Preparations are currently underway in the Palestinian Authority for elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and to the P.A. presidency, scheduled for May 22 and July 31, respectively. In previous P.A. elections—i.e., the PLC elections of 1996 and 2006, and the presidential elections of 2005—residents of eastern Jerusalem were allowed to vote in the city, at polling stations set up in Israeli post offices, in accordance with Article 6 of Annex 2 of the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO.

However, since the January 2021 announcement of the election dates, concerns have been raised that this time Israel will not allow the elections to be held in eastern Jerusalem, on the grounds that this constitutes a violation of its sovereignty over the city and due to Hamas’s participation in the elections. The Palestinian leadership stresses that it has been pressuring Israel in this regard through various mediators, but has so far received no official guarantee that Israel will allow eastern Jerusalem residents to vote and run in the elections. According to P.A. Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, Israel said it would not announce its decision until after its own parliamentary elections on March 23.

It is unclear what the P.A. leadership will do if Israel indeed refuses to let the elections be held in eastern Jerusalem. It should be noted that, in late 2019, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas postponed elections after Israel did not reply to an appeal in this matter, declaring that holding them without Jerusalem was tantamount to giving up the Palestinian claim to the city. This has led many to fear that an Israeli refusal may serve Abbas and his Fatah faction as an excuse to postpone the elections once again.

In recent reports, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar speculated that the Fatah leadership may indeed take such a measure since it fears it will lose the PLC to Hamas, as it did in 2006. Its concern is especially acute because two senior Fatah officials—Marwan Barghouti, who is incarcerated in Israel, and Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat—have registered a competing list that is likely to split the Fatah vote (al-Qudwa has been expelled from the movement over this).

The P.A. leadership is therefore faced with a difficult dilemma: If Hamas indeed wins the elections, Fatah will have to relinquish the reins of government, creating a crisis vis-a-vis Israel and the United States. But postponing the elections will create an even greater crisis with Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian factions, as well as with the United States and the countries that support the P.A. financially, especially European ones.

In recent days, the official P.A. media has published many statements reiterating a firm refusal to hold the elections if eastern Jerusalem is not included. For example, on April 4, 2021, the P.A. mouthpiece Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published a long report about “the Palestinian consensus that there must be no elections without Jerusalem.” Although Minister Hussein al-Sheikh denied that this issue will be used as grounds for canceling the elections, commentary in the Palestinian media and op-eds in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida implicitly supported this option. These articles stressed that holding the elections without Jerusalem would mean submitting to Israel and relinquishing the Palestinian rights to the city.

Conversely, articles in other Palestinian media outlets, such as the Al-Ayyam daily, voiced concern about the possible postponing of the elections and the impact of this on the P.A.’s political stability. Hamas railed against the possibility that Fatah, fearing an electoral loss, will use the Jerusalem issue to cancel the elections. Its officials called to use “every means” to force Israel to allow the elections to be held in eastern Jerusalem.

On April 12, officials from the various PLO factions held a meeting on the issue of the elections in Jerusalem. The statement they issued at the close of the meeting did not mention the postponement of the elections, but reiterated the slogan “no to elections without Jerusalem, and no to [granting] the occupation veto power over the elections in Jerusalem,” and called to turn the election process into an arena of “comprehensive popular resistance” against Israel.

The following is a review of the various Palestinian positions on this issue:

P.A. And Fatah: It is important to hold elections, but not at the cost of giving up Jerusalem

As stated, Fatah and P.A. officials recently indicated that if Israel does not allow the elections to be held in Jerusalem they will be postponed again. Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad said: “We all agree that there will be no elections without Jerusalem.” Another committee member, Rouhi Fattouh, said: “The PLC elections will not be held without the participation of the residents of Jerusalem.” Palestinian Chief Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein called on the Palestinians to insist on holding the elections but warned that leaving out Jerusalem was a violation of the directives of Islam and meant recognizing it as the capital of Israel. “Jerusalem is the basis and the heart of Palestine, and the heart cannot be removed from the Palestinian body,” he said.

A similar position was expressed in articles in the P.A. mouthpiece Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. Columnist Bassem Barhoum emphasized that elections are not an end in themselves, but only a means to realize the national goals of the Palestinian people. Since one of these goals is establishing a state with Jerusalem as its capital, he stressed, the elections must not be held without Jerusalem under any circumstances.

He wrote: “Some may think that the mantra of the legitimate national leadership, ‘no to elections without occupied Jerusalem,’ is an excuse or a pretext to forgo the elections [altogether]. This assumption is based on a failure to understand that agreeing to elections without Jerusalem means accepting the announcement of [former] U.S. President Trump that Jerusalem is ‘the capital of the Jewish people,’ and relinquishing the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to Jerusalem, which is anchored in international law and in U.N. resolutions, and is explicitly mentioned in the Oslo Accords as one of the issues of the final-status agreement that must not be decided unilaterally …

“The elections are no doubt important and crucial, but they are not an end in themselves. Jerusalem is one of the most important issues in the struggle against the Zionist expansion, and one of the most emblematic Palestinian national goals. We must not lose sight of the importance and primacy of Jerusalem in the Palestinian national struggle, just as we must not forget that we are still in the stage of [fighting for] national liberation and resemble a national liberation movement more than an [independent] state.

“We are a state under occupation, and Jerusalem is its occupied capital. Some people have failed to set their priorities [straight] and to distinguish between the end and the means … Given the national need for elections, which are a [necessary] prelude to renewing the legitimacy [of the Palestinian state institutions], to ending the [intra-Palestinian] schism and to uniting the homeland and the political apparatuses, [the elections] must be held on time—but not without Jerusalem.”

Another Al-Hayat Al-Jadida columnist, Omar Hilmi al-Ghoul, likewise stressed that the elections must not be held without Jerusalem, for doing so will render them meaningless and will be a capitulation to Israel. He wrote: “We must not forgo the elections and avoid holding them, or ignore their importance and necessity. [But] this means that they must be held in every part of the state of Palestine that was occupied in 1967, especially in the eternal Palestinian capital [Jerusalem] …

“The elections must not, for any reason, be held without Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine. Jerusalem is the jewel in the crown and the queen of the Arab Palestinian cities. It will be a mistake to give up this right, which is anchored in agreements signed with the state of the colonialist Zionist enterprise [i.e., Israel]. Nobody can possibly think that our insistence on holding elections in the capital Jerusalem is a matter of secondary [importance], or else a pretext to postpone the elections …

“In light of the pivotal status [of Jerusalem], the Arab Palestinian city of peace, [holding] the election there is more than crucial, for [Jerusalem] is an authentic part—[perhaps] even the most fundamental part—of the Palestinian national principles. Holding elections in the [West] Bank and Gaza, without Jerusalem, is pointless. Therefore, the call of Hamas political bureau member Muhammad Nazzal, and of other members of [this] political Islam [movement], to hold the elections without Jerusalem, conforms to the vision and plan of the state of the colonialist Zionist enterprise …

“Not only is this a capitulation to the will and decisions of the Zionist enemy state, it also means accepting the [notion of Palestine as] a ‘canton state’ and realizing Trump’s wretched Deal of the Century, which already seemed to be obsolete. … No patriotic Palestinian can agree to this, certainly not the legitimate leadership headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. So, unless the elections take place in the [West] Bank, including Jerusalem, and in Gaza, there is no need to hold them [at all], despite the temporary harm this will cause.”

Palestinian journalists: We must have a plan B if Israel bans the elections in Jerusalem

Journalists in papers less committed to the official P.A. line suggested a way of holding the elections as planned even if Israel prevents them from taking place in Jerusalem—namely, to allow residents of eastern Jerusalem to vote within the P.A. territories, outside the city limits. Hisham Kuhail, director of the P.A.’s Central Elections Commission, announced that this option would be available to all Jerusalem residents, but it is unclear whether the P.A. will actually approve it.

Muhammad Abd al-Hamid, a columnist for Al-Ayyam, warned against canceling the election over the Jerusalem issue and called to formulate an alternative plan, such as the one just mentioned. He wrote: “In domestic and foreign circles, there is talk about postponing or canceling the elections because the occupation state is not letting [us] hold them in occupied Jerusalem [and will ban] the international European oversight delegation from entering [the P.A.]. This means [letting] the occupation state decide whether the elections will be held or not …

“We [Palestinians] like to say ‘no to elections without Jerusalem.’ There is no disagreement on this point among the political forces that support the elections and are participating in them. But this position is [also] incompatible with [the notion of] postponing or canceling the elections. The main point is that the [residents] of Jerusalem must participate in the elections as candidates and as voters, whether the occupation authorities agree to this or not. [So] we must have a plan B [for letting] the residents of Jerusalem vote, inside the city or outside it—whatever the Central Elections Commission decides …

“Postponing or canceling the elections … will be much more harmful than the [possible] failure or weakening of some [political] faction, especially the Fatah movement. The only cure for the atrophying infrastructure of [this] Palestinian political movement, which is stifled by [P.A.] bureaucracy, is increasing organized public political participation, refreshing political and organizational infrastructures, and developing [our] political ideology and thinking. The prevention of internal change during the last decades [i.e., since the founding of the P.A.] has caused an ever-growing crisis, which may lead to collapse, chaos and [external] intervention. Worst of all, it may confirm the false Israeli claim that the Palestinian people is incapable of deciding its own fate. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, especially in situations of collapse and division. To prevent collapse, which is not the interest of the Palestinian people, we have no choice but to launch a process of renewal, change and construction.”

Al-Ayyam columnist Talal Okal argued that the decision regarding whether to hold the elections depended first of all on the Palestinians, not on Israel, and implied that Palestinian society would harshly punish the Fatah leadership if it used the Jerusalem issue to cancel the elections. He wrote: “The fate of the elections, and especially the preliminary question of whether they will take place or not, depend on the Palestinians. This issue [of the elections] must be free of partisan considerations [of the Fatah movement], and [we] must stop trying to think up excuses to postpone the elections out of [political] considerations …

“It is inconceivable that anyone—whether it be a movement or a [single] official—should look for excuses, connected to Jerusalem or COVID-19, to thwart these [elections] out of fear of an electoral loss. The Palestinian [factions], the Central Elections Commission and [Palestinian] society have come a long way towards holding these elections, on which the Palestinians pin great hopes. After [all the preparations we have made for] these elections, things will not go back to being what they were, even if [the elections] are postponed or canceled. What I mean is that Palestinian society as a whole will pass harsh judgment on any element that thwarts this [election] campaign, on any pretext, and will most likely take unprecedented measures to punish this element.”

Hamas: ‘We should confront Israel and take by force our right to hold elections in Jerusalem’

Elements in the Palestinian opposition, such as the Hamas movement, railed against the possibility that the Fatah leadership, fearing an electoral loss, may use the Jerusalem issue to cancel the elections, and stressed that the Palestinians must force Israel to hold the Palestinian elections in eastern Jerusalem, instead of waiting for its approval. Journalists identified with Hamas called to hold the elections in Jerusalem even without Israel’s consent and to embark on a mass popular struggle against it, including by violent means, so as to force it to accept the Palestinian elections in the city as a foregone conclusion.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem wrote: “The Palestinian people can impose its will on the occupation by means of steadfastness, sacrifice, cooperation, and unity on the ground.” Another Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, stressed that the name of the Hamas list running in the PLC elections—”We’ll Meet in Jerusalem”—expressed its position on the matter.

Hamas activist Nasser Abd al-Jawad called “to use every way and every means” to compel Israel to hold the Palestinian elections in eastern Jerusalem and underlined that the issue should not be exploited to cancel them “out of narrow partisan reasons”—referring obliquely to the Fatah movement’s concerns about losing.

In an unusual statement for a Hamas supporter, Issam Shawar, a columnist for the Hamas-affiliated Filastin daily, wrote that it would be preferable for the Palestinians to hold elections without eastern Jerusalem and thus to resolve the political crisis in which they are embroiled, rather than postpone them again, as they did in 2019. He wrote: “[In 2019 the issue] of the elections in Jerusalem was one of the flimsy excuses used to cancel the entire election process, but now they say that the [P.A.] Central Elections Commission has ‘alternatives,’ in the event that Israel refuses [to allow the P.A. to hold the elections in the city].

“With all due respect for the leaders of all the [Palestinian] factions, [canceling the elections is not the way] to express our love for Jerusalem or our sovereignty there. … I believe that it is preferable to unite the Palestinian ranks and to hold elections without Jerusalem, rather than to cancel them and [to continue] to live in this chaos, on [the pretext] that Israel prevented us [from holding elections in Jerusalem].”

This article was first published by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

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