Significant obstacles, including disagreements between Hamas and Fatah, threaten to derail the vote, the first since 2006.
Embroiled in political infighting, torn between three territories and suspicious of their institutions, many Palestinians are skeptical that their first national elections in 15 years will bring change – or even happen at all.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday that parliamentary and presidential elections would be held later this year in a bid to heal long-standing divisions. The PA’s main rival, Hamas, hailed the move.
The announcement is widely seen as a move to please US President-elect Joe Biden, with whom the Palestinians want to restore relations after hitting a low under Donald Trump.
But a poll conducted in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Surveys found that 52 percent of Palestinians believe that the elections held under current conditions would be neither fair nor free.
If Hamas won, 76% said Fatah – the party led by Abbas – would not accept the result and 58% believed Hamas would reject a Fatah victory.
“We have taken an important step, but we still have a long way to go,” said veteran West Bank political analyst Hani al-Masri. “Great obstacles remain and without overcoming them the whole operation will be doomed to failure.”
Palestinian observers have said that these obstacles include disagreements within Hamas and Fatah – long the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It is unclear what mechanism would be put in place to guarantee free elections, whether international observers would participate and whether the 85-year-old and unhealthy Abbas would run.
The United States, Israel and the European Union would likely refuse to deal with any Palestinian government including Hamas, which is referred to by the West as a “terrorist group.”
The European Union, however, welcomed the announcement of the elections.
“The EU is ready to engage with relevant actors to support the electoral process. The EU also calls on the Israeli authorities to facilitate the holding of elections throughout the Palestinian territory, ”the EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy said in a statement.
The United Nations was also ready to support efforts for Palestinians to exercise their democratic rights, UN Secretary-General spokesperson Antonio Guterres said, adding that it would be “a crucial step towards Palestinian unity. “.
Struggle for power
Israeli officials did not immediately comment, and it was uncertain whether Israel would allow electoral activities to take place in East Jerusalem, as it has done previously. Elections are scheduled there, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We have other alternatives and what is important is that the people of Jerusalem can participate in the elections,” Hanna Nasir, president of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee, said on Saturday.
The last parliamentary poll of 2006 ended in a surprise victory for Hamas in its first-ever national election, creating a split with Fatah that escalated into civil war when Hamas took control of Gaza the following year.
Gaza is now a stronghold of Hamas, while Abbas’s power base is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The two groups have failed to achieve lasting reconciliation and previous promises to hold elections have not been kept. Rights groups accused the two of suppressing political opposition.
Abbas said parliamentary elections would be held on May 22 and the presidential vote on July 31. He won in 2005 but his tenure was only to last four years.
Many ordinary Palestinians are skeptical.
“They will find a thousand reasons to cancel it; Israel, resistance, power-sharing, whatever. I have no hope, ”said a man from Gaza, who asked not to be named because he was breaking a coronavirus lockdown.
Zuheir al-Khatib, a 57-year-old doctor from Bethlehem, was more optimistic.
“This is a 100% good decision, deserved for over 15 years, if not more, we are supposed to create a state and therefore should have democracy,” he said.