Last month marked 10 years since the last Palestinian parliamentary elections, in which Hamas overwhelmingly secured the majority of seats. Almost immediately, the international community, which claimed to support Palestinian democracy, decided it would no longer support a Palestinian government with Hamas at its helm, unless and until Hamas agreed to abide by a number of conditions.
No such conditions have ever been placed on any Israeli government, no matter how racist or whether the ministers are illegal colonists who advocate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Funds to the donor-dependent Palestinian National Authority (PNA) — dependent only because Israel refuses to allow the Palestinian economy to flourish — were immediately cut and so began the long and still ongoing battle between Hamas and Fatah over who should “rule” over the Palestinians. That divide remains today despite the fact that national unity is consistently mentioned by Palestinians as their foremost concern.
And 10 years later, here is where we stand: Palestinians have one president, whose term expired seven years ago, two prime ministers, who have never been confirmed by parliament, and a parliament that has not convened since 2007, whose term expired six years ago and many members of which have been and remain imprisoned by Israel. Similarly, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which claims to represent Palestinians worldwide, has failed to hold elections for its supreme governing body after more than two decades and has failed to convene in years. These failed institutions are not solely the fault of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President — whose rule has been dismally marked by deflecting blame onto others, consolidating powers unto himself and destroying Palestinian institutions — but on those who continue to allow this deteriorating and divided situation to persist.
The irony of this state of affairs is not lost on Palestinians who remember their history: The Palestinian struggle is, at its core, a struggle for democracy and self-determination. Israel, in its attempt to maintain an apartheid regime over Palestinians, not only has murdered thousands of Palestinians, but has also imprisoned and deported elected officials for attempting to challenge Israel’s military rule. The issue is not simply one of elections, for while Israel holds frequent elections, Israelis also frequently choose war criminals as their representatives.
The central issue for Palestinians is strategy: For more than two decades, Palestinians have been saddled with the failed negotiations process and despite its disastrous effects, this Palestinian leadership has refused to seriously pursue an alternative strategy, preferring instead to threaten to take action if negotiations end. Even Abbas’s declaration before the United Nations last year that the Oslo Accords are “dead” was a guise to press Israel to resume negotiations, as he later clarified. Abbas has failed to endorse the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and has failed to bring war crimes charges against Israel for its attacks on the Gaza Strip and Israel’s continued settlement construction.
Instead, he continues to express his desire for more negotiations and continues to aid Israel in suppressing Palestinian resistance and denying our freedom. And as the Gaza Strip remains besieged and gasping under the rubble of more than 100,000 structures bombed by Israel in 2014, the West Bank leadership behaves as though it is business as usual.
Constitution in tatters
In the Gaza Strip, it is no better: Rather than focusing on mechanisms to liberate Palestine, the government there seems intent on turning its attention to repressing dissent, similar to that of the West Bank government. Caught in between are the rest of us.
This is why it is imperative that Palestinians reform the institutions that represent them without further delay. Abbas, who will turn 81 next month, has no succession plans and despite frequent threats to resign, will likely die in office. The Palestinian constitution is in tatters and so too his Fatah party, which has continued to allow Abbas to rule without elections. The remaining two-thirds of the Palestinian polity, supposedly represented by the PLO, are similarly voiceless: The demographic profile of the current PLO in no way matches the demographic of Palestinians. For example, women and those under the age of 50 are simply absent.
Obviously, the ruling parties of Hamas and Fatah will remain opposed to elections, as they have continued to blame one another for the lack of national unity, preferring instead to feed into Israel’s designs of large Palestinian ghettos instead of executing a sound strategy to attain Palestinian freedom.
Holding mass Palestinian elections clearly will not be an easy task. With Palestinians spread out across different continents, there are bound to be complex practical and political problems. But the enfranchisement of Palestinians, who have long been victims of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and external decision-making, deserve to have a say in their future. Elections will ensure that generations of Palestinians voice their opinion in the struggle and, after liberation, will ensure that Palestinian institutions, the Palestinian economy and leadership rise above subservience to Israeli, US or other international diktats.
Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and policy adviser to Al Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.