Why Gaza's future depends on elections, not Abbas
A renewed ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has provided civilians on both sides with an important respite from violence.
But for Gazans, this promises little more than a return to a volatile and unliveable status quo that leaves them once again facing an uncertain future, stuck on the edge of renewed war and humanitarian collapse, and denied the certainty of long-term peace and security.
The current flurry of international diplomatic activism led by the United States on behalf of Gaza is therefore badly needed. But this must learn from the lessons of past failures and respond effectively to shifting realities on the ground.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has acknowledged some of the drivers of the past war, namely Israel’s erosion of the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and settler efforts to forcibly evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.
Besides denying Palestinians their right to elect a representative and accountable leadership, Abbas scuttled the fragile cooperation that had emerged between Palestinian factions
But Washington continues to shy away from supporting international accountability mechanisms to deter such actions.
It has also avoided calling for the removal of Israeli sanctions against Gaza – which have existed in some form since the mid-1990s and remain the core factor behind the coastal territory’s current socio-economic crisis and successive cycles of violence.
Instead, it seems to be pushing in the opposite direction, to further tighten existing restrictions and controls over humanitarian aid and reconstruction, ostensibly to avoid strengthening Hamas.
Gaza is already subject to one of the tightest control regimes in the world. This has hurt its civilian population far more than it has Hamas.
The Islamist group has not grown stronger thanks to its abuse of existing reconstruction mechanisms – something that remains relatively limited – but precisely because of the overarching context of Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s inhabitants and the impunity with which it violates Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and beyond.
Its popular standing has been further bolstered by the failure of the Middle East peace process to offer a viable diplomatic path towards ending the occupation.
The US is betting on the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, to lead Gaza’s reconstruction and counter-balance Hamas.
This is part of a broader effort by the White House to strengthen the PA and restore calm in the Palestinian territories. This strategy to force the PA back into Gaza and prop up Abbas’ rule will likely backfire.
As the de facto governing authority there, Hamas cannot be simply boxed out. Its buy-in is crucial to the success of reconstruction efforts and the sustainability of a broader ceasefire agreement with Israel.
Hamas has emerged from fighting in a stronger position than had elections gone ahead
In contrast, the PA has remained shut out of Gaza since the eruption of a Palestinian civil war in June 2007 between Hamas and PA security forces aligned with Abbas’ Fatah party. It is also unclear how the White House can channel reconstruction funds through the PA given Congressional legislation prohibiting direct financial support to it.
Of course, Hamas and Israel share considerable blame for the present situation. But Abbas has compounded Gaza’s misery and further marginalised the PA.
In 2017, after the failure of numerous reunification attempts, he imposed sanctions against the Strip, including the reduction of PA contributions, affecting fuel imports, healthcare, electricity, and civil servants’ salaries.
The following year, the PA refused to accept Qatari funding to pay for Israeli fuel shipments to Gaza, as part of a deal brokered by the UN.
The Palestinian president’s decision in May 2021 to cancel presidential and legislative elections for the PA represented yet another unwelcome milestone.
While the public justification was Israel’s unwillingness to allow Palestinian elections in Jerusalem, this had more to do with Abbas’ desire to maintain his hold on power.
Besides denying Palestinians their right to elect a representative and accountable leadership, the 85-year-old scuttled the fragile cooperation that had emerged between Palestinian factions.
In doing so, he blocked the formation of a government of national unity benefiting from popular legitimacy and support from Hamas. This would have provided an important step towards returning PA governance to Gaza.
Tying Gaza's recovery to an ageing and discredited Abbas, and doubling down on a broken and authoritarian system, will not contain Hamas (quite the opposite), and will not help Gazans
The cancellation of elections changed Hamas’ calculations. Elections had provided it with an incentive to prioritise the political track to extricate itself from Gaza and alleviate the crushing socio-economic pressure endured by its population.
Since then, the group has swung back in favour of armed confrontation against Israel. Ironically, Hamas has emerged from fighting in a stronger position than had elections gone ahead.
Abbas' actions have proven to be self-defeating, weakening his own standing as well as that of the PA. Both were already deeply unpopular. Many Palestinians now see them as even less legitimate and the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Palestinian national movement.
This has been compounded by a lack of any viable strategy for securing Palestinian rights beyond calls for international intervention and relaunching peace talks – neither of which is a winning strategy in current circumstances.
In the meantime, internal divisions and rivalries within the ruling Fatah party are deepening – setting up a future high-stakes clash to succeed Abbas and threatening a shift amongst Fatah’s rank-and-file towards renewed confrontation against Israel.
In the meantime, non-violent mobilisation led by Palestinian youth activists will continue, driving the emergence of new grassroots leadership and organisational structures in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza.
These grassroots initiatives have been energised by events in Jerusalem and Gaza, and a heavy-handed response by Israeli security forces.
In the process, they are gradually pulling together a fractured Palestinian polity, even as they continue to draw on local grievances, such as socio-economic neglect and high crime rates in Palestinian communities in Israel, and growing disillusionment with traditional sources of leadership.
The past weeks have seen a mass campaign of detention by Israel and the PA to clamp down on protesters (and journalists).
In spite of this, there is every indication that largely leaderless protests will continue, driving a change in Palestinian strategy and discourse, centred on calls for equal rights, social justice, decolonisation and Palestinian unity.
Activists have framed this as a response to Israel’s entrenchment of a single regime of apartheid that targets all Palestinians. But this also heralds a shift away from the current state-centric paradigm embodied by the Oslo Accords and PA in favour of a revived national movement ‘between the river and the sea’.
The US and its European partners will need to better navigate this increasingly complicated Palestinian political landscape. Returning PA governance to Gaza is a worthy goal.
Relaunching Palestinian elections is not only an important step towards a better future for Gaza, but also towards creating the conditions for meaningful peace negotiations in the future
But this must be the product of a genuine process of Palestinian re-institutionalisation, reunification, and re-democratisation – that includes greater space for political contestation and harnesses youth-led activism.
Tying Gaza’s recovery to an ageing and discredited Abbas, and doubling down on a broken and authoritarian system, will not contain Hamas (quite the opposite), and will not help Gazans.
US and European leaders continue to see a negotiated two-state solution as the best means of ensuring stainable peace. But there can be no shortcuts.
Relaunching Palestinian elections is not only an important step towards a better future for Gaza, but also towards creating the conditions for meaningful peace negotiations in the future; albeit this will require international willingness to challenge Israeli policies.
Yet Washington continues to de-prioritise Palestinian democracy, noting merely that “it’s up to the Palestinian people in government [Abbas] on how to proceed.”
So long as this remains the case, international efforts seem destined to hit a brick wall.
Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations based in London
Follow him on Twitter: @h_lovatt