x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestinian elections are one of many needed reforms

If there is a right moment to listen to the Palestinian people, it is now, as the waves of Arab revolution reverberate across the region, and the world.

The Palestinian provisional government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced plans at the weekend to hold local elections in the West Bank and Gaza on July 9, nearly a year after balloting was postponed by the same government indefinitely. Plans have also been made for presidential and parliamentary elections between now and September.

These calls come at a busy time for the authority. Just yesterday, Mr Fayyad's government resigned en masse, a much anticipated move that leaves the future of the governance structure in question.

And yet, if elections proceed as announced, the implications could be profound. How so depends on perspective.

Parties from the political left and different civil society organisations had protested the original delay last year. This time opposition came from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which has refused to hold voting in Gaza on the grounds that the elections will not begin the process of healing internal divisions.

Balloting was also rejected because it was called for by an illegitimate government under a president whose mandate had expired two years ago, when an election for the presidency was supposed to take place. Hamas has already said it won't recognise the election, or its results.

For many on the street, the move by the Palestinian government is seen as an attempt to corner Hamas in Gaza and show how undemocratic it is. Others see it as a cover-up for the Palestinian papers, published by Al Jazeera, that exposed the Palestinian negotiation team for being too willing to compromise with Israel. The elections are thus seen by some as a possible ploy to divert attention of the public from that media spectacle.

Of course there is another theory: that it might be an attempt by the PA to appear democratic in response to changes in the region, a tactic that many Arab leaders have been pursuing since the spark of revolution that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt. If the local voting goes forward as originally planned, it would be the first trip to the polls since 2006.

Elections, of course, are not a panacea, and on the ground the public's freedoms are still being trampled. Last week in Ramallah, for instance, while government officials allowed a public demonstration in support of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to proceed - during which crowds shouted slogans against the Oslo process and called for the end of internal Palestinian division - some protesters were arrested and detained, raising obvious questions about the PA's commitment to so-called reforms.

It is worth remembering that neither elections nor institution building alone can end undemocratic policies. It is the public's respect for institutions that matters most. More importantly, it is the respect for human beings, and the government's respect for freedom of expression, that trumps all. A Palestinian state and society that is strong and healthy will be achieved only by winning the trust and the support of the people. By contrast, mimicking liberal western slogans and attitudes such as good governance, efficiency and accountability is only window dressing.

The Palestinian Authority's practices on the ground, and notably allowing an Israeli approach of favouring economic peace rather than real and just reforms, cannot convince the public to buy into a system of control. The current approach of subjugating Palestinians to Israeli rule directly or indirectly - and permitting Israel to grab more Palestinian land - has created a reality similar to what occurred on native American reservations. Such an approach to appeasement must end.

What we have now is a system of Palestinian reservations, where a small percentage are prosperous. The resulting economic peace among a select few is meant to pacify more sections of the society, and create further internal frictions and resentments, so that Israeli theft of lands continues unabated.

If elections are about listening to the voice of the people, than the Palestinian leadership must listen to the voices calling for an end to the Oslo process that did nothing to benefit the Palestinians, but helped Israel gain more time and legitimacy and furthered its colonial practices of land theft and displacement. If there is a right moment to listen to the people, it is now, as the waves of Arab revolution reverberate across the region, and the world.

These are the issues that this election will test. As Ibn Khaldoun and other Arab thinkers in the past have taught us, the world is like a circle; any missing link in that circle will sooner or later bring about the centre's collapse.

In the PA's case, the centre is filled with issues of critical importance, like human development, security and peace. If the circle collapses, so will all the economic and political promises that liberal manifestations of the PA's democracy are intended to protect.


Magid Shihade is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Birzeit University in Palestine