Palestinians hope vote boosts diplomatic strength: experts

Adel Zaanoun
·4-min read
A Palestinian member of the Central Elections Commission displays an information leaflet following the opening of the first Voter Information and Registration Centre in Gaza City ahead of polls due later this year

A deal reached between Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas to hold elections is aimed at renewing confidence in Palestinian governance ahead of a diplomatic push and talks with Israel, experts said.

Joe Biden's election as US president motivated Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas of Fatah, to hold "serious" talks with Hamas, according to a Palestinian analyst.

Abbas's Palestinian Authority had cut ties with Donald Trump's administration, accusing it of bias towards Israel, and Abbas wants to renew the legitimacy of Palestinian institutions as he re-engages with Washington, said the analyst Ashraf Abu al-Houl.

In January, Abbas, whose Fatah party controls the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, announced the dates for the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.

Hamas Islamists won a surprising landslide when Palestinians last went to the polls in 2006, in a result not recognised by Fatah and which sparked deadly clashes and left Palestinian politics divided.

Hamas has held power in Gaza since 2007, the year Israel imposed a blockade on the coastal enclave, while Fatah has retained control in the West Bank.

At a meeting in Cairo this week, Fatah and Hamas agreed on ground rules for May 22 legislative polls and a July 31 presidential vote, seeking to avoid a repeat of damaging post-poll chaos.

The deal provides for an "electoral court" with exclusive jurisdiction over the electoral process and any cases arising from the elections.

The international community will not push for new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations "without first seeing unity among the Palestinians," said Abu al-Houl, adding that Jordan and Egypt have in particular advocated for Fatah-Hamas talks.

Abu al-Houl argued that normalisation deals between Israel and four Arab states -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan -- had further pushed Palestinian rivals to start speaking with one voice.

The Trump-brokered agreements, collectively known as the Abraham Accords, breached decades of Arab League consensus against establishing ties with Israel until the Palestinian conflict is resolved.

- Joining the PLO? -

For Hamas, blacklisted as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, polls offer a chance to be integrated within the Palestine Liberation Organization, the globally recognised voice of the Palestinian people.

"Hamas wants to be an internationally recognised group within the PLO and to be a partner of the Palestinian Authority... because unity is the only option for confronting the Israelis," a senior Hamas official said on condition of anonymity.

Mohamed Masharqa, who heads the Centre for Arab Progress think-tank, said elections are Hamas's only option "if it wants to be considered something other than a terrorist organisation".

Abdel Salam Aqal, a London-based Palestinian affairs experts, agreed that both Hamas and Fatah want their credibility renewed by fresh elections.

But the vote "will still give birth to a two-headed monster, between Ramallah (in the West Bank) and Gaza", he said.

- More division ahead? -

Beyond reconciliation between the rival factions, Fatah must also address its internal divisions he added.

Abbas has for years been at odds with the former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Reviled by many in the West Bank as a "traitor", Dahlan who has good relations with international powers and still enjoys some support among Palestinian exiles and in his native Gaza, could play a role in the upcoming vote.

Palestinian experts are keenly watching for signs of new alliances that might take shape before the vote.

Scenarios include unity Fatah-Hamas candidates as well as a counter-Abbas faction within Fatah, possibly including Marwan Barghouti.

Sometimes described by his supporters as the "Palestinian Mandela", Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail over terrorism convictions.

Senior Palestinian Authority official and Fatah central committee member, Hussein Al-Sheikh, said he visited Barghouti in prison on Thursday, saying discussions included preparations for the elections.

Hossam al-Dajani, a political scientist at the Islamic University of Gaza, said that the most likely scenario is an alliance between Abbas loyalists in Fatah and Hamas, where Fatah controls Palestinian foreign policy while Hamas retains the lead on service delivery in Gaza.

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