hundreds of Palestinian political activists and academics are preparing a petition to demand that the Palestinian Authority leadership hold general elections without delay.

The new petition, which will be announced in the coming weeks, reflects the widespread discontent with the Ramallah-based leadership. It also reflects the acute crisis that the PA leadership has been facing in recent weeks in light of protests by lawyers, engineers and teachers and the increased activities of gunmen in the northern West Bank.

The demand for holding new elections comes more than a year after PA President Mahmoud Abbas called off the parliamentary and presidential elections, which were supposed to have taken place in May and July 2021.

Although the 87-year-old Abbas cited Israel’s refusal to allow the elections to take place in Jerusalem, many Palestinians argue that the real reason he called off the elections was his fear of losing the vote to his rivals in Hamas. He does not want to see his fragmented Fatah faction suffer another humiliation, similar to the one in 2006, when Hamas won the parliamentary election.

“The Palestinian situation is complicated, and it is getting more complicated every day,” Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative and a former presidential candidate, told the Palestinian website Safa. “We are now working, together with a large group of personalities and parties, on an initiative to issue a document, signed by thousands of people, calling for holding general elections without delay.”

“We are now working, together with a large group of personalities and parties, on an initiative to issue a document, signed by thousands of people, calling for holding general elections without delay.”

Mustafa Barghouti
Palestinians take part in a rally demanding President Mahmoud Abbas to hold elections on planned time, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 29, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)Palestinians take part in a rally demanding President Mahmoud Abbas to hold elections on planned time, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 29, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

According to Barghouti, the main purpose of the new initiative is to emphasize the principle of democratic partnership and a unified national leadership.

“Now is the time for people to regain their right to democracy and elections,” he said. “If the people do not see a democratic way to obtain their rights, they will resort to violence, and this is what we are witnessing recently.”

Barghouti’s new campaign came days after a similar move by Nasser al-Kidwa, a former PA foreign minister, who was expelled from the ruling Fatah faction last year after announcing his intention to run in the parliamentary elections on a separate list.

Kidwa, a nephew of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, launched his campaign under the title “National Rescue Initiative” with the aim of pressuring the PA leadership to endorse major reforms and changes in the Palestinian political system and institutions. Dozens of Palestinian figures have signed on to Kidwa’s initiative.

“We present this initiative over one year after the cancellation of the presidential and legislative elections and the insistence in February this year on the convening of the PLO Central Council in a manner that was legally and politically flawed,” read a statement issued by Kidwa and his team.

“Amid the continued severe deterioration of all aspects of Palestinian life, which has been met with political complacency, this initiative is an effort at preventing imminent collapse. We seek to push toward a national mobilization that can effect deep, extensive change to the Palestinian political system and rebuild its institutions, with the aim of empowering our people to confront the massive and national existential threats that we face.”

The initiatives by Barghouti and Kidwa are seen by Palestinian political analysts as a direct challenge to Abbas and the PA leadership’s authoritarian rule.

Is Mahmoud Abbas worried?

So far, however, Abbas and his top aides don’t seem to be worried at all by the calls for reforms and elections. Nor do they seem to be concerned about the possibility of an uprising against them.

The Palestinian security forces remain loyal to the PA and in control of the situation, and there are no signs that this is about to change anytime in the near future.

“The people behind these initiatives are saying enough is enough,” said political analyst Abdel Kareem Salameh. “The people want change; they are saying that they don’t agree with the way President Abbas and those around him are managing the affairs of the Palestinians. These are the initial signs of a revolt against the Palestinian leadership.”

Encroachment on the judicial system

The PA leadership has in recent weeks been facing an unprecedented protest by hundreds of Palestinian lawyers against Abbas’s “encroachment” on the judicial system, Salameh pointed out.

The lawyers are opposed to Abbas’s moves to create laws or amendments through “presidential decrees” in the absence of the Palestinian parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which has been paralyzed since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Abbas’s decrees are seen by Palestinian legal experts and human rights activists as another sign of his disregard for the independence of the judicial system and the interests of the Palestinian people.

The lawyers are now threatening to step up their protests in the coming days, a move that would effectively paralyze the entire judiciary and pave the way for more scenes of anarchy and lawlessness in the West Bank.

In addition to the lawyers, unions representing Palestinian engineers and teachers have also launched their own protests, accusing the PA government of failure to implement agreements to improve their work conditions and raise their salaries.

The protests of the lawyers, engineers and teachers, however, are not the only challenge facing the Palestinian leadership.

The main problems: Abbas's absolute control, anarchy and lawlessness

For many Palestinians, the main problem remains Abbas’s absolute control of the decision-making process and his refusal to share powers with others. In addition, many Palestinians are worried about the anarchy and lawlessness in their communities.

Abbas’s recent decision to appoint his top confidant, Hussein al-Sheikh, to the post of secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee has infuriated not only his longtime political opponents, but several senior officials of Fatah. These veteran officials see the decision as an attempt on the part of Abbas to pave the way for the 61-year-old Sheikh to become the next PA president.

“In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority has been run by three people only,” said a veteran Fatah official who previously served as a cabinet minister. “In addition to Abbas and Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the General Intelligence Service, Majed Faraj, has also emerged as a dominant and influential actor in the Palestinian political arena. Many people are challenging the trio’s right to represent them.”

Meanwhile, the security situation on the ground, especially in the northern West Bank, appears to have compounded the challenges facing Abbas and the PA leadership.

In the largest cities there, Nablus and Jenin, there is a feeling that the PA has lost control due to the increased activities and presence of gunmen belonging to Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Abbas is reluctant to rein in the armed groups, because he knows that he would face a backlash from the Palestinian public. He is already facing sharp criticism for refusing to implement resolutions of Fatah and PLO institutions to halt the security coordination and suspend all signed agreements with Israel. He can’t afford to be seen as a subcontractor for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s war on terrorism.

Abbas knows he and his policies are disliked

ABBAS IS undoubtedly aware of the widespread resentment against him and his policies.

In the past few days, an online campaign calling on him to step down has resurfaced, with many Palestinians accusing him of “collaboration” with Israel, cracking down on political opponents, corruption and imposing economic sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

He is also undoubtedly aware of recent public opinion polls that show that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians want him to resign.

The recent shooting attack against former Hamas minister Nasser al-Shaer in the village of Kafr Kallil near Nablus has reinforced the feeling that the PA security forces are losing control of the situation. Hamas claims that the attack, which left Shaer moderately wounded in the legs, was carried out by Fatah members who are linked to the PA security services.

The attack is seen by many Palestinians in the context of the PA’s effort to silence its critics and deter others from speaking out against Abbas and the top brass of the Palestinian leadership.

Blame Israel for everything

The PA leadership, meanwhile, continues to hold Israel solely responsible for the security and political crises. In a meeting with US Congress members in Ramallah this week, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh again accused Israel of systematically sabotaging the two-state solution through its actions on the ground.

“We will continue to work to break the fait accompli that Israel is trying to impose on our land and our people,” Shtayyeh said, totally ignoring the challenges facing the PA leadership from its political opponents and the armed gangs in the northern West Bank.

“The Palestinian leadership continues to bury its head in the sand,” remarked another political analyst. “Most people are no longer interested in the talk about a two-state solution, because they realize it won’t work. That’s why they are now focusing their attention and efforts on the need to fix all the problems at home. The people want elections, democracy and an end to the chaos and lawlessness. If the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah does not wake up, we may soon see a popular rebellion against Abbas.”