Elections have become fashionable in the Holy Land. Israel has had two of them in the past year and seems poised for a third. Now the Palestinian Authority (PA) has caught the bug. After lengthy haggling, the PA, Hamas, Fatah and a clutch of other Palestinian factions have agreed to hold elections for the legislature and then for president early next year.
It’s not before time. The last effort was 14 years ago, back in 2006. The outcome was so disastrous that there has been little appetite for repeating the experiment. Hamas won more votes and more seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) than the ruling Fatah party, but when President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to form a government of national unity, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya refused to serve as prime minister under him. Instead, led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted a truly bloody coup in the Gaza strip, and ejected Fatah bag and baggage. With brief periods of respite, Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn ever since.
The struggle between Hamas and Fatah for the soul of the Palestinian people began almost from the moment that Hamas was created in 1987 as a radical off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”, as not effective enough, despite the string of terrorist actions it perpetrated.
When the PLO entered into peace talks with Israel, Hamas was appalled. Its leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, condemned the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and rejected the PLO recognition of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat, he declared, was “destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”
Hamas was never comfortable either with the PA, which emerged from the Oslo accords, nor with its claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It rejected the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries, even though that was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed Abbas’s efforts to obtain recognition of a State of Palestine within the United Nations, since to do so would also legitimize Israel.
At the heart of the Hamas-Fatah conflict is this fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective. Hamas has made no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognize him as PA president at all on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005 for a four-year term, has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently tried to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank to launch attacks on Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh, who became leader of Hamas in 2017, pursued the same hard line. Abbas reacted by attempting to force Hamas into submission through cutting financial support and restricting the Strip’s access to electricity. The many efforts at reconciliation between the parties, often sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism even led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.
The idea of new elections has come and gone several times over the past few years, always to be frustrated at the last minute. They were scheduled to be held between April and October 2014 in accordance with a Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in April 2014, but were delayed indefinitely. In October 2017, under a so-called Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, general elections were agreed to take place by the end of 2018. Once more they failed to materialize.
On 26 September 2019, nothing daunted, Abbas again announced that he intended to set a date for elections. Hamas responded positively. but on 6 November Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a splinter terrorist organization active in Gaza, rejected Abbas’s terms, which specified that in order to be eligible to run, candidates would have to recognize the agreements signed by the PLO. Most of these, based as they are on the PA’s stated position of supporting the two-state solution, are anathema to Hamas.
None the less, and protesting vigorously at the PA’s decision to stop demonstrations in Ramallah in support of Palestinians jailed by Israel, Hamas finally, on November 26, signed its agreement to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. Judging by the past record, the chances of these elections actually taking place must stand at no more than 50-50.
In any case, a possible hurdle stands in the way. On November 11 Abbas said that there would be no new Palestinian elections unless they included east Jerusalem. Chief of Hamas politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, endorsed that. East Jerusalem is administered by Israel, and its Palestinians citizens have the special status of “permanent residents”. Normally demonstrations of Palestinian sovereignty are not permitted within Jerusalem, but in the 2006 elections Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were permitted to vote (they did so at post offices), and there seems no good reason why the same should not apply in 2020.
Free and fair legislative elections whose result is respected by the contending parties could start healing the divisions which ravage the Palestinian body politic. As for new presidential elections, they are overdue by a decade at least, and could restore democratic legitimacy to Abbas who, despite his 84 years, shows no signs of stepping aside. The question is – will they actually take place?