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 says.
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. Mr Abbas issued laws by decree and his four-year term should have ended over a decade ago.
“It was devastating,” says 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”.
‘Even our dreams are under control’
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.
In the city of Hebron, 29-year-old Doa Jabari will be voting for the first time. She explains the problem for her. She came top in her university law exams but says she has been unable to get a decent job.
This is because the PA controls who gets hired into public legal positions and she doesn’t have the right connections – or wasta, as it’s known in Arabic.
“I don’t have relatives in the Authority, then I don’t have a chance”, she says. “That’s why I want the election – to stop this.”
Many Palestinians feel the generation of Fatah leaders still in power – those behind hard-won international recognition in the 1990s – have failed to deliver. The breakthrough Oslo peace accords with Israel created the PA, but hopes it would lead to an independent state haven’t materialised.
Ms Jabari describes layers of power in a military occupation she cannot hold to account. Israel controls much Palestinian movement in the West Bank – it says for its security. Ms Jabari says it leaves her feeling “shackled”.
“Even our dreams are under control. I dream every day to go to the beach. You cannot see it, not even feel it or touch it,” she says.
A one-man show?
Despite complaints about tough rules to run in the election, new political groups have been emerging – particularly younger activists, who reject the political dominance of Fatah and Hamas.
Of around 1,400 candidates, nearly a third are women and 39% are aged under 40, according to officials.
But for many, the biggest surprise of the election is that President Abbas still hasn’t cancelled it – with the legislative vote due in less than a month, on 22 May.
“This is a one-man show,” says the Palestinian pollster Dr Khalil Shikaki.
“The Palestinians at this time have no institutions that make decisions,” he adds, predicting that Mr Abbas can call off the vote if he thinks it’s not in his interest.
And he may well be feeling the pressure. Fatah’s decades-old family feud has spilled back into the open. In the run-up to the poll, Mr Abbas’ officials have lobbied hard to stop a split, but failed. The movement is effectively running as three different factions – or candidate “lists”.
One rival is the breakaway Future list backed by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief living in exile in the UAE. Mr Abbas expelled him in 2011, accusing him of a coup attempt and raising unsubstantiated claims he had a hand in Yasser Arafat’s death.
But the major challenge to Mr Abbas’ authority comes from the jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah reformist who was convicted by Israel on five counts of murder in 2004 during the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising.
Polls suggest Mr Barghouti would comfortably beat Mr Abbas in a head-to-head race, and he is expected to run from his prison cell in the presidential poll slated for 31 July.
He is backing a new list – Al-Hurriya, or Freedom – for the parliamentary vote. His wife, lawyer Fadwa Barghouti, is a candidate along with Nasser al-Qudwa, a veteran diplomat and the nephew of Yasser Arafat who calls for an end to corruption in the PA.
“Nobody can deny that a huge number of people are disgruntled, are angry. They hate what they see and they will not elect Hamas nor Fatah,” says Mr al-Qudwa, arguing his group offers a “chance to deliver”.
He says his split from the official Fatah list was “not planned”, but followed rows over how to handle Hamas. He thinks Fatah’s rivals gained too much from the deal to hold elections without a clear pledge to return control of Gaza to the “political and administrative Palestinian system” – ie, to the PA.
‘Big zero’ for the West
The enmity between Fatah and Hamas is the recurrent issue that has paralysed Palestinian politics.
Mr Abbas says there can be only “one authority, one law, one gun” – a rejection of separate militant factions. But Hamas holds onto its weapons, promoting itself to its followers as the effective “armed resistance” to Israeli occupation. Much of the global community conditions dealing with Hamas on it recognising Israel, renouncing violence and signing up to previous Palestinian agreements made internationally.
That’s unlikely to happen any time soon – meaning, like in 2006, any newly elected Palestinian government including Hamas could be abandoned by its Western donors. The group itself accuses countries of abandoning Palestinians’ democratic choices.
“After 15 years it is clear [the West] has failed, an absolute failure, to kick Hamas out of the political theatre. Hamas is still there representing a good majority of the Palestinian people,” says senior Hamas official Basem Naim. “On the other hand [those countries] have failed to achieve anything politically with the Israelis… [towards a] two state solution.
“The outcome was a big zero,” he says.
But analysts believe Hamas may fare worse than before, plagued by discontent over its running of Gaza. The dire humanitarian situation stems largely from Israel’s land, sea and air blockade – coupled with border closures also imposed by neighbouring Egypt. Israel says it is to stop weapons reaching the group, which has fought repeated rounds of conflict with it.
The recent JMCC poll puts overall support for Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza at just 8%. However, polling before the last election significantly underplayed its support.
Frying the omelette
Some fear by announcing elections Mr Abbas has unleashed more uncertainty on an unstable region. He is bypassing failed reconciliation talks between the factions by asking the people to decide instead. That formula backfired with bitter recriminations and violence last time around.
In effect, Mr Abbas hopes to keep his slice of the political cake before it’s been fully baked.
Many analysts suspect he could be looking for a way to backtrack. His officials have been getting more vocal calling on Israel to let Palestinians vote in East Jerusalem. Israel is obliged to do so under the Oslo accords, and in 2006 it allowed voting in a limited number of post offices. But so far this year Israel has remained officially silent about it.
Mr Abbas says failure to let people vote there would provide just grounds – his critics would call it a pretext – to postpone the poll.
For Najwa Odeh, the Fatah candidate who dodged a bullet 54 years ago, she’s not surprised her home of East Jerusalem is back at the centre of things.
“Like Abu Mazen [President Abbas] has said, there will not be an election without Jerusalem,” she says. “I don’t care what people are saying. We are preparing everything – it’s not a show. We are going for the elections.”