‘Most Important Ballot of My Lifetime’: Palestinians on First Vote in Fifteen Years

It’s hoped that Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza will all be able to vote, but doubts remain whether any result can end years of disunity.
February 3, 2021, 5:41pm
A voter ticks a ballot behind a privacy screen at a polling station at al-Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees north of Jordan's capital on November 10, 2020,
A voter ticks a ballot behind a privacy screen at a polling station at al-Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees north of Jordan's capital on November 10, 2020. Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/afp/AFP via Getty Images 

Elections called by the Palestinian Authority (PA) due to be held later this year might finally offer a path towards long-term stable governance, experts told VICE World News.

The PA, which has partial rule of the occupied West Bank, announced last month that it would hold both legislative and presidential elections this summer, the first in 15 years.

Plagued by allegations of mismanagement and corruption, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas made the announcement after reaching an agreement with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. It’s hoped that Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza will all be able to vote. 

Advertisement

“These elections are incredibly important,” said Mustafa Barghouti, speaking from the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The people have been denied the right to choose freely and democratically since 2006.”

Barghouti came second in 2005’s presidential election, winning around 20 percent of the vote. His party, the Palestinian National Initiative, aims to present itself as a moderate centre ground between the fundamentalism of Hamas and the perceived corruption of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah. Today, he believes elections are essential to “ending the division between the West Bank and Gaza.”

Hamas won legislative elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006. Their hard-line stance, coupled with major international partners threatening to withdraw funding from the PA, led to fighting with Fatah in 2007, Hamas taking complete control of Gaza and a blockade being imposed by Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian unity government dissolved, and the Palestinian territories were divided into two political entities. A reunification of the Palestinian territories under one leader is unlikely, regardless of the results of the election.

Speaking before the elections were announced, Dr Natan Sachs, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., described the Palestinian leadership over the past decade and a half as “abysmal.”

Advertisement

“There’s no sugarcoating this,” he told VICE World News, “the Palestinian leadership has been nothing short of abysmal, and the people who pay the price are, of course, the Palestinian people.”

If carried out as planned, these newly announced elections may offer Palestinians the chance to gain stable, democratically legitimate leadership for the first time in years.

“That’s why we are trying our best to make these elections happen”, said Barghouti. “But there are lots of obstacles, of course. We anticipate that Israel might try to create obstacles because Israel does not want us to be unified and united.”

Whether elections will go ahead unhindered remains to be seen. There are fears on the Palestinian side that, for example, Israel could attempt to block voting in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state, despite the fact Palestinians living in Jerusalem are not seen as Israeli citizens. Mahmoud Abbas has said that elections will not happen unless East Jerusalem is included in the vote. 

But elections, and unity, are sorely needed. The past four years saw former US President Donald Trump lead the most pro-Israel US administration in modern times. The US embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing decades of policy. The Consulate General in East Jerusalem, the US’s main link to the Palestinian Authority, was merged with the new embassy in 2018, essentially cutting formal diplomatic channels between the two entities. Buoyed, perhaps, by American support, Israel announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank in early 2020, which would have been a serious blow to Palestinian hopes of formal statehood. As it stands, annexation proposals were only suspended when Israel signed a normalisation agreement with the United Arab Emirates. Over the latter half of 2020, similar agreements were signed with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – all mediated by the United States. 

The Arab Peace Initiative was an agreement first signed in 2002 by members of the Arab league who agreed that member states would only recognise the state of Israel if its forces withdrew from the Occupied Territories. But the normalisation deals, or “Abraham Accords’” show an Arab world fast losing interest in the Palestinian question. For many countries, the political capital that could once be wrung out of pan-Arabist, pro-Palestinian rhetoric is being fast superseded by the political capital that stands to be gained through a partnership with Israel and the United States – especially when faced by an increasingly belligerent Iran. 

Speaking to VICE World News, a spokesperson for Israel NGO, B’tselem, said that the new Biden administration “should - finally – align US foreign policy with advancing human rights in Israel and Palestine, rather than continue to undermine them.” It doesn’t look likely that, under President Biden, there will be a sudden reversal of Trump’s policies regarding Israel and Palestine. The American embassy will stay in Jerusalem. But according to Natan Sachs, there is a chance that the Biden administration may seek to re-engage with the Palestinian leadership. 

“There’s a whole host of things,” he said. “Recognition of the PLO, taking the Palestinians seriously as a partner of the United States, as an entity with a voice in this conflict, whereas since December 2017 they’ve been completely sidelined – both by Trump and by most of the Arab countries as well.”

Back in August 2020, when Israel was threatening to annex the West Bank’s Jordan valley, Barghouti emerged from a meeting that saw Fatah and Hamas stand together to condemn the plans. “All of us are unified now,” he said then. 

Today, amid growing regional tension, and faced with an increasingly apathetic Arab world, many Palestinians surely hope that spirit of unity will prevail during the election season, and after.