Palestinian election: Leaders face reckoning as rare vote looms | Sunday Observer

Palestinian election: Leaders face reckoning as rare vote looms

25 April, 2021

Palestinians are preparing for their first general election in a decade and a half. Many hope for a democratic revival after years of stagnation and splits. The pot of Palestinian politics is being stirred. But that’s also awakening anxieties.

It was the clumsiness of childhood that saved Najwa Odeh’s life. The nine-year-old Palestinian knocked her spoon off the dinner table and reached to pick it up when a bullet whistled over her head.

It was the Middle East war of June 1967 and Israeli troops were about to capture East Jerusalem from Arab armies. Fighting had erupted outside her family home in the neighbourhood of Silwan.

Israel later annexed the eastern half of the city, whose population is overwhelmingly Palestinian, in a move not recognised internationally. It remains in control to this day across what it sees as its undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip - territories also occupied by Israel in 1967.

Ms Odeh has a wry smile as she recalls her luck in that childhood near miss.

“After that I decided I don’t want to go anywhere. I have to be in Jerusalem all my life… I cannot be quiet,” she said.

Now she is running to be an MP for the party of President Mahmoud Abbas in the first Palestinian general election in 15 years.

“This is my right - it’s democracy,” she says. “The Israeli people went to the election four times in two years. Why it’s not allowed for me?”

Jerusalem is always at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So too now. Agreements with Israel give Palestinians in East Jerusalem the right to vote for their West Bank-based parliament, but their political institutions can’t operate in the city.

“We need new blood, a new generation to come and solve the problems. We need… to renew our legitimacy”, says Ms Odeh.

The parliamentary and presidential polls were announced last year by the ageing Palestinian leader after days of talks with other parties in Cairo. Few thought the elections would really happen given similar past promises and the unresolved, bitter rivalry between the two main factions - his secular Fatah movement, and their Islamist opponents Hamas.

A bloody conflict broke out between them in 2007 after Hamas unexpectedly won the last national vote. The fighting saw the armed movement take full control in the Gaza Strip. It was isolated by much of the international community which, like Israel, views it as a terrorist group.

President Abbas was effectively left in charge only in parts of the occupied West Bank. The parliament - the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) - was mothballed. Abbas issued laws by decree and his four-year term should have ended over a decade ago.

“It was devastating,” said political scientist Dr Ghassan Khatib of Birzeit University, when asked about the fallout from 2006. “The absence of any election or political checks and balances is the reason for… the growing gap between the Palestinian public and the Palestinian leadership.”

This vacuum has added to a popular sense of fatigue. Asked which of their parties they trust the most, nearly 40% of Palestinians said “none”, according to a poll released this week by the Palestinian media research group JMCC.

The factions’ deal to hold new elections shows their “need for legitimacy”, says Dr Khatib.

‘Don’t give up on us’

But there are more reasons. Many in the international community - especially European countries - have for years pushed Mr Abbas to get fresh democratic backing for the Palestinian institutions some of these countries help fund.

And Palestinians are eager to vote, according to the early indications.

More than 93% of an eligible 4.5 million voters have registered, according to the Central Elections Commission. There are 36 political parties and lists slated to run.

“This is overwhelming in a way that reflects the interest in the Palestinian [political] scene”, says Sabri Saidam, a senior official in Fatah, which dominates the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority (PA).

He believes his movement, founded by former leader Yasser Arafat, still reflects the best hope for Palestinian nationalism, based on the Western-backed formula of a “two-state solution” of an independent and sovereign Palestine alongside Israel.

But he admits that the high numbers registering to vote includes “people who have given up on us”.

For some in the West Bank, the poll amounts to a first flourish of democracy amid what they see as dual obstacles - living in areas of limited self-governance under an ossified Palestinian leadership within Israel’s military occupation.