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May 11, 2021 12:32 pm
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Why the Jerusalem Violence and Cancellation of PA Elections Are Closely Linked

avatar by David Hacham

Opinion

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hands the election decree to Chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hana Naser in Ramallah. January 15, 2021. Palestinian President Office (PPO)/Handout via REUTERS

Some of the recent violence seen in Jerusalem and the West Bank can be traced back to the fallout from the recent cancellation of the Palestinian elections — and more trouble could be on the way.

The Palestinian elections hit a dead end, when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree on April 21st “delaying” them.

Abbas conveniently blamed the decision on Israel’s refusal to allow elections to be held in eastern Jerusalem. His decree was signed by the PLO’s Executive Committee, the Fatah Central Committee, and the heads of various Palestinian factions.

With his announcement, Abbas deliberately avoided promoting a creative workaround solution to the issue of eastern Jerusalem, such as online voting, or the placement of ballots in mosques, churches, foreign consulates, postal voting (as was done in the 2006 elections, with Israeli approval), or Palestinian neighborhoods beyond the security fence in eastern Jerusalem.

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His de facto cancellation of the elections was highly predictable, despite the advanced stage that the elections process was in. The writing had been on the wall for a long time.

Abbas had been searching for an escape hatch and a ladder to climb down from elections — because going ahead with them would have placed his ruling Fatah movement at great risk.

The last time a vote was held in the Palestinian arena was in January 2006, when Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats. A repetition of this scenario was highly likely had the elections taken place.

The Palestinians are likely to wait a long time for elections, if they occur at all. In its statement, the PA categorically stated that elections must include all Palestinians, including eastern Jerusalem residents, and that campaigning must be held without restrictions in any location.

Abbas stressed in his announcement that “we will not give up on Jerusalem and we won’t give up on the right of our people in Jerusalem to exercise their democratic rights.”

He called on the international community to pressure Israel to uphold its obligations to signed agreements with the Palestinians — including their right to take part in elections. Abbas also called for national unity, reconciliation, and continued, non-violent “popular resistance,” as well as for the formation of a national unity government that is committed to international agreements, namely the Oslo Accords.

Behind the scenes, however, senior Fatah elements had been signaling for weeks that Abbas was likely to suspend the elections.

Senior Fatah elements were deeply concerned by the prospect of failing to win a majority in the Palestinian parliament, meaning that its chances of being the ruling government in the West Bank would have been in jeopardy had the vote gone ahead.

This is due to the fact that Fatah was headed into the elections in a clearly inferior position. It was running under three separate party lists, headed by Abbas; the imprisoned terrorist, Marwan Barghouti; and the exiled former senior Fatah member, Mohammed Dahlan, who is based in the UAE.

It is highly likely that the entire elections initiative was in fact a push by Abbas to showcase his democratic credentials for the international community, and especially the Biden administration. But Abbas did not want to go through with the process, and found the right excuse just in time to call it off. He sent messages to Hamas to try and reach an agreement over the delay, and to avoid a major new Fatah-Hamas clash.

At the same time, Abbas is facing resistance to the cancellation at home, too. Jibril Rajoub, Secretary General of the Fatah Central Committee, has established himself as a main candidate to succeed Abbas, and he has expressed a genuine interest in holding the elections. The same is true of the Deputy Chairman of the Fatah movement, Mahmoud al-Aloul, who has described the issue of holding elections in eastern Jerusalem as a political, sovereign, and religious matter, and not a technical or administrative hurdle.

Hamas, for its part, threw its full weight in favor of holding the elections in general, and in Jerusalem specifically. It objected to their cancellation because the elections represented a platform for consolidating its power in the West Bank, and a necessary step for taking over the PA.

Hamas released unequivocal statements that Jerusalem is a “red line,” and that no elections could go ahead without it. It added that it rejects any delay or cancellation of the elections, and that a national “day of confrontation” should be held to force Israel to allow the vote to take place in eastern Jerusalem.

The elections represented an attractive opportunity for Hamas to broaden its control over the Palestinian arena, under near optimal conditions, at the twilight of Abbas’ rule. The deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, said the cancellation of the elections would deepen divisions in the Palestinian arena, and signs of his forecast have already been bubbling up to the surface in the latest escalation of violence and terror.

Hamas holds Israel responsible for giving Abbas a comfortable exit lane, thereby saving him from defeat, and has vowed to make Israel pay a price. The United States appears to understand the delay. Egypt and Jordan, for their part, had deep reservations about the elections to begin with, and stressed to Abbas the need to suspend the process. The chiefs of Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence drove this point home during meetings with PA officials, warning that allowing the elections to go ahead would lead to the rise of radical Islam in the West Bank, at the expense of Fatah and the PA.

Against this explosive background, and following Ramadan riots in Jerusalem, additional loaded days lie ahead on the calendar this month. The marking of Nakba Day on May 15 could form a new trigger for violence.

A dynamic of escalation has already set in following recent events, and it could continue. The motivation by Hamas and other Palestinian terror factions to escalate the situation with acts of violence and terror in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and Gaza, has risen.

Israel has chosen to try to contain the escalation to Jerusalem and to limit its spread in the West Bank, while seeking to prevent a new conflict with Gazan armed factions. In the background, the coronavirus situation remains far from resolved in the Strip.

The remainder of May holds the potential for a major escalation, but despite the rising violence, Israel will do all that it can to try and inject calm into the Palestinian arena.

David Hacham is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. David served for 30 years in various intelligence and political-strategic positions in the IDF, including eight years in the Gaza Strip as advisor for Arab affairs to successive commanders of the Southern Command and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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