February 17, 2011
Fearing a replay of Tunisia and Egypt, the West Bank Palestinian leadership calls for rapid elections, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah.
Fearing a possible recurrence of the Egyptian or Tunisian scenarios, the American-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) decided rather hastily this week to hold presidential, legislative and local elections by September.
Moreover, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad sacked his entire cabinet in order to form a new broad-based one whose basic task will be to prepare for a possible declaration of statehood later this year.
The decision was adopted a few hours after the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was widely considered the PA's major patron in the Arab region; some political observers contend that the collapse of the Mubarak regime has left the PA critically vulnerable.
Besides heading off any revolt against the Ramallah-based PA regime, the decision to hold general elections appears also meant to exert pressure on Hamas, the Islamist party that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's arch foe, is thought to have benefited from regime change in Cairo.
Hamas rejects the organisation of elections in the occupied territories, citing the police state atmosphere in the West Bank as well as continued repression and detention of its supporters there. The movement also cites the Israeli policy of outlawing candidates that don't recognise the Jewish state.
One Hamas spokesman in the Hebron region said: "What is the point of taking part in elections when we know in advance that the Israeli occupation army will arrest all our candidates whether they win or lose?"
Indeed, Israel did arrest and imprison most of Hamas's elected members in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (Hamas scored a landslide victory, defeating the Western-backed Fatah party), citing their "membership in an illegal organisation" and refusal to recognise the Israeli occupation. Many of these lawmakers have now been rearrested.
(Israel's rigid stance vis-à-vis Hamas stems from the Islamist group's uncompromising attitude towards the Israeli occupation and insistence on total Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967.)
Meanwhile, it is not certain how the PA will be able to hold real and transparent elections in the West Bank, let alone in East Jerusalem, without coordination with Israel. The Israeli army controls every nook and cranny of the occupied territory and it would be unimaginable to hold meaningful elections without at least Israeli consent.
Israel has indicated that it won't allow Hamas to participate in any new elections, citing the group's refusal to recognise Israel.
Palestinian commentators also doubt the possibility of holding credible elections. "The decision to hold elections under existing circumstances is hollow; it shows that the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) is panicking and feeling insecure. In any case, we should remember that all these decisions were taken less than 24 hours after Mubarak and Omar Suleiman had gone," said Palestinian writer and commentator Uraib Rantawi.
"Is the PLO suddenly undergoing an awakening of conscience? Is the Tahrir Square spirit [hovering over] Ramallah? Or is it just another manoeuvre to divert Palestinian public opinion away from the scandalous revelations of Al-Jazeera (the so-called Palestine Papers)?"
Rantawi concluded his comments by saying: "The Egyptian people have now achieved their good riddance, having been fed up with 30 years of Hosni Mubarak. Most likely, the Palestinian people, too, are fed up with 40 years of the same old and senile PLO faces and are awaiting their good riddance, too."
Another commentator, Zakaria Mohamed, a left-leaning writer, ridiculed the call for elections under occupation. "What is the point of holding new elections as long it is forbidden to say 'No' to the Israeli occupation and to security coordination with Israel? We know and Abbas knows that these elections are conditional upon accepting the humiliating dictates of Israel."
The abrupt decision to schedule elections for September was preceded by the resignation of Saeb Ereikat, chief Palestinian negotiator, from his job as head of the PLO Negotiations Department. Ereikat admitted that the documents leaked to Al-Jazeera were stolen from his office and that he was personally responsible for the breach.
The documents show that PA negotiators, including Ereikat himself, agreed to give Israel far-reaching concessions, compromising long-standing Palestinian positions on the so-called final status issues. The PA vehemently denied the veracity of the documents, waging a war of words against Al-Jazeera, accusing the network of conspiring with Israel against the Palestinian leadership.
Some PLO propagandists, including Ereikat, went as far as accusing Al-Jazeera of investing in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and of allowing Israeli President Shimon Peres shares in the network's holding company. The accusations appear to have little or no credibility.
Al-Ahram Weekly asked Ereikat during a press conference in Bethlehem last week why the PA was so perturbed and shaken by Al-Jazeera's revelations, especially if the revelations were false. Ereikat evaded the question.