Relaunched discussions on potential Palestinian elections have raised hopes that the Fatah and Hamas movements can unite after years of hostility. The talks come at a crucial time, as regional developments and the Israeli occupation project are concurrently confronting the Palestinian question.
Leaders of rivals Fatah and Hamas – the dominant political factions in the West Bank and Gaza respectively – reached a preliminary agreement on September 24, during a meeting in Istanbul, to hold general Palestinian elections within six months.
“We have agreed to first hold legislative elections, then presidential elections of the Palestinian Authority [PA], and finally the central council of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO],” Jibril Rajub, a senior Fatah official, stated.
“This time we reached a real consensus,” Saleh al-Arouri, a top Hamas official, told AFP from Istanbul. “Divisions have damaged our national cause and we are working to end that.”
For the first time in almost 15 years, officials from the two parties said there should be elections in Palestine under the deal agreed upon by Fatah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas Political Chief Ismail Haniyeh.
The announcement of a new roadmap for elections has, to a great extent, resonated well with Palestinian circles in terms of reflecting a widespread desire to overcome divisions in local politics and society, and achieve national unity.
The consensus expressed by the different political groups across the Palestinian territories has provided a push to pursue intra-Palestinian dialogue to promote domestic consensus. This comes just as the Palestinian people are facing serious challenges to their cause and future, namely the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century,” the Israeli accelerated plan to annex major parts of the West Bank, and the diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and two Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The recent talks between Fatah and Hamas fall within a context of much needed efforts to unify Palestinian ranks to confront the dangers impeding the Palestinian cause.
The recent talks between Fatah and Hamas thus fall within a context of much needed efforts to unify the Palestinian ranks to confront the dangers impeding the Palestinian cause. These efforts took the form of joint speeches, rallies, and press conferences in July, in a significant expression of unison among Palestinian leaders against Israel’s annexation project.
With the progress made during the discussions, Palestinians are cautiously optimistic that the electoral process can be a pathway to political harmony.
Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab told Inside Arabia that the two blocs realized they need the legitimacy of elections. “There is will on both sides to have unity. With the existential threat of normalization with Israel, they realize that politically they have to do something,” he observed.
In Kuttab’s view, the September 24 agreement was made possible not just by the political circumstances but the personal relationship between Jibril Rajoub, Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, and Hamas Deputy Chief Saleh al-Arouri. The two were fellow prisoners and managed to bring the trust factor between them to the negotiations.
The opposing movements initiated a new push towards Palestinian reconciliation and an end to political division. But is there a genuine intent to achieve a united front?
A meeting that was supposed to take place on October 3 to approve the details of the initial accord attained in Turkey was postponed indefinitely, seemingly due to ongoing differences between the ruling factions. President Abbas would have afterwards issued a presidential decree setting a date for the polls.
This is not the first time Hamas and Fatah have promised national reconciliation and elections. The two had formed a unity government after the 2006 polls, which resulted in a landslide victory for Hamas; however, it collapsed the following year with Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip and the split with the Palestinian Authority. Since then, there have been several attempts at reconciliation and new elections that have failed on every occasion, including a prisoner exchange agreement in 2012 and a short-lived unity government two years later.
Given the long history of failures the two competing groups have produced, regaining the public’s trust in their leadership appears at the least very difficult.
Given the long history of failures the two competing groups have produced, regaining the public’s trust in their leadership appears at the least very difficult. Not only have neither of them shown real interest in mending the internal rift, but both sides have become entrenched in their respective territories since Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas’ control in 2007.
There is a fair dose of skepticism in the Palestinian public about the election deal. A PLO official told The Jerusalem Post, “the two sides need more time to discuss several contentious issues.” He alluded to several demands put forth by Hamas, including lifting the financial sanctions imposed by the Fatah-led PA on Gaza, stopping the PA security crackdown on Hamas members in the West Bank, and the release of Hamas detainees held in PA prisons.
Hassan Asfour, a former Palestinian negotiator, said that Fatah’s talk about a partnership with Hamas “is an absolute political fraud. There is nothing that unites them except for a current stage of partisan goals.”
Some Palestinians are even critical about the hasty Fatah-Hamas entente. US-Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud argued in an editorial that the accord will “buy Abbas time to promote himself as a political moderate,” and that the Palestinian leadership insists on operating within the Oslo framework and “the dead-end road of the ‘peace process,’” which would only protect the interests of Palestine’s ruling elites.
The Oslo Accords failed Palestinians entirely over more than a quarter of a century with false promises and failed peace, instead allowing a continued denial of rights, ongoing Israeli violence and violations of international law, and rapid expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
On the ground, the Oslo agreement remains in force with aspects such as financial dependency and security coordination untouched. Although President Abbas threatened on past occasions to cut ties with Israel, these security and financial arrangements between the PA’s upper rank and the Israeli government have stayed in place all along.
One issue of concern in Palestinian milieus is the feasibility of seeing free and democratic elections held under occupation.
One issue of concern in Palestinian milieus is the feasibility of seeing free and democratic elections held under occupation. Some fundamental questions should be taken into account. Will Israel allow the elections and not obstruct Palestinians’ right to vote for whichever faction they prefer? Will it let Hamas and the resistance forces campaign and mobilize their supporters? Will Palestinians living in Areas B and C, which are largely or fully under Israeli military control, be included in the vote? Will Israel allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to participate in the elections (bearing in mind Israel moved to impede previous elections in East Jerusalem)?
Some Palestinian analysts also point to the limited democratic and political space in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, meaning that elections would reinforce the ruling regime rather than reflect true democratic practice.
The new polls may protract and deepen the fracture if they result in a repetition of the 2006 scenario, when Hamas gained a majority in the legislative council whilst Fatah had won the presidency the year before, which led to growing tensions between the two opposing camps.
Nonetheless, the elections offer the opportunity to challenge the internal political landscape along with the current status quo in Palestine.
“I think Palestinian unity is crucial to stopping all kinds of attempts to bypass Palestinian rights,” Kuttab said, noting that because of internal divisions, Israel and the states that normalized their relations with Tel Aviv were able to get away with their actions.
Before moving ahead with elections, though, it is necessary to see a national program agreed upon by all Palestinian political forces. There needs to be some basic consensus built amongst all the factions around a unifying national strategy.
While Hamas and Fatah are engaging in discussions and consultations on reaching reconciliation, the Palestinian President is still expected to issue the election decree.
Whether the Palestinian leadership has matured, and all the different political groups are genuinely ready to move towards unity and hold the electoral process, will have to be seen soon. Else, it will be the same divided Palestinian representation seeking to give a semblance of reconciliation to their respective attempts to revive political capital domestically and beyond.