Palestinian Elections: Exercising Democracy under Occupation

Special advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Diana Buttu. (Photo: PASSIA)

To the outside world and the 800 international observers, the 9 January 2005 Palestinian presidential elections seemed like a normal exercise in democracy. However, what many chose to ignore was the fact that the elections were conducted under “abnormal” conditions. Palestinians, explained Diana Buttu, special advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), were exercising democracy under direct occupation.

Speaking at a 10 January 2005 briefing at the DC-based Palestine Center, Buttu noted that between 11 November 2004 and 6 January 2005, Israel killed 88 Palestinians—one-quarter of whom were children—and injured 339. During the same period, Israel conducted 1,155 raids into Palestinian areas, arrested 901 Palestinians and detained 276. Israel demolished 89 Palestinian homes, imposed 42 curfews and carried out nine assassination attempts resulting in the death of eight Palestinians. Furthermore, Israel continued with the construction of the separation wall around the West Bank and with settlements despite the illegality of both under international law.

Its claims notwithstanding, Buttu contended that Israel did not facilitate the election process. Instead, it complicated the process, especially in East Jerusalem. Checkpoints throughout the West Bank and around Jerusalem remained. Israel limited the number of polling stations within the municipal city limits of East Jerusalem to post offices. Those polling stations could only accommodate 5,767 ballots, forcing the remaining thousands of voters to pass checkpoints in order to get to polling stations outside the city. Israel used other tactics to limit voting in Jerusalem, such as leading Palestinians to believe that their identification cards, which allow them to reside in the city, would be revoked if they participated in the election. Israel delayed voter registration, prevented campaigning in Jerusalem, and arrested campaign officials.

The United Nations estimates that there are about 700 checkpoints in the West Bank—an area slightly larger than Delaware. “Rather than placing pressure on Israel to remove the checkpoints, the international community accommodated the occupation by increasing the number of polling stations,” Buttu said. In total, more than 3,300 polling stations were established because the checkpoints were not removed. “In the last U.S. presidential elections, there were roughly 410 polling stations in the state of Delaware,” Buttu noted.

Although Abbas enjoyed only 2 percent of popular support in September 2004, he benefited from a 62 percent approval rating among voters at the January 2005 election. Buttu explained the increased support for Abbas resulted from the rising support for Fateh among Palestinians due to its smooth handling of the power transitions within the PLO and the PA following President Yasser Arafat’s death, as well as the promptness with which elections were held. Another factor in Abbas’ favor was the absence of an Islamist opponent in the elections.

Despite getting 62 percent of the vote, Buttu argued that several mediating factors remain which Abbas cannot ignore as he goes forward. First, elections were limited to Palestinians physically residing within the Occupied Territories. Thus, Buttu said, Palestinians voted for a new president of the PA (which has jurisdiction only over the Occupied Territories and the Palestinians living therein), not a new leader per se. “The fact that many Palestinians were not eligible to vote—Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian refugees who do not come under direct Israeli rule—[means that] we are looking at a president who is responsible for a very small percentage of territory,” Buttu said. She noted that even this power is subject to the direct Israeli rule over the territory he was elected to govern.

Another factor which may mediate Abbas’ policies is the 20 percent of support that independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti received. Such is significant given that unlike Abbas, Barghouti did not have the weight of a political party behind him. Buttu believes that Abbas will thus have to take into consideration the positions of other candidates on domestic issues.

Thirdly, only 50 percent of Palestinians actually went to the polls. Buttu noted, “This could be interpreted as many Palestinians no longer believing in the PA, or 50 percent who have renewed vigor in favor of the PA.” Either way, Palestinians will be looking to president-elect Abbas to pressure Israel to change the quality of their daily life.

According to Buttu, 81 percent of Palestinians support reconciliation. To maintain the optimism, Israel can do a lot in terms of facilitating Palestinian life, such as removing checkpoints, ending settlement and wall construction, and allowing economic growth. Palestinians must see that the occupation is going to end. “This is a fantastic opportunity for Israel that I hope it will not miss,” Buttu said. Yet she noted that Palestinians are also realistic. “Palestinians are aware that there is very little that a president living under occupation can actually do,” Buttu said.

“If this opportunity is not seized by Israel, will see very different poll results in a very short time,” Buttu said. “The level of optimism is high but that does not mean it cannot drop just as quickly.”

Buttu also argued that if the United States wants to play a significant role in the peace negotiations, it must learn from past mistakes. She pointed out that in the past, not only did the U.S. not foster the negotiations, it allowed Israel to continue its colonization. She added that while members of the U.S. administration shook Abbas’ hand and presented him as a “moderate,” they undermined him by not pressuring Israel to carry out its obligations under the Road Map.

“It is no longer a question of pressuring the Palestinians,’” Buttu said. The U.S. must have “a cold, hard reality check” and realize it is the occupation rather than any thing else that is preventing peace in the Middle East.

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    The above remarks were delivered on 10 January 2005 by Diana Buttu. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund or its educational arm, the Palestine Center. This “For the Record” summary may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Palestine Center. The Jerusalem Fund for Education & Community Development is an independent, non-profit, non-political, non-sectarian organization based in Washington, DC. Established in 1991, the Palestine Center is an educational program of The Jerusalem Fund. It is dedicated to analysis of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestine Center, formerly known as the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, provides a much-needed Palestinian/Arab perspective to the political, academic, and media establishments in Washington, D.C. and throughout the U.S. For more information, see