Can elections resuscitate Palestinian hopes for unity?

Can elections resuscitate Palestinian hopes for unity?
5 min read
01 Oct, 2020
Comment: Elections will not be a magic bullet, but given the right conditions, they will hopefully force the way to a more youthful, united representation, writes Muhammad Shehada.
Hamas and rivals Fatah have agreed to hold Palestinian elections after nearly 15 years [Getty]
Last week, Fatah and Hamas concluded a high-level meeting at the Palestinian Consulate in Istanbul with a positive announcement

The two sides have reached a preliminary agreement to hold general Palestinian elections as part of a vision for intra-Palestinian unity. A senior Fatah delegation then flew to Qatar to discuss the deal with Hamas' top leaders to get them on board. By early October, a presidential decree is expected to officially announce the elections after Palestinian leaders from all factions discuss and agree on the details.

The timing of this announcement couldn't have been more crucial. The Palestinian national project now faces an unmatched tripartite assault, represented in the Trump administration's so-called Deal of the Century, Israel's accelerated and escalated de facto annexation, and the frenzy for unconditional normalisation kickstarted by the UAE.  

Despite this bleak outlook, the Palestinian Authority's leadership has proven incapable of taking serious action that would live up to the challenge. Instead, the PA's calls on Palestinians to rally and demonstrate have inspired little hope and won flimsy participation, and its leaders' fiery denunciations and condemnations now pass unnoticed. The PA's waning leaders have exhausted their political capital with their own people, let alone with the world. 

While it's true that the looming dangers have recently united Palestinian leaders in joint speeches, rallies and conferences, genuine institutional and geographic unity between all Palestinian territories is still missing. Palestinian institutions are worn out, their leaders are becoming increasingly obsolete, and the intractable intra-Palestinian division has exhausted the public's trust in their leadership.  

The PA's waning leaders have exhausted their political capital with their own people, let alone with the world

Cautious optimism  

But Palestinians are now beginning to cautiously put some faith in elections as a pathway to restoring unity, reforming the PA, and reviving the Palestinian Liberation Organization, (PLO). Elections are a crucial prerequisite for progress at this critical juncture.

There is, of course understandable skepticism and concern among some Palestinian analysts that elections may not be the long-hoped-for magic recipe that will break through the current deadlock. After all, they may perpetuate division if the results replicate the 2006 scenario that saw Hamas win a majority in the legislative council, while Fatah had won the presidency the year before, leading - along with international boycott of Hamas' government - to great tensions between the two. 

Hamas then violently preempted a coup by Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, and took over Gaza, while Fatah retained the West Bank.

This is a credible risk, but one that's worth taking compared to the losses Palestinians would incur if the current status quo were to endure. There's virtually no other way to challenge the internal political landscape than through the electoral process. 

Significance and potentials  

The lack of electoral accountability has rendered the Palestinian public invisible to their unaccountable leaders, who have become increasingly disconnected from people's pain, needs and desires. Restoring elections as a way of holding those leaders accountable through the ballot would force them to look into the mirror, to face their constituents and care about their voices.  

Elections would also re-energise the public by giving them a say in their own fate, making them more responsive to a leadership they chose fairly and freely. Newly elected leadership would have earned its legitimacy at the ballot box, and consequently would win the ears of the international community, as it would be truly representative of the general population.  

Perhaps the most important potential of Palestinian elections is that it would allow for new, forwardthinking, more youthful leaders and political movements to emerge. Fatah would want Hamas to allow it to campaign freely in Gaza without facing arbitrary arrests, and to get that it would have to reciprocate and do the same in the West Bank.

Such conditions would expand the space for freedom of association and assembly for the rest of Palestinians to campaign freely, without fear of suppression.  

What it takes  

Palestinian elections won't be an easy path, and it will take great effort to ensure their success, and avoid a repetition of the 2006 scenario.  

The international community, and in particular Israel's largest trading partner - the EU, should use its full leverage over Israel to ensure that it would allow elections to take place in all of the occupied territories, including Area C and East Jerusalem.

The EU must put its full weight behind ensuring that Israel does not sabotage the elections on a false pretext of security, by arresting "unfavourable" candidates as it did to
Hamas candidates and members of the legislative council.  

The international community has a responsibility to facilitate, not impede Palestinian democratic reform. In particular, the EU and UK should vow to respect the results of the election and engage with the Palestinian leadership it produces. Palestinians cannot afford a repeat of the 2006 boycott of Hamas' government, which Tony Blair later admitted was entirely wrong.  

Palestinian institutions are worn out, their leaders are becoming increasingly obsolete

Domestically, President Mahmoud Abbas, his immediate circle and the leadership that have engineered their 14-year stint in office, must all refrain from re-running, as they've exhausted their political capital domestically, regionally and internationally. Fresh leadership is needed to better guide the Palestinian cause through the current storm, and to garner more solidarity and sympathy.  

It's also important to ensure full internal respect for the election result. This will require a basic consensus between all Palestinian factions around a unifying national strategy before elections can begin.

And finally, parliamentary and National Council elections should be based on proportional representation, to guarantee that most Palestinian parties will be included in the resulting Legislative Council and PLO. This would ensure that no party will have an overwhelming majority, but rather a collaboration and partnership would be needed to produce a diverse national government.  

Doing so will guarantee that elections can be a tool conducive to progress, unity and openness to the world, rather than entrenching division, tensions and despair.  

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Have questions or comments? Email us at

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.