The first Palestinian elections since 2006 have been delayed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced, citing a dispute with Israel over whether eligible voters in East Jerusalem can vote.
The elections were due to be held on the 22nd of May, with a presidential ballot to follow in July, but the pre-election period has been overshadowed by violence, arrests and intimidation. Experts told VICE World News that any joy felt by Palestinians over the first opportunity to vote in 15 years had long been replaced by foreboding, amid simmering tensions that could escalate in the months ahead.
Abbas had announced the previous election date on the 15th of January, stating that he wanted all eligible Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to vote.
The 2006 election was won by the militant Islamist group Hamas. In response, the United States, which designates Hamas a terrorist organisation, said it would cut funding to Palestine. By 2007, the PA was divided into two de facto regions: the Gaza strip, ruled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel and Egypt, and the West Bank, partially governed by Abbas’s Fatah party.
Ahead of the now-delayed elections, a number of Palestinian activists and candidates have allegedly been arrested by Israel’s security forces, many of whom are being held in so-called “administrative detention”, whereby a detainee can be imprisoned for up to six months without trial.
“Arrests are happening every day,” said Sahar Francis, a lawyer and the director of Addameer, an organisation that supports Palestinian prisoners. “All the impact of COVID–19 hasn’t stopped the Israelis from arresting people on a daily basis. This is how they affect the election here in the Occupied Territories.”
Earlier this month, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, a press conference held in East Jerusalem to discuss the election was forcibly disrupted by security forces, who arrested two candidates. Both were told, after interrogation, that electoral activities had been banned in East Jerusalem. The head of Fatah’s Jerusalem office, Abdel Abu Izneid, was also arrested, as was the party’s candidate, Ghada Abu Rabi. According to the Asra Media Office, a Palestinian prisoner’s rights group, over six hundred have been arrested this year.
Such obstruction has not been limited to Jerusalem: in the West Bank, sixty-two-year-old candidate Hasan Mohammad Wardian was arrested and detained for four months at the beginning of April.
Francis says that arrests and arbitrary imprisonment in order to interfere with democratic processes have also been used internally by the Palestinian Authority. She points out that “lots of activists who were against the policies of the Palestinian Authority have been arrested…those demonstrating against the economic policies of the PA were also targeted and arrested.”
However, she adds, an “amnesty” has been reached, with both Hamas and Fatah agreeing not to interfere with each other’s activists and candidates for the duration of the election cycle.
Mustafa Barghouti is the leader of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), a secular, centre-left party that holds two seats in the legislative council. He told VICE World News that it was “vital” that the Palestinian election went ahead.
“It is not only necessary for democracy, but it is necessary for us, as a people, to progress,” he said.
This all comes following a flare-up of tensions in the region. Earlier this week, Israeli Defence Forces struck targets in the Gaza strip, in response to militant rocket attacks on Southern Israel. In Jerusalem, a march of far-right Israelis was met by Palestinian protestors, who later clashed with security forces leaving over a hundred injured.
The escalation in tension has been matched by an increase in attacks on Palestinian people and property by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Earlier this month, UN observers called on the Israeli security apparatus to “investigate and prosecute these violent acts with vigour and resolve,” noting that more than 210 violent attacks had been reported in the first three months of 2021. Lior Amihai, the executive director of Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din, told VICE World News that settler attacks should be seen as a “political tool.”
“It’s not an act of an individual, it’s not something that is violence between communities, it’s a political tool by one group in order to achieve political aims,” Yesh Din said. “It’s eventually to intimidate and frighten and scare off the Palestinian population and take over their lands.”
Obstruction has not been limited to arrests and violence. According to local media sources, members of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, have been turning up at the homes of candidates, warning them not to run in the upcoming elections or risk being arrested. Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported that some activists have received phone calls from Shin Bet operatives, threatening them with detention if they continue their political activities. Shin Bet has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Israel is deeply fearful that Hamas, with its more militant credentials, could win this election. A recent poll suggested that Hamas could win 30 percent of the vote, with Fatah winning 42 percent. But after fifteen years of Fatah – accused by some of corruption, economic mismanagement, and with no sign of an end to the conflict with Israel in sight – many Palestinians could seek an alternative in the voting booth.
The head of Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, met with Abbas at the end of last month. Argaman allegedly told Abbas that he couldn’t “hold elections with Hamas,” to which Abbas replied, “I don’t work for you.”
But despite having held power for well over a decade, the eighty-five-year-old president shows no sign of wanting to give up his office now. To Amihai of Yesh Din, postponing the election could “serve [Abbas’s] purposes and Israel’s purposes as well.”
Given Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, Abbas has repeatedly said that if people there are unable to vote, the entire election may have to be called off. Israel has so far refused to say if it will allow the election to go ahead in the city.
“Mahmoud Abbas does not want an election for his political reasons, so it’s in his interests to cancel them”, says Amihai.
“The excuse is a very justified excuse, because Israel is preventing East Jerusalemites from participating in this election.”
General Camille Abu Rakan, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said earlier this month that Israel would stop all relations with the PA if Hamas were elected. Mahmoud Abbas may be stuck with poor options: If he goes ahead and Hamas win the election or even gain a substantial minority, chaos could ensue. And if he cancels, the democratic credibility of the PA will be irreparably damaged, even more than it is now.
Barghouti, the PNI leader who says he was arrested four times in the lead up to the last presidential election, in 2005, said that “everything is in the hands of the president.”
“Our position is that these elections should take place and should take place on time,” he told VICE World News before the delay was announced.
“If Israel tries to obstruct them, we should conduct them as a form of popular, non–violent resistance, and insist on doing them, including in east Jerusalem.”
UPDATE 30/04/2021: This article has been updated to reflect the delay to the elections announced by Mahmoud Abbas.