Something quite significant is happening in Palestine, which was lost in the deluge of global bad news: new elections were announced and all major factions have agreed to participate. Granted, the elections are only to take place on the local level, but it could be the first time in ten years that truly competitive elections take place in Palestine, in both the West Bank and Gaza.
No real elections have been held since 2006, when Hamas won the majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, to almost everyone’s surprise. In what election observers unanimously described as free and fair elections, Hamas had managed to upset the existing order in the Palestinian Authority with a reform-oriented political programme, presenting itself as a “clean” alternative to corrupt Fatah strongmen who have dominated the Palestinian Authority from the beginning.
While Hamas moved to form a government, the reaction from the international community, on whose financial support Palestinians fundamentally rely, was to boycott it. This amounted to a veto on the decision made by the Palestinian people. They made the “wrong” choice and suffered for it.
As it became clear that not only was the international community boycotting the Hamas government but actively undermining it with the support of then-Fatah security chief Mohammad Dahlan in Gaza, Hamas struck with a pre-emptive and bloody coup to secure its base in Gaza in 2007. In the past nine years, a seemingly unbridgeable divide has grown between the West Bank and Gaza, with awful consequences both for living conditions of Palestinians and the two-state solution.
The international veto of the elections in 2006 thus proved to be a disaster. It seriously weakened moderates within Hamas who had pursued a political course and instead strengthened the hardliners in the movement who push for armed confrontation with Israel, putting them squarely in charge of Gaza. Moreover, it buoyed extremists across the region who pointed fingers at the West for lacking commitment to real democracy, regardless of electoral outcomes, in the Middle East.
A chance to end the split between the West Bank and Gaza
This time around, Hamas is carefully positioning itself by running a supposedly merely technocratic list. From the sentiment on the street, one can gauge that this list will do very well in major urban centers in the West Bank, where people are seriously disappointed with the performance of Fatah. Conversely, the frustration in Gaza, where citizens have had experience with Hamas rule for the past 10 years, may lead to a reversal of fortunes there.
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More importantly, however, the local elections, announced to take place in October of this year, could present a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between the West Bank and Gaza. Past reconciliation agreements have remained ink on paper and the last local elections in 2012 took place only in the West Bank and were boycotted by Hamas.
Intra-Palestinian reconciliation is an important policy prerogative of the European Union and other actors, and rightfully so. The split between the West Bank and Gaza is a massive hindrance to Palestinian development, second only to the Israeli occupation itself. It would seem the news of potential reconciliation via elections would be welcomed by the international community with open arms. Yet, current positioning suggests that international players are responding with the same irritation as they did following the elections in 2006, asking: what if Hamas wins again? Ten years seem to have passed without a learning curve.
Clearly, international rhetoric and interests regarding democratic elections in the Middle East don’t (yet) align. While the military coup in Egypt in 2013 was accepted by the international community with welcoming silence, international actors scrambled to denounce the recent attempted coup in Turkey, waxing poetic about the need to respect democratic choices. That respect seems to disappear once again when it comes to Palestinian elections. But, respecting the democratic process does not mean one cannot be highly critical of President Erdoğan’s actions in the aftermath of the coup attempt, nor must it mean unconditionally welcoming a Hamas victory. It should mean, however, an acceptance of democratic choices.
One can only hope that the international community commits to serious soul-searching before the elections take place and allows for a more refined policy, respecting the democratic choices of Palestinians while holding their leadership to account. Pressures are already rising for President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the elections and arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank by Israeli and Palestinians forces are putting serious strains on the electoral process.
While some donors may feel relief if they can postpone once again having to deal with Hamas, a cancellation of the elections or repeat of the boycott of elections by Hamas as in 2012 should not be in anyone’s interest. It could potentially be the death knell for Palestinian reconciliation and democracy and could make a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more remote than ever.
The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a former official of an EU member state who was tasked with the Middle East Peace Process.