On 25 January 2006, Palestinians in the occupied territories will participate in their first parliamentary elections in a decade. Compared with ten years ago, the circumstances could hardly be more different.
January 1996 marked the high tide of the Oslo peace process. The Israeli army had just withdrawn from seven West Bank Palestinian cities. Yasser Arafat ruled supreme, with his Fatah movement winning 75 per cent of parliamentary seats.
The vast majority of Palestinians voted in the poll, convinced that peace and an independent Palestinian state, if not imminent, were at least on the horizon. The Islamist Hamas movement boycotted the election, convinced that its message of rejection would go unheeded.
Today the elections occur in the shadow of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian turnout is expected to be high. But Arafat is dead, Fatah is in turmoil and Hamas is contesting the vote, with polls predicting it will win a third of all seats and half in its Gaza stronghold.
Nor is there any illusion on the Palestinian side that the Gaza withdrawal heralds a return to an Oslo-like peace process. On the contrary, it marks its burial under the new dispensation of Israel’s ‘unilateral separation’ from the Palestinians – though not from their occupied lands. The fundamental question posed in these elections is not how best the Palestinians can build their own state, but rather what they can do to prevent a crushing defeat.
As such, the elections are a crucial test for the new Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), elected as Arafat’s heir in January 2005. Through them he seeks endorsement of his core policies: a permanent Palestinian ceasefire to end five years of the armed Palestinian intifada; domestic reform; and a return to final status negotiations that will end Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He faces three challenges: concerning Hamas, Fatah and Ariel Sharon.
Hamas has been signalling its readiness to take part in new Palestinian elections since December 2003, when Sharon first announced his Gaza withdrawal plan. But what forced the decision to participate was the death of Arafat in November 2004.
‘With Arafat’s passing, Hamas understood there was a chance to genuinely open up the Palestinian political system,’ says Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki. ‘It knew that after four years of the intifada it had tremendous public power and the possibility of translating it into parliamentary seats. Elections thus became a golden opportunity.’
If Hamas wins, it will legislate a conservative social agenda and freeze all movement toward peace with Israel
In March 2005, Hamas agreed a seven-month ceasefire on condition that the parliamentary elections would be held. Unlike the smaller Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), Hamas has held to the truce (its last suicide bombing inside Israel was in September 2004).
But the parliamentary elections were postponed from their original date of July 2005. And Hamas leaders have made it clear the truce will not endure beyond 2005 unless they are held, as rescheduled, in January 2006. ‘We won’t be fooled again,’ says the Hamas West Bank spokesman, Mohammed Ghazzal.
So what does Hamas want from the elections? Shikaki’s answer is limpid: ‘to rule’, he says. If Hamas wins the majority of seats, it ‘will legislate a conservative social agenda and freeze all movement toward peace with Israel’. If it is a minority, it will act to veto any secular legislation or concessions toward Israel.
But in either event Hamas will moderate its policies, according to Shikaki. ‘It has already agreed to a Palestinian state in the occupied territories and to the admissibility of negotiations with Israel. Its commitment to end violence will likewise depend on the extent of its integration within Palestinian politics – the greater its stake in the system, the more Hamas will disarm,’ he predicts.
This is Abbas’s view. His problem is that Israel sees no such moderation. On the contrary, it has vowed to withdraw all ‘cooperation’ with the parliamentary elections unless Hamas disarms and explicitly recognises the Jewish state. Abbas’s aim has been to convince the US to restrain Israel from wrecking the elections with the pledge that disarmament by Hamas will come thereafter. So far he appears to have succeeded.
A more pressing challenge for Abbas is the ongoing disarray in his Fatah movement, the dominant force in Palestinian nationalism for the past 40 years. The schisms are many, aggravated by the absence of the unifying figure of Arafat. Palestinian analyst George Giacaman describes Fatah today as ‘less a coherent movement than an amalgam of groups tied to this or that local warlord’.
If there is a political divide, it is between those younger leaders, born and bred in the occupied territories, who seek to turn Fatah from an amorphous movement into a modern political party, and those older leaders who spent most of their political lives in exile and seek to preserve Fatah’s archaic, top-down ‘revolutionary’ structure – the so-called ‘old guard’.
The most recent rupture occurred in November in the contest to choose Fatah’s candidates for parliament. In the West Bank primaries, ‘young guard’ representatives won massive support. These included Fatah’s West Bank general secretary, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving life in an Israeli jail on five counts of murder.
Barghouti won 90 per cent of all votes in Ramallah district. Polls suggest that were he to head its list for parliament, Fatah would win 50 per cent of all seats. By contrast, a Fatah list headed by an old guard figure like the present Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Quriea (aka Abu Ala), would win barely 30 per cent.
But while the West Bank primaries heralded the new generation, the Gaza primaries saw the revenge of the old. On 30 November, rival Fatah factions stormed polling stations, torched ballot boxes and faced off in armed brawls. One day later, Abbas suspended all further polls, prompting AMB militias in Gaza to attack his presidential compound in Gaza.
Where does Abbas stand on these wrenching divisions in Fatah? ‘[He] is caught between two fires,’ says Palestinian analyst Haidar Awadallah. ‘Given his commitment to reform, he cannot reject opposition within Fatah to officials widely seen as corrupt. But neither can he risk an irreparable split within Fatah. So he is acting as a bridge between the generations. But in the end he will have
to put himself at the head of the democratic stream within Fatah – the young guard.’
The problem is that the more Abbas tarries, the less there will be a movement to hold together, raising the prospect of ‘official’ versus ‘independent’ Fatah lists in the January elections. This will not only ensure significant gains for Hamas; it will massively undermine the authority of his leadership, the keystone on which his political strategy rests.
His authority as leader is critical if Abbas is to face down the most critical challenge, not only to him but the entire Palestinian cause – Ariel Sharon’s separation plan.
One plank of the plan has already been accomplished, with Israel’s withdrawal in August from Gaza and four miniscule Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The other plank is in the process of realisation, courtesy of Israel’s construction of the West Bank wall, expanding settlements in and around Palestinian East Jerusalem and a security zone thrown across the Jordan Valley (see page 31).
Taken together, these policies will impose a truncated Palestinian state ‘with provisional borders’ on between 50-70 per cent of the West Bank. They will also postpone indefinitely resolution of the core issues at the heart of conflict: Jerusalem, settlements, permanent borders, water rights and the fate of five million Palestinian refugees. It would amount to a colossal defeat for the Palestinian struggle.
Abbas’s strategy so far has been to appeal to the world. It has drawn partial success in Gaza. Last month, US secretary of state Condeleezza Rice all but strong-armed Israel into agreeing to allow some free Palestinian movement through Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt.
But Abbas’s calls to end Israel’s rampant colonisation of the West Bank has elicited only minimal rebukes against Israel from the EU, and none whatsoever from the US. The international consensus is rather that Abbas must first deliver governance in Gaza before there can be any action against Israel’s policies in the West Bank. But Abbas cannot ask the Palestinian resistance to disarm as long as Jewish settlement continues, ‘especially given the widespread Palestinian perception that it was armed struggle that forced Israel to withdraw from Gaza,’ says Khalil Shikaki.
This is the Palestinians’ dilemma. On the one hand, there is the absolute urgency – given the colonial reach, ambition and consequence of Sharon’s separation plan – to confront Israel on the strategic issues of Jerusalem, settlements and the wall. On the other hand, to wage any struggle that can be effective the Palestinians ‘must agree a common policy and a common resistance strategy, with a greater emphasis on popular rather than armed resistance,’ according to the analyst, Hani al Masri.
Elections are the only forum through which these policy debates can take place and where a new, authentic Palestinian leadership can be chosen to adhere to them. They could mark the beginning of a new national strategy and a new national movement. But such a reform will take time, and time is massively in Israel’s favour.