Elections in Palestine Could Restore Unity in the Face of an Uncertain Future

Cautious optimism is the mood of the day as Hamas and Fatah reach a deal to hold general elections in Palestine.

After 15 years, Palestine’s two largest political factions- Hamas and Fatah- have reached a deal to hold general elections, providing a welcome ray of optimism to a nation that has endured an almost unthinkable amount of suffering. The deal has been approved by Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and Ismail Haniyah, Hamas’ political leader, with elections scheduled for May of this year. 

The agreement between Palestine’s long-divided factions is a major step towards re-energising the Palestinian cause and creating a long-absent sense of unity. Commentators remain skeptical of the deal and have urged for cautious optimism, however, as numerous obstacles must first be cleared before ballots can be cast. The deal comes at a time where Palestine’s cause for an internationally recognised state is facing a growing number of threats. 

Palestine has long-faced a harrowing state of affairs, but is currently combatting the coronavirus pandemic, a weak economy, and a lack of security. A number of other issues also stand to exacerbate the situation, such as the escalation and acceleration of Israel’s territorial annexation and the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations.   

In June 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to accelerate the annexation of parts of the West Bank. This area is the home to 2 to 3 million Palestinian Arabs and has remained a contested area since Israel occupied it during the 1967 war. The issue remains unresolved as both Israel and Palestine assert that the land is theirs. Yet the further annexation of the West Bank could lead to 4.5 percent of Palestinians holding no rights in Israel. This move would further entangle the two peoples, making it difficult to achieve a two-state solution in the area.

As touched upon, a further issue facing the Palestinian cause is the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations. Despite potentially forming a key step towards a peaceful solution, the process is seen by some as adding to the Palestinians’ sense of isolation and alienation. In recent months, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have signing peace deals with Israel, breaking with a long-standing consensus among Arab states that the price of normal relations with Israel is independence for the Palestinians. On Oct. 23, 2020, it was then announced that Sudan and Israel had normalised relations as well. 

Certain commentators assert that the strengthening of ties between Israel and Arab states will provide a boost to security across the Middle East, thus averting conflict and cultivating long-term peace and harmony in a region that is inextricably linked with conflict and suffering. However, the Palestinians feel betrayed by the normalisation process; robbed of allies and therefore even more vulnerable and exposed to Israel’s accelerated annexation of territory. 

Amid such challenges, the move towards elections should be perceived as hugely positive for Palestine. In the previous election, Hamas won a majority in the legislative council. This triggered an international boycott of the government and sparked tensions between Hamas and Fatah, who had won the presidential election the year prior.

The unity government established by the two parties in 2006 collapsed the following year when violent clashes erupted between them in the Gaza Strip. This led to migrants seeking refuge in other nations. Since then, Hamas has ruled Gaza, while Fatah has run the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah in the West Bank. Though they operated separately, both parties have made efforts at reconciliation in recent years. If conducted properly, the forthcoming elections possess the potential to bring about long-lasting peace and solidarity among factions. 

Since 2006, it has been clear that authorities in Palestine have not been able to manage the long list of challenges they face. The current Palestinian Authority lacks the political capital that is needed to provide cross-party consensus, which in turn has depleted the public’s confidence in them. Elections provide an opportunity to change this situation for the better and deliver the sense of togetherness that has proved elusive for the past 15 years. For this to happen, however, both parties must agree on a shared vision before the public goes to the polls. This will prove crucial in avoiding disputes and ensuring that results are respected, which in turn will help to finally put an end to the division stemming from the 2006 vote. 

Additionally, it is essential that voting can go ahead without interference from Israel. During the 2006 elections, only a small number of Palestinians were permitted by Israel to cast ballots in East Jerusalem, which undermined the integrity of the election by denying sections of the populace the ability to have a say. To create an atmosphere of tolerance and fairness, the democratic process must be able to move forward free from obtrusion. 

Finally, it is hugely positive that elections will be conducted via proportional representation. This will prevent one side from winning an overall majority- a factor that played a considerable role in the discord of 2006- and instead encourage all Palestinian parties to work together in pursuit of their shared objectives. 

Though they will face some challenges, the prospect of elections should provide hope to people that have struggled under dire circumstances. Now is the chance to build on that hope.

Athiei Ajuong is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal organisation that helps undocumented migrants to regulate their legal status.

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