Palestinians’ time of choice

A Palestinian girl attends a campaign rally organized by the Hamas movement for the upcoming Palestinian legislative elections in Tulkarem January 23, 2006. (MAANnews/Mouid Ashqar)

One fine January day, while monitoring the 2005 municipal elections in the Gaza strip, I remember an elderly Palestinian woman dragging her seven daughters to the polling station declaring her exuberance that she would have the chance to vote for the ruling Fatah party.

However, in the year since those elections took place tectonic shifts within Palestinian and Israeli politics may have dampened the enthusiasm felt by this woman, her daughters – or indeed by Fatah party loyalists across the occupied Palestinian territory.

A year on and the groaning burden of the Israeli occupation remains in place – a constant feature of the political and geographical landscape. The impact of Israel’s occupation on the election for the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council on 25 January 2006 remains unclear but certain key factors have to be taken into consideration.

The first of these is Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza strip in August 2005, involving the evacuation of around 8,000 settlers. The “disengagement” coincided with an expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the ratio of 2:1 to the area of those removed from the Gaza strip. Another consequence of the “disengagement” is the virtual prohibition, by Israel, of Palestinians moving from Gaza to Israel for work – further undermining the shattered local economy.

The Israeli military also embarked on a massive arrest campaign of political activists, mostly from Hamas but including independent human-rights defenders during and after the “disengagement”. In one week, 22-28 September, 311 Palestinian civilians were arrested by the army. Analysts are divided as to whether the targeting of their members will have a positive or negative impact on Hamas’s poll results. It emphasises Israel’s disdain for Hamas and so could produce increased electoral support; but it also physically restricts Hamas’s campaigning abilities and so limits its ability to engage with the voters.

Within each of the three geographical areas where Palestinians will vote – the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem – there are also locally unique events which will impact on the final results.

In east Jerusalem, during the 2005 presidential elections, there were serious delays for voters. On this occasion Israel has forced the removal of Hamas from the Jerusalem ballot-paper and decided that over 100,000 Palestinians will have to leave their hometown of Jerusalem to exercise their right to vote. One possible impact of this could be that east Jerusalem residents decide not to vote at all – eliminating up to 10% of the electorate from the final result.

Palestinian civilians inside the West Bank are also going to vote with the Israeli occupation at the forefront of their mind. The accelerated construction of settlements, and the annexation of land using the wall, may well drive West Bank voters to more extreme positions when they vote.

Against this trend, voters’ minds inside the Gaza strip will focus primarily on the internal dynamics of the confined, crowded territory. The collapse of law and order in the strip, and the impact of the United Nations’s evacuation (as a result of an unpopular series of kidnappings by groups with links to Fatah) on the economy will also turn support away from Mahmoud Abbas’s party towards Hamas. Many Palestinian civilians perceive Hamas as being the only organisation that can restore calm on the streets of Gaza.

However, even in this supposed stronghold the fortunes of Hamas are not entirely clear. During a Hamas parade on 23 September – after the “disengagement” – in Jabalya refugee camp, in the north of Gaza, an explosion occurred killing seventeen people. Hamas immediately blamed an Israeli missile strike, but opinion on the Palestinian street pointed the finger at Hamas claiming that one of their activists had accidentally dropped an armed missile into the crowd. The popular revulsion against this incident may yet have an impact on the party’s results inside Gaza.

Between Fatah and Hamas

Meanwhile, as the international community and media have been transfixed by the struggle between Hamas and Fatah, an emerging third power has been taking shape in Palestinian politics. This consists of human-rights defenders and progressive politicians standing under the banners of the “Independent Palestine” list, headed by one-time presidential hopeful Mustafa Barghouti and the “Third-Way” list headed by Hanan Ashrawi.

These groups are providing an alternative voice for many Palestinian civilians who are tired of old rhetoric and old politics. Polling at around 30% of the vote, there are strong indications that they will have considerable influence after election day. Their arrival in Palestinian politics is long overdue – many of the individuals involved have returned to politics after self-enforced breaks during the Oslo accords period following 1993. Palestinian society is badly in need of a new, more articulate, political leadership which can engage progressively on the multitude of problems which face it.

The lack of representation of women among the sixteen constituencies of the legislative council, and their increasing marginalisation across society, are further indications of this. The quota system, which applied during the 2005 municipal elections, has been somewhat stripped back for these elections. This has led to expectations that women may come to represent only around 10% of the 132 possible seats – which would be a disappointing figure for those who recall the days of the first intifada in 1997 in which women, as much as men, led the campaign against the occupation.

Despite this, optimism among progressive activists is high. Hopes for a rearticulated vision of the struggle against the Israeli occupation and for substantial social change within Palestinian society may yet prove well founded.

Palestinians themselves express a range of feelings towards the election, from enthusiasm to apathy. The streets are covered in posters, graffiti and canvassers. Public space has become political space – and even among those who are cynical about the possibility of realising change, the election is hard to escape or ignore.

The results of Wednesday’s multipolar electoral process will influence the Palestinian response to Israel’s occupation for some years to come and so play a significant part in shaping the future of the middle-east conflict for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Eóin Murray worked in Gaza as a rapporteur for the human-rights NGO FrontLine. He holds a masters degree in war studies from Kings College, London.

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