Palestinians wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic hold pictures of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in the West Bank city of Tubas in September. Majdi Mohammed / AP hide caption
Majdi Mohammed / AP
Majdi Mohammed / AP
RAMALLAH, West Bank – It should be a historic and long overdue vote aimed at ending 15 years of paralyzed and divided leadership. Instead, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled next month’s general election on Thursday after challengers from his own party threatened to weaken his power.
Abbas’ decision, taken just two days before the start of the campaign, postponed the May 22 vote and apparently the July presidential election indefinitely. The postponement angered the Palestinians, who wanted to replace a president who had not had a voice in a decade and a half and had failed to achieve his main goal of achieving independence from Israel. Street protests broke out in several cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“People have been waiting for elections for 15 years and hope that this will be the light at the end of the tunnel, especially given the lack of a trace of peace with Israel,” said Fadi Elsalameen, a Palestinian democracy activist and prominent critic of Abbas, before the announcement. “Closing this window will have serious consequences … I believe it will lead to violence against the Palestinian leadership.”
At a nightly meeting with party leaders Thursday, Abbas said Israel had refused to allow the Palestinians to vote in Israel-occupied East Jerusalem what the Palestinian leaders claim for a future capital. Israel has not made its position public. “We will not hold elections without Jerusalem,” said Abbas.
Shortly after midnight he read from a statement: “Because of this difficult situation, we have decided to postpone the parliamentary elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” he said. “We will not give up our right to Jerusalem and the right of its people to exercise their legitimate democratic rights.”
However, some other Palestinian officials stated otherwise that the majority of Abbas, Israel’s and regional Arab allies’ party leaders were calling for a postponement as it could accelerate the end of his political career.
After elections were announced in January, Abbas’ secular Fatah party, which advocates peace negotiations with Israel, splintered into competing candidate lists supported by former allies who are now seeking to replace him.
A divided Fatah is leaving the rival Islamist Hamas party, which has committed itself to armed resistance against Israel and will most likely win the most seats in the 132-member parliament. In these circumstances, any viable government would have to rely on Hamas for support. The US and Israel are concerned about Hamas’s involvement and, unlike the European Union, did not seem to be pushing hard for a vote.
“We live and exist in a space that is incredibly suppressive of political expression and political opposition,” said Yara Hawari, a Palestinian political analyst with the Al-Shabaka Think Tank. “It comes from the (Palestinian Authority), it comes from the Israeli regime, and it comes from the international community too.”
Abbas’ former allies lined up two competing groups of candidates for election: the Freedom List, backed by Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian figure who is serving a life sentence in the Israeli prison and on the Future List, supported by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security officer who turned Abbas into an opponent in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Abbas could try to postpone the election until he can reunite his party and improve its chances of winning, analysts say, but he will pay a political price for canceling the election less than a month before the vote.
“There is a real thirst for change … postponement would cause too much trouble,” veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said ahead of the decision, which left the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and rose last year in protest at the lack of elections Concentration of power in the hands of the presidency.
“This could go so far that people refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the leadership or to declare civil disobedience,” said Ashwari.
A Hamas victory is exactly what happened in 2006, when the last parliamentary elections were held. Israel and the West view Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with them, and Abbas’ party refused to share power. A year later, Hamas wrestled control of the Gaza Strip in a brief, bloody battle, leaving Abbas in control of only parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on Gaza to protest Hamas control, stifle the economy and exacerbate a humanitarian catastrophe there.
“The Palestinian elections were expected to find solutions to our economic, political and even social problems,” said Rami Shaath, a 20-year-old student in Gaza. “The postponement of the elections means that decision-makers are refusing to give anyone else the opportunity to face the crisis, especially as our situation in the outcast Gaza Strip is becoming more difficult.”
The Palestinian Parliament, known as the Legislative Council, has not met in years. The stone building in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank slumbers behind a closed iron gate. On a final afternoon, the only activity was a woman on the street stopping to pluck a rose from a bush peering through the gate.
Anas Baba contributed to the coverage from Gaza City.