Encountering Peace: Palestinian democracy

The Reform and Change Party did not campaign under the Hamas banner and charter.

Palestinian school children chant slogans during a demonstration August 28 1997 in the Gaza Strip protesting spending cuts by UNWRA.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian school children chant slogans during a demonstration August 28 1997 in the Gaza Strip protesting spending cuts by UNWRA.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After the war in 1948 Israel found itself in control of territories which included 156,000 Palestinian Arabs who were part of the struggle to prevent the birth of the State of Israel. At that time this was 12% of the people living within the borders of the new state. Despite just fighting a war “to be or not to be,” the new State of Israel granted all of those Arabs Israeli citizenship. On January 25, 1949 Israel went to the polls and the Arab citizens of Israel had the right to vote.
In June 1967, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and expanded its borders to include 66,000 Palestinians. They were not granted citizenship and since 1967 they have not been allowed to participate in Israel’s national elections. Today those Palestinians who are residents of east Jerusalem number close to 350,000 people.
When the Palestinian Authority was established and elections were held in 1994 for the Palestinian Legislative Council and President of the Palestinian Authority, Israel agreed to allowing the Palestinians of east Jerusalem to participate in those elections. Hamas boycotted those elections. In 2005, following the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority held elections once again for the office of President of the Palestinian Authority and once again the Palestinians of east Jerusalem participated.
In 2006, the Palestinian Authority held elections for the Legislative Council and this time Hamas participated in those elections as a party called “Reform and Change.” The Palestinians of east Jerusalem participated in those elections. The Reform and Change Party did not campaign under the Hamas banner and charter. It’s platform included a rejection of Oslo even those the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were in fact taking place on the basis of the Oslo agreements. Israel did not prevent the elections, even within its claimed sovereign borders of east Jerusalem. Members of Hamas from Jerusalem were even elected to the Legislative Council.
Palestinians have not held elections since 2006. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians have been calling for new elections for President and Legislative Council for years. Many Palestinians see this as the only means of ending the division between Fatah and Hamas. Declarations by Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas regarding new elections now seem quite serious. There have been in-depth discussions between them on the modalities of elections and both sides have stated that they support holding new elections.
Abbas wants to hold elections first for the Legislative Council and later for the Presidency. Hamas wants to hold elections for both at the same time and elections for the PLO Palestinian National Council and the PLO Executive Committee. Abbas has stated that he will not allow elections to take place if Israel prevents the Palestinians of east Jerusalem from participating.
Some commentators in Palestine and in Israel have been saying that this is being used by Abbas as a pretext for not holding elections. While Abbas sincerely fears that new elections could produce results similar to those of 2006 with a Hamas victory, my assessment is that Abbas clearly understands the urgent need for new elections so that legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority could be based on wide public support.
A new poll published this week by Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki showed the troubling result “that half of the public thinks elections, if they were to take place, will neither be free nor fair; indeed, a majority does not have faith in the integrity or neutrality of the police forces, in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in protecting the election process and a large majority believes that whoever loses the elections will reject the results.”
Palestinian elections are important and Israel should not provide any pretext for the Palestinians not to hold them. If the decision to move forward on elections in Palestine is taken, the Palestinians with the help of the international community will have a lot of work to do to ensure the transparency of the process and its legitimacy. There is a lot of experience in the world with international and local election observers. The assessment of the 2006 elections that produced the Hamas victory is that they were free and fair. The failure of Fatah to win those elections was largely due to the disarray of the Fatah movement presenting multiple lists in a complex system of elections, the failure of Abbas and Fatah to deliver on ending the occupation, creating a Palestinian state and making peace, and the anger over corruption within the Palestinian Authority. The Reform and Change Party of Hamas was disciplined, presented highly educated and well known candidates who were all social and political activists within their communities and presented a platform of clean politics and anti-corruption.
Today and, in fact, for many of the past years, Palestinian public opinion research points to a majority of Palestinians who want neither Fatah nor Hamas, yet it seems difficult at this point to envision a new third alternative rising in a political environment which is so unilaterally controlled by Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Nonetheless, there is a large new generation of Palestinians who have never participated in elections – neither as voters and nor as candidates.
Palestinians must be given a fair chance to express their opinions in the polls. Hamas and Fatah must come to terms with the modalities and the framework which can be acceptable for both and for the international community to view the process as legitimate.
The Palestinians of east Jerusalem must also be granted the possibility of participating in those elections. Israel does not want them to be citizens of Israel and should not view their participation as a denial of Israel’s self-claimed sovereignty in Jerusalem. If Israel is not prepared to allow the participation of east Jerusalem Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority elections, then it should place them in the voters’ registry for the upcoming Knesset elections in March.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press and is now available in Israel and Palestine.