JERUSALEM, Feb 7 — The key Palestinian factions — Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Gaza’s Hamas Islamists — plan to meet in Cairo this week to tackle issues that could threaten long-awaited Palestinian elections.
Technical, legal and security issues must be resolved first, observers say, to ensure the first Palestinian votes in 15 years are not derailed by acrimony between the former enemies.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas last month announced the dates for the first polls since 2006, setting a legislative vote for May 22 and a presidential election on July 31.
They come in a year when veteran Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hardliner in the conflict, also faces new elections, months after the White House departure of his close US ally Donald Trump.
While Palestinians cut ties with Trump’s administration, accusing it of egregious pro-Israel bias, they hope for renewed diplomacy under Joe Biden, who supports a two-state solution and has vowed to restore aid to them.
The last Palestinian parliamentary vote saw Hamas win an unexpected landslide, a victory not recognised by Abbas’s Fatah, which ultimately led to bloody clashes and a damaging split in Palestinian governance.
Fatah has since held control of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas has been in power in Gaza since 2007, the year Israel imposed a devastating blockade on the Mediterranean enclave.
The divide has left the Palestinian Territories under two different political systems and without a functioning parliament.
By calling elections, experts say, Abbas is seeking to restore credibility in Palestinian governance amid hopes that Biden can revitalise negotiations with Israel aimed at the creation of the Palestinian state.
Policing the polls
However, before any vote, a string of nuts-and-bolts issues must be addressed, Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, told AFP.
If there are election disputes, “which judiciary — the one in Gaza or the one in the West Bank — is going to adjudicate?” he asked.
He noted that PA’s judiciary does not recognise Hamas courts, while the Islamists might insist their judges be allowed to rule on Gaza poll disputes.
“Who is going to police the process?” he asked, warning of potential friction if Fatah insists on dispatching PA forces to Gaza.
“It is essential that they agree on these terms. If they don’t agree, most likely there won’t be elections.”
Even if the Fatah delegation led by Jibril Rajoub and Hamas’s team headed by Saleh al-Arouri make progress in Cairo, major challenges still loom over the vote.
Top of the list is east Jerusalem, the majority Palestinian part of the city annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six Day War in a move not recognised by most of the international community.
Abbas has previously said he would not agree to elections unless Palestinians in east Jerusalem can vote.
But such a guarantee is unlikely from Israel’s government, which has labelled the entire city its “undivided capital”.
The PA has asked the European Union to send an election observer mission to, in particular, oversee the vote in east Jerusalem.
‘Code of honour’
Regional powers are meanwhile concerned that a victory by Hamas, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, could spell momentum for other Islamist political groups, said Ofer Zalzberg of the Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in hosting the talks, is seeking to show the Biden administration that, despite its domestic human rights record, it remains a force for regional stability, Zalzberg said.
But Egypt is also concerned that Hamas’s performance in the vote “could have knock-on effects on the status of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and across the region,” he added.
That concern applies to Jordan and to Israel, which has fought three wars with Hamas since 2008 and is worried Palestinian elections could be “the first step for Hamas to take over the West Bank,” Zalzberg said.
To avert that outcome, regional players might push for a “formula in which Hamas will only be a junior partner in a power-sharing arrangement,” he added, speculating that Hamas and Fatah might try to forge a joint candidates list to foster unity.
Jamal al-Fadi, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said establishing unity between Hamas and Fatah requires both factions agreeing to a “code of honour” to allow everyone to campaign freely and “commit to respect the outcome, whatever it is”.
“The factions must make this statement explicitly and clearly to prevent the 2006 scenario from happening again,” he told AFP. — AFP