Illusion of democracy: The Palestinian Elections

A Palestinian boy passes by a building covered with electoral posters of different electoral lists running for the Palestinian Legislative Elections in the West bank city of Nablus January 22, 2006. (MAANnews/Rami Swidan)


With about 80 percent of eligible voters registered, and more than 700 candidates running in a hotly contested campaign for 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, the stage is set for what is being packaged as an impressive exercise in democracy when Palestinians in the occupied territories go to the polls on Wednesday.

There are, however, some problems with this rosy picture.

For one thing, candidates representing the Islamic Hamas movement seem positioned for a significant victory over their rivals in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah party. The United States and the European Union have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is granted a presence in the Palestinian Cabinet, which would be the natural result of it taking a significant share of the popular vote. And Israel says it will refuse to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has gained electoral support not because so many Palestinians support its ideology and violence, but because they are fed up with spending a 39th year under Israeli military occupation, with a Fatah-dominated leadership that has failed to deliver on any of the promises of peace and prosperity that have been made since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Even at the height of the peace process, less than 18 percent of the West Bank was ever actually returned to Palestinian control — and even that was divided into dozens of disconnected fragments of territory. That is not the fault of Fatah, but rather of the Israelis, who continue to refuse to dismantle their occupation and abide by treaty obligations and the principles of international law.

But as long as Fatah leaders like Abbas refuse to countenance any alternative to participation in a process that has led to nothing but further paralysis and misery for the Palestinian population, a vote for Hamas is in reality a vote against Fatah.

This is political cynicism born of despair.

When Palestinians are asked which of their leaders they most trust, twice as many choose “none of the above” as Abbas — and he is the least distrusted leader. Polls show that fewer than 3 percent of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories actually back Hamas’ objective of creating an Islamic state in historic Palestine. Three-quarters support either a one- or two-state peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel.

All the talk of elections is part of an attempt to impose a sense of normalcy on a highly abnormal situation: not just the endless occupation, but the unresolved future of the Palestinian people, two-thirds of whom are excluded from the electoral process because they do not live in the occupied territories but rather in refugee camps or in the diaspora, or as second-class citizens of the state of Israel. And none of this will be changed by the elections.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to hold a “national” election when the majority of the nation doesn’t have the right to vote, even the process of holding elections while living under military occupation is highly problematic for those who are eligible to vote.

The Israeli army denies Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to free movement, so access to campaign rallies and even voting booths can hardly be taken for granted. Right now, for example, 800,000 Palestinians living in the northern West Bank are banned from traveling outside of their home districts, and a large strand of Route 60, the main West Bank artery, has been off limits to Palestinian traffic since August.

Campaigning candidates have to run not only the regular gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints, patrols and roadblocks, but also must navigate politically motivated interference of the kind that in last year’s presidential elections guaranteed that only Abbas — Israel’s chosen candidate — was allowed free movement. Other candidates were often detained and sometimes physically abused at Israeli checkpoints.

Israel recently gave permission for east Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, but it has banned Hamas candidates from campaigning there or having their names printed on ballots.

Of course, according to international law, east Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, so it’s not really up to Israel to allow or prevent Palestinians there from participating in the political process.

In all, these can hardly be considered genuinely democratic elections, not because the Palestinians don’t want them to be, but rather because of the larger circumstances, the indelible reality that it is impossible for a nation to hold genuine elections while one-third is living under military occupation and two-thirds are denied the right to vote.

This is not to say that there is no purpose in holding elections for a government that will find itself without a state to govern. The point of the elections is to maintain the illusion that there still is a political process that will eventually lead to Palestinian “statehood.” The elections fit into a wider narrative of Palestinian statehood-without-a-state that has been pushed by the United States and Israel, with the Palestinian Authority’s acquiescence — since Oslo.

Not only do Wednesday’s elections maintain this deception, they also reinforce the sense that they are part of a wider process of Palestinian “reform” and “democratization,” which are keys to the future of the so-called peace process.

After all, the United States has decreed that all progress toward peace depends on the behavior of the Palestinians, rather than on the Israelis. Placing that burden on those who never chose to live under military occupation — while exempting the occupiers — is hardly likely to yield real results.

But it’s not meant to. This is why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass describes the situation as “a bottle of formaldehyde.” According to Weisglass, maintaining the illusion of a political process guarantees that there will be no resolution of the conflict “until the Palestinians turn into Finns.” And that, of course, suits Israel just fine, because as long as the illusion is maintained, it doesn’t have to do anything but hang on to the territories it took by force in 1967.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He contributed this article to EI.

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