Elections are a normal practice in any democratic and free society. People go voluntarily to the voting polls to freely choose their political representatives. This democratic practice should be conducted in an open, transparent, regular and systematic manner. Unfortunately, most nations in the Middle East have not yet had the chance to enjoy this right on a regular basis. Ironically, the only countries in the region that do practice this right, with a reasonable degree of transparency, are Israel, Iran, occupied Iraq and occupied Palestine.
In occupied Iraq and occupied Palestine, however, this democratic practice of elections has a paradoxical nature. If a prerequisite for elections is democracy and a prerequisite for democracy is freedom, then the obvious conclusion is that no elections could legitimately take place in Palestine and Iraq, because neither of them is free. Both are under military occupation and denied their full rights and any meaningful political autonomy. Cue the entrance of the phenomenon “democracy under military occupations”. This phenomenon, quite remarkably, appears to flourish in Iraq and Palestine and is accepted by the outside world, but at the same time, the US and European governments refused to recognise the Lebanese election results because the election took place under Syrian occupation.
Faced with the conundrum of these glaringly double standards, one can only reach the conclusion that it must be the kind of occupation that matters and the democratic process itself takes a secondary role. So one is left doing absurd mental gymnastics, asking oneself if it logically follows that one can consider elections under occupation as democratic as long as the occupying powers can be deemed “democratic” too… Has there ever been such a thing as a democratic occupation? The conundrum still stands.
The parallelism between the “democratic” elections in occupied Iraq and occupied Palestine ends there however. The elections in occupied Iraq were completely orchestrated by the US administration in a smokescreen attempt to demonstrate to the world that democracy had reached that part of the globe and that their self-proclaimed mission had been accomplished, whereas elections in occupied Palestine are a condition dictated by the Oslo Accords. At the time, the US and Israel wanted a Palestinian elected body with legitimacy to sign the Oslo Accords, which- as many will remember all too painfully- were rejected by a substantial percentage of the Palestinian people.
Furthermore, if we compare the candidates from both sides, we can note that there were no candidates from the Iraqi resistance movement that ran in the election, with the result that Iraq now has a parliament that is completely co-opted by the US. In Palestine, on the other hand, many of the candidates are directly involved in the liberation struggle or stem from the various resistance factions. They are patriots and not puppets for the occupation, and all are pushing for independence.
So, if these elections are a by-product of the Oslo Accords, why is Israel not facilitating the process for Palestinians? Surely, being the only “democracy” in the Middle East, it would want to lend a helping hand in bringing this wonderful political system to its neighbours? Instead Israel has dedicated these past weeks to obstructing and intervening in the Palestinian election campaign in as much as it can.
To begin with, the continued military presence inside or surrounding all major towns and cities has far-reaching implications with regards to elections. Palestinian people are confined to their areas of residence and cannot move from one area to another without a permit from Israel. The candidates themselves have needed permits from Israel to move within the West Bank and to go from the West Bank to Gaza and vice-versa. Israel prohibited campaigning inside Jerusalem and detained or beat up any campaigners who tried to defy this rule. Similarly, Israel made many threats that it would ban Jerusalemites from going to the polls. In the end, they did not make this ban but have instead concentrated their efforts on trying to reduce the participation of voters in Jerusalem to a minimum. The majority of eligible voters will vote outside Jerusalem and those who will vote inside will cast their ballots in post offices, just like the members of any migrant community when voting from abroad. Meanwhile in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel even interfered in the contents of some candidates’ campaigns and the way they were carried out. It arrested some of the candidates and issued many warnings to the Palestinian people at large, threatening that the elections would be null and void if Hamas or certain other political parties were to win.
Denying whole collectives of Palestinians their right to vote is another of Israel’s obstructionist tactics, including thousands of Palestinian prisoners, the entire Palestinian Diaspora and even Palestinians with Palestinian passports, who live temporarily outside the occupied Territories. The latter should be allowed to vote in their respective country’s embassy, as any normal free citizen living outside their native country would be able to do in their place. Finally, with election day already upon us, today will tell whether Israel will use or abuse its position of power to allow or prevent people from effectively reaching the election polls or not.
Intervention in the election campaign has not only come from Israel- the US and EU, has joined Israel in threatening the entire Palestinian electorate not to vote for Hamas or any other armed resistance faction. Lately we learned that the USA forwarded money to Fatah candidates and other “democratic” candidates supporting them over Hamas. The EU as well has threatened to stop foreign aid to the Palestinian people if they elect Hamas.
Here we have the international community, espousing democratic principles on the one hand, while willing to collectively punish the Palestinian people, if their electorate “democratically” elects candidates from a party that in their eyes is unsavoury.
Yet, despite all this interventionism by Israel et al., I bet Palestinians would be willing to put up with it if they thought it would stop once the elections are finished. On the contrary, the fate of our newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council will ultimately be in the hands of Israel. How will Israel deal with the new PLC? How much effective authority will it grant the PLC over Palestinian land and people? Will it let the members of the new PLC move freely around the Territories? Will prisoners elected to the PLC be released from Israeli prisons?
Despite the limited authority I insinuate the PLC will remain with, I am not preaching to boycott the election. On the contrary, these elections are an important step in rehabilitating internal Palestinian political life and they will bring diversity to the Palestinian political arena. They will usher in an end to Fatah’s long-standing monopoly of the political scene. It will bring new voices that will hopefully fight corruption and bring, if Israel does not intervene, the rule of law to the Palestinian Territories. It will encourage a more democratic voice than Fatah and Hamas. At the same time, it is important to keep these potential bonuses in perspective –they are a sign of internal growth and health, NOT a sign that we are free from the occupation.
So today all eyes are peeled on Palestine. By the end of the day, if the elections go smoothly, those well-wishing pillars of democracy, the international community and entourage will release a big sigh, feeling relieved that we unruly Palestinians have now been successfully democratized, and so they can go home or switch the channel. Let’s help to remind them not to switch the channel just yet. This chapter of history has not yet ended and will not end until the Israeli occupation has ended. Until that day, Palestinian democracy will continue to limp along.
Rifat Odeh Kassis is president of Defence for Children International