Palestinian democratic institutions are badly in need of renewal. Despite the recent announcement to hold legislative, presidential, and Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections within six months, following the meeting of general secretaries of most Palestinian factions, the Palestinian people are sceptical about whether this will actually happen.
There are also many voices that argue that PNC elections should come first, as this would start the process to rebuild the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – the umbrella group representing the public and their nationalist aspirations. Palestinians believe this to be important as the PLO has lain dormant since the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel in 2003.
The PNC, which is the highest authority in the PLO, is the body which represents Palestinians everywhere whereas the Palestinian Authority (PA) was set up to rule only in the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords. Due to the geographical separation, the PLC has two buildings one in Ramallah and the other in Gaza, and prior to the split between Fatah and Hamas, used to meet via video conferencing.
In addition to representing Palestinians, the PNC elects the Executive Committee of the PLO, which leads the organization in between its biannual meetings. It is a wieldy body made up of over 700 members who are difficult to determine from a search on its website, but many are now elderly or have died.
Moreover, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has in the past called for meetings of the PNC in Ramallah, which has meant a number of key players, including the Hamas leadership have not been able to attend. The last formally recognized meeting of the PNC was in 1988. For these reasons, Palestinians believe that rebuilding the PLO institutions and repositioning the PA as an arm of the organization that should be accountable to it is long overdue. The elections of new members to the PNC is the first step in that rebuilding process.
It is of course important also to hold elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and for the presidency. However, those only relate to the PA and there is no representation through them for Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza.
The last PLC elections took place in 2006. Then, following the Fatah-Hamas split in 2007, the PLC ceased to function, and the PA has ruled through Presidential decree. President Mahmoud Abbas went further in December 2018 when he dissolved the PLC.
The paralysis of the PLC and then the decision to dismantle it have effectively meant that there has been no mechanism for ensuring the PA’s accountability to the Palestinian people through a democratically elected parliament.
In addition, the last elections for president of the PA took place in 2005, in which Mahmoud Abbas gained 63 percent of the vote. However, despite repeated promises to hold elections for both the PLC and Office of President, neither have taken place.
The PA, which was created under the Oslo Accords, is only mandated to operate in the West Bank and Gaza. It is further prohibited by Israel from operating in occupied East Jerusalem as Israel has obstructed elections for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
And even a functioning PLC does not represent Palestinians in the 1948 areas or in the diaspora, including UN registered refugees. It is the PNC which does that and hence the calls for elections to the PNC have gathered strength, particularly in the face of Israel’s annexation plans and the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Palestinians fear that more of the same PA strategy of waiting for the right time to restart negotiations with Israel or calling for an international peace conference that bypasses the current rabidly pro-Israel US administration would simply not bring about the required change.
At their meeting in Turkey on September 24, the Fatah and Hamas political parties announced that an agreement had been reached to hold Palestinian elections. Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub said: “We have agreed to first hold legislative elections, then presidential elections of the Palestinian Authority, and finally the central council of the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Saleh al-Arouri, a top Hamas official, told Istanbul’s AFP news agency: “This time we reached a real consensus. Divisions have damaged our national cause and we are working to end that.” While some wondered why the meeting had taken place in Turkey rather than Egypt, which had in the past hosted such talks, Rajoub played down the significance of the move arguing the meetings were held at the Palestinian Consulate and therefore on Palestinian soil.
While Palestinians accept that elections and the renewal of Palestinian institutions is long overdue, speculation remains regarding the motives for the sequencing of the elections, with PLC elections preceding the presidential elections and the PNC’s being left until the end.
There is further speculation that Fatah and Hamas might run for elections to the PLC as a joint list. This has raised alarm as the consequence could be that the status quo, in terms of both faces and policies, would remain; but moreover, the factions would dangerously gain legitimacy through winning the democratic elections.
Privately, Fatah officials fear that entering elections without a joint list could result in Hamas winning decisively. This would not only create problems for Fatah as a movement, but a government led by Hamas could be boycotted by key western countries, as it was when the last elections were held, exacerbating the isolation of the Palestinians.
There is also a fear that once PLC and presidential elections are held, the will to hold elections to the PNC would waiver and may be kicked into the long grass, leaving those in the 1948 areas, refugees, and other exiled Palestinians without representation in Palestinian decision making at a most critical juncture.
Concerned about the situation, a group of Palestinians, including this writer, released a statement calling for elections to the PNC to be held first, as an essential step in rebuilding the PLO. The statement was signed by a diverse range of Palestinians, representing those exiled – from South America to Australia – and in historic Palestine, Europe, and the US.
The group has committed to working towards “initiating elections for the Palestine National Council … before any other elections or actions, as stipulated in the National Charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was approved in 1968, which regards every Palestinian as a member of the PLO and who has the full right to elect his/her representative and to self-determination.”
It is also dedicated to “re-embracing the culture of resistance in its most comprehensive, legal, legitimate meaning and where it is possible, and to provide full support to the continuation of popular resistance that galvanizes all Palestinians in particular, the Arab people and the defenders of justice and human rights all over the world.”
Palestinians desperately need to have their voices heard through transparent and democratic institutions. The new leadership that emerges should then develop a strategy for liberation that is fit to tackle the increasing challenges the cause faces. At the heart of that will be a united Palestinian people and leadership. This is crucial to face down the attempts to eliminate the Palestinian cause and deny the Palestinians their inalienable rights.
*First published by Inside Arabia on 27/10/2020