If all goes according to schedule, Palestinians will have the opportunity to vote for the first time in 15 years this year. The Palestinian Legislative Council is to be elected in May, the president of the Palestinian Authority in July, and the Palestinian National Council of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in August.
It’s significant that most Palestinian political factions have agreed to participate in these elections -- and the results could lead to significant political changes in Palestine and the region.
On April 6, AFSC hosted a webinar “What you need to know about the Palestinian elections” with three independent Palestinian analysts, Ines Abdel Razek, Salem Barahmeh, and Soheir Asaad. While AFSC doesn’t endorse candidates or campaigns, AFSC held the educational event to provide important context and analysis of the upcoming Palestinian elections to the wider movement for justice and peace in Palestine.
Although the last elections happened almost 15 years ago, Palestinians continue to pay a heavy price for the results of that election, especially the two million Palestinians in Gaza Strip who live under collective punishment and blockade imposed after Hamas gained power in the 2006 elections. The political divisions that resulted harmed Palestinian unity and their efforts to end Israeli colonization and displacement.
AFSC’s Jehad Abusalim, who moderated the webinar, stated, “While it’s hard to predict what the results and outcomes of the 2021 elections will look like, we believe it is incumbent on us as a solidarity movement and as Palestinians in the diaspora to engage by learning, understanding, and being prepared for what is to come.”
Here are some excerpts from our webinar:
A growing call for change
The elections are creating a momentum in society for the desire for change, explains Ines Abdel Razek, advocacy director of the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy. But she cautions, “Democracy is much broader than going to put your ballots in a box. … People crave representation, but many of us in our generation grew up under Oslo [agreement signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993] and have forgotten the difference between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. … We have become de-politicized and denied access to free information and do not necessarily have political or civic education. We have been taught to be consumers under the development and peace building framework rather than citizens.”
“At the end of the day, five million Palestinians are not voting for the regime that rules their lives: the Israeli occupation and Ministry of Defense and COGAT, the entity that administers everything in terms of access to basic resources. … The major problem here is we are holding elections under an apartheid regime,” said Salem Barameh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy in Ramallah. “Jewish Israeli settlers illegally living on Palestinian land, essentially get to vote in different elections, even though they live on the hill next door, and for the regime that does control both our lives. That's the discrepancy and the segregation that we operate under and within. And that's a very important point to make.
Beyond that, the Israeli military orders and Israeli military law has governed our political and civil and human rights. We don't have freedom of assembly; we don't have freedom of speech. We don't have the right to register a political party, it's illegal under Israeli military law. Often people get arrested in the middle of night for a Facebook post for expressing a form of political opinion. So how do you expect them to allow people to politically organize and challenge the status quo and the structure that exists?”
Barriers to organizing new political initiatives
Elections under repressive conditions
Soheir Asaad, a political and feminist activist based in Haifa, stated that the context for the elections is happening during some of the “worst years in a long time.”
Soheir echoed Salem’s concern about the elections happening in an environment of continuous internal repression. “Political prisoners are not only still in the Israeli prisons but also in the different authority’s prisons. The Palestinian Authority re-affirms its commitment to the security collaboration with Israel, which puts Palestinians who struggle against the occupation in the Israeli prisons, which we've been seeing escalating in the last few years. We are heading into elections that are built on a path that is compromising justice for all Palestinians and is reducing Palestine to this very tiny geography.”
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Soheir said, “I think, since the Oslo Accords happened, Palestinian citizens of Israel were considered by the PA to be an Israeli internal issue and were excluded from the Palestinian political project. I think also Palestinian refugees who are supposed to be the core of the Palestinian cause, those who are the primary victims of the Nakba [1948 expulsion of Palestinians], but were also excluded… I think any elections happening in these conditions will not bring anything new to the policy. I think it will only bring more despair to people who had some hope in this process. This is recreating the same conditions where Palestinians are under occupation fighting over a false governance, self-governance and continue to be oppressed not only by the colonial State of Israel but also by the PA and other regimes controlling them.”
How the international community perpetuates the status quo
Ines spoke of the role of the American administration and donor agencies in perpetuating the status quo and keeping the current leadership in power, which reinforces the Israeli military occupation, Israeli impunity, and entrenches the apartheid reality and the fragmentation of Palestinians. “The current leadership thinks of themselves as a state in an environment where we're absolutely not a state. We're just a colonized entity and the PA is the subcontractor to the occupation.”
The challenges in creating alternatives or a “third way”
The realities of Palestinian politics
Salem spoke of Palestinian politics at the moment resembling “an episode of Game of Thrones or House of Cards.” The current political divisions are due to a broken system. “Basically, this is not a faction or party with an ideology or an internal democratic process. It’s been an employment company for the last 30 years operating a very extensive patronage system.
And it's not unified by any means. And I don't mean that in the “Big Tent” … this has been a party with a series of cults of individuals… the lists are all based around the certain individual, it's not like they've engaged, local leaders on the grassroots level or on the community level or on society level to be able to engage and represent their communities. They very well know that they're running on a certain individual’s brand. And at the moment it's a struggle for power between very like-minded individuals who are going to probably operate within the same paradigm, with some differences. After this episode ends, it is never going to look the same again because the internal divisions have now been cemented, and I don't think there's a there's a chance for reconciliation…. I think there's, a hunger for democracy, there's a hunger for elections. That's why there's so many lists running… I think there's over 2000 candidates potentially, you know, people are hungry people want change people want to transform and have the agency to shape their lives and they haven't had that for a very long time. And that's why people are registering and engaging.” Salem spoke specifically about the role of young people engaging in politics.
The impact of the 2006 elections
Soheir addressed the impact of 2006 elections and how the ensuing Gaza blockade led people to focus on daily survival, depoliticized society, heavily punished people for resistance, criminalized political factions, and killed connections to national liberation.
Showing solidarity with Palestinians
When asked what people outside of Palestine can do to offer solidarity in these times, Ines and Soheir said the first priority is to hold Israel accountable and to center Palestinian voices, giving Palestinians the right to speak and decide for themselves. The U.S. must accept the outcomes of the elections, and not interfere as it did in 2006. Salem added the importance of taking action “on every level to help dismantle the system and structure that has really shackled us.” It is time “to encourage policies that align with freedom, justice, equality and rights for all for every human being, regardless who they are or where they're from.”