Abbas postpones Palestinian polls over Jerusalem vote

PA president said the vote could not go ahead because Israel had provided no assurances regarding Jerusalem ahead of the legislative and presidential polls scheduled for May 22 and July 31, respectively.
Friday 30/04/2021
Supporters of exiled former Fatah security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, demonstrate outside the Palestinian Central Elections Commission headquarters in Gaza City on April 29, 2021, against delay of elections. (AFP)
Supporters of exiled former Fatah security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, demonstrate outside the Palestinian Central Elections Commission headquarters in Gaza City on April 29, 2021, against delay of elections. (AFP)

RAMALLAH -  As widely expected, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas announced Friday that elections are being postponed until Israel guarantees voting can take place in annexed east Jerusalem, further delaying polls in a society which last voted in 2006.

Addressing a meeting of Palestinian factions, Abbas said he has urged the international community to push Israel to allow campaigning and voting in east Jerusalem, an area annexed by the Jewish state in 1967 which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

But Abbas said the vote could not go ahead because Israel had provided no assurances regarding Jerusalem ahead of the legislative and presidential polls scheduled for May 22 and July 31, respectively.

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip have voiced hope that elections after a 15-year wait could help repair their fractured political system.

The votes had been called following an agreement between Abbas’s secular Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank and its long-standing rival Hamas, which runs Gaza.

Hamas on Friday blasted Abbas’s postponement as a “coup against (their) partnership” and said he “would bear full responsibility for the decision and its consequences”.

A delay risks inflaming tensions in a politically fractured Palestinian society. Protesters in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah swiftly denounced Abbas’s move.

“We have an entire generation of young people that doesn’t know what elections mean,” protester Tariq Khudairi said.

“This generation has the right to elect its leaders,” he said.

Palestinians also clashed in east Jerusalem with Israeli police, who used tear gas to disperse protesters outside the walled Old City.

Abbas critics had charged that he would use the Jerusalem issue to buy time as Fatah’s political prospects deteriorated.

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by most Western states, was seen as better organised than Fatah and well placed to gain ground in the West Bank.

Abbas has also faced challenges from Fatah splinter groups, including one led by Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and another by a powerful, exiled former Fatah security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

During the last Palestinian election, east Jerusalem residents cast ballots on the outskirts of the city and thousands voted in post offices, a symbolic move agreed to by Israel.

Israeli ambiguities

Israel’s foreign ministry said this week that elections were “an internal Palestinian issue, and Israel has no intention of intervening in them nor preventing them”.

But it made no comment on voting in Jerusalem, the city it describes as its “undivided capital” and where it now bans all Palestinian political activity.

Abbas told PLO leaders he had received a message from Israel saying it could not offer guidance on the Jerusalem issue because the Jewish state currently had no government.

Israel is itself mired in its worst ever political crisis, with no government yet formed following inconclusive March 23 elections.

Abbas dismissed the Israeli message as “nonsense”.

Speaking to reporters before Friday’s announcement, Palestinian journalist and Abbas critic Nadia Harhash said using Jerusalem to justify a postponement “is definitely not a smart move for the PA”.

Harhash, an election candidate in an anti-Abbas faction, argued it would give Israel de facto veto power over the Palestinian right to vote.

Hamas said a delay amounted to a surrender to “the (Israeli) occupation’s veto”.

A live broadcast of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech during a meeting to discuss upcoming elections, is seen in a coffee shop in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 29, 2021. (AFP)
A live broadcast of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech during a meeting to discuss upcoming elections, is seen in a coffee shop in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 29, 2021. (AFP)

Tensions in Jerusalem surged last weekend as Palestinians clashed with Israeli police over the right to gather in an Old City plaza after evening Ramadan prayers.

Following several days of unrest that left dozens injured, Israeli police removed the barricades blocking the staired plaza at Damascus Gate, allowing Palestinians to resume their gatherings.

But two people were arrested after more serious incidents Thursday following Abbas’s announcement, Jerusalem police said.

The elections have been seen in part as a unified effort by Hamas and Fatah to bolster international faith in Palestinian governance ahead of possible renewed US-led diplomacy under President Joe Biden, after four years of Donald Trump that saw Washington endorse key Israeli objectives.

Analysts said that Abbas had hoped the elections would allow Fatah and Hamas to continue sharing power, but felt threatened by the emergence of strong splinter factions and the rise of new groups critical of his leadership.

Hamas won a surprise victory in the 2006 elections, judged by international observers to be free and fair, but it was not recognised by Abbas and rejected by US President George W Bush who had originally insisted that democratic elections in the Middle East would create pro-Western governments. The Islamists took power in Gaza the following year in a week of bloody clashes.

According to some analysts, the indefinite postponement will be quietly welcomed by Israel and Western countries, which view the Islamic militant group as a terrorist organisation and are concerned about its growing strength.

For ordinary Palestinians, the delay leaves a long-entrenched political leadership in place that has failed to advance their hopes for statehood, heal the bitter rift between Fatah and Hamas or lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and which is seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Presidential elections planned for July also appeared to be on hold.

European reaction

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday condemned the decision by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to delay long-awaited polls.

“The decision to postpone the planned Palestinian elections, including the legislative elections originally scheduled for 22 May, is deeply disappointing,” Borrell said in a statement.

“We strongly encourage all Palestinian actors to resume efforts to build on the successful talks between the factions over recent months. A new date for elections should be set without delay.”

“We reiterate our call on Israel to facilitate the holding of such elections across all of the Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem,” Borrell said.

He called for “calm and restraint from all actors at this sensitive time”.

“We firmly believe that strong, inclusive, accountable and functioning democratic Palestinian institutions based on respect for the rule of law and human rights are vital for the Palestinian people, for democratic legitimacy and, ultimately, for the two-state solution,” he added.