Khaled Abu Toameh / 17 MAR 2015 – As Israelis prepare to head to the ballot boxes on March 17, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are wondering whether they, too, will ever have the privilege of holding their own free and democratic elections.
In the past few weeks, Palestinians have launched a campaign to demand free and democratic elections. But the campaign seems thus far to have fallen on deaf ears.
All that is left for Palestinians to do is sit and watch with envy as voters in Israel practice their right to elect new representatives.
The average age of the PLO leadership is 75. The same faces have been in control of Hamas for the past two decades.
The last time the Palestinians went to the ballot boxes was in January 2006, when they voted for a new parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council. The vote resulted in a victory for the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform list.
Exactly one year earlier, the Palestinians had a presidential election, which brought Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to power.
The next parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in 2010, while the presidential vote was scheduled to take place in 2009.
But the Palestinians have since failed to hold new parliamentary and presidential elections because of the dispute between Fatah and Hamas, which reached its peak with Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Next week’s election in Israel will be the fourth since 2006 — the year Palestinians last saw the ballot boxes in their own voting stations.
The two rival Palestinian parties continue to hold each other responsible for the absence of elections.
Last week, Abbas said in a speech before the PLO Central Council in Ramallah that he was prepared to call new elections if Hamas agreed to such a move. Abbas said that Hamas was not interested in holding new elections.
In response, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that Abbas was the one who was obstructing new elections and “violating the reconciliation agreement” he had signed with the Islamist movement last year.
The truth is that neither Fatah nor Hamas is interested in holding new parliamentary and presidential elections – each for its own reasons.
Abbas’s Fatah faction continues to suffer from internal squabbling and divisions, which intensified after the death of its former leader, Yasser Arafat, in November 2004. Several senior Fatah officials in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been expelled from the faction in recent years, for challenging Abbas and the old-guard representatives.
The anti-Abbas camp in Fatah is led (and apparently funded) by Mohamed Dahlan, a former security commander in the Gaza Strip who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates.
Dahlan and his loyalists have also accused Abbas of hindering efforts to hold new elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They contend that Abbas’s only goal is to remain in power until the last day of his life.
Apart from the infighting in Fatah, Abbas’s faction still needs to work hard to restore its credibility among Palestinians, especially in light of its failure to implement far-reaching reforms and inject new blood into its leadership.
Earlier this year, efforts to hold Fatah’s seventh conference, to choose new representatives, failed because of “sharp” disagreements among the Fatah leaders.
Fatah leaders say that it would anyway be impossible to hold new elections while Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah insists that there are no guarantees that Hamas would allow a democratic and free vote, especially at a time when it is continuing to crack down on Fatah supporters in the Gaza Strip.
Similarly, Hamas says it is opposed to new elections because it does not trust Abbas and Fatah. Hamas leaders say that there can be no free elections while the Palestinian Authority security forces continue to arrest dozens of Hamas supporters in the West Bank every week.
As Hamas and Fatah continue to fight each other, some Palestinians have decided to launch an initiative to pressure the two parties to end their dispute and agree on new elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Dunya Ismail, one of the organizers of the campaign, said that, “Every Palestinian should rid himself of despair and frustration, and take part in the drive to put pressure on the political leadership to hold new elections as soon as possible.” She and her colleagues have taken to the streets to spread their message, but so far with little success.
Yet the Palestinians are not likely to have new elections, at least not in the foreseeable future. The power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, which only seems to be escalating, has destroyed the Palestinians’ dream of building a free and democratic society.
“We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy,” remarked a veteran Palestinian journalist from Ramallah. “We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don’t want elections. They want to remain in office forever.”