Will Gaza Ever Have Elections Again?

Standing on the speaker’s dais inside the Palestinian Legislative Council, three dozen Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers held up an Israeli flag.

The IDF soldiers captured the building in mid-November, as they swept through Gaza City and took control of key government buildings while pushing out civilians across the territory.

It was stark juxtaposition to the scene inside the chamber 16 years earlier, when it was Hamas who seized control of government buildings throughout Gaza. Brandishing rifles, they forced out Fatah, their political rivals, and asserted total control over the Gaza Strip.

A decade before that, the Palestinian Authority held its first elections to fill the chamber. While there were limitations, the elections successfully created a functioning government for the Palestinian proto-state, armed with a mandate to both improve the standard of living in the territories and to negotiate a permanent deal for independence with Israel. There was reason to be optimistic.

Today, the legislative council building lies in ruin. Shortly after the Israeli forces posed for photos inside, the complex was partially razed.

The building’s destruction also symbolizes a chance to try again. But in order for the PA, or whatever replaces it, to succeed, it will need a mandate from the Palestinian people—something it hasn’t had in more than 15 years.

It’s a tall order.

Restoring democracy to Palestine is a collection of Catch-22s. It needs a new government to function, but its current politics have long been too fraught to hold elections. It cannot have real elections without Hamas, its most popular party, but Israel will not tolerate any government which includes them. Its electoral infrastructure is sound, but its political system is woefully broken.

For the far-right coalition in power in Israel, led by long-term political survivor Benjamin Netanyahu, a divided Palestinian community is far better than one with a clear democratic leader. Yet holding any real election will need both cooperation and security assurances from the Israeli government and support from the international community.

With respect to the United States, a likely broker of any deal, their hesitant inching toward an independent Palestinian state cannot come fast enough.

Untangling these problems may seem impossible amid a siege in which hundreds of Palestinians are still dying weekly. But true representation and a path to real statehood for Palestine are vital to any lasting peace.

“I don’t think anyone is yet thinking of how we restart political competition in Palestine,” said Vladimir Pran, an elections specialist who previously served as director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems for Palestine.

“I would argue it’s important, it’s condicio sine qua non, when it comes to good governance and democracy.”



A Palestinian woman votes in a polling station in Gaza on Jan. 20, 1996.
A Palestinian woman votes in a polling station in Gaza on Jan. 20, 1996.

A Palestinian woman votes in a polling station in Gaza on Jan. 20, 1996. Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

In the months since Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza, the international community has played variations on a theme when it comes to governance in Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told NPR that “there has to be a civilian government” in Gaza, but implied that it would not be the government in Ramallah. Yair Lapid, who leads the Israeli opposition, said the PA should be the one to take over Gaza, but only after it goes through a “de-radicalization process.” In a Washington Post op-ed, U.S. President Joe Biden wrote that “Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority.” Now the White House is toying with a plan for an independent, but “demilitarized,” Palestine. The European Commission’s foreign policy representative, Josep Borrell, put it in more blunt terms: “The Palestinian Authority has to return to Gaza.”

Specifics, however, have been in short supply. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to Foreign Policy that the White House supports the PA regaining control of Gaza. Asked how they ought to happen, the spokesperson said that decision should be up to the Palestinian people.

Zaha Hassan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously represented Palestine in international negotiations, says there’s a hollowness at the heart of this language.

“We need to clarify what the U.S. and others are talking about when they talk about a ‘reformed’ or ‘revitalized’ Palestinian Authority,” she said. “That’s not the same thing, in their minds, as a legitimate Palestinian Authority—one that is going to represent the will of its people.”



A Palestinian artist paints a colorful mural depicting Palestinian elections - the mural shows a ballot box with a rainbow of hands voting
A Palestinian artist paints a colorful mural depicting Palestinian elections – the mural shows a ballot box with a rainbow of hands voting

A Palestinian artist paints a mural depicting Palestinian elections in Gaza City on March 24, 2021. Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An Egyptian plan, teased in December, tied together political and economic security. The proposal would see an immediate ceasefire, followed by the release of the hostages held by Hamas. The peace deal would require that Hamas relinquish power in Gaza, to be replaced with an administration of technocrats. That new government would plan and hold fresh legislative elections to bring democratic government back to the Palestinian territories.

A plan from a broader coalition of Arab states, reported by the Financial Times in January, would see the establishment of a recognized Palestinian state, under some form of a “strengthened” PA. (Netanyahu, for his part, continues to oppose any sovereign Palestinian state.)

These reports feel like a historical rerun.

After Hamas’s 2007 coup, Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency and appointed U.S.-educated economist Salam Fayyad as caretaker prime minister until fresh elections could be held. Fayyad, a member of the small Third Way party, was hailed by then President George W. Bush as “a good fellow.” But his appointment never engendered real legitimacy.

“Yes, fine. Everybody loved Salam Fayyad, the Americans love Salam Fayyad,” Pran said. “The Palestinians hated it. They saw him as an American accountant, imposed on the Palestinians.”

According to Israeli broadcaster Kan, American diplomats have again put forward Fayyad’s name as a candidate to helm this hypothetical renewed PA. (Fayyad says he has not been part of those discussions.)

“We are constantly trying to apply frameworks and solutions on the Palestinians, completely oblivious and ignoring their internal politics and their internal political dynamics,” Pran said. “You can’t freeze politics out of political systems.”



Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas waves to the crowd as he travels through the streets of the West Bank
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas waves to the crowd as he travels through the streets of the West Bank

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd as he travels through the streets of the West Bank town of Ramallah on May 28, 2006 in a photo provided by the Palestinian Press Office.Omar Al-Rashidi/AFP via Getty Images

“All this talk about post-Gaza [war], the day after, when you strip away the fantasy scenarios, we’re back where we were a year ago,” Pran said. And the problem is: Succession planning for Abbas, the president of the PA.

It was clear, even long before Oct. 7, that Abbas, now 88, needed to be replaced. But there has been no clear indication of who will step into his shoes. It is almost certain that his successor will need to be chosen before any election can be called. That makes the internal machinations of Fatah critically important.

One faction inside Fatah clearly still favors a return to a national unity government, which would include Hamas. That faction includes one possible Abbas successor: Jibril Rajoub, the secretary general of Fatah’s Central Committee, who had previously tried to revive the Fatah-Hamas power-sharing deal.

Another camp appears keen to freeze out Hamas and partner more closely with Israel and the United States. Hussein al-Sheikh, appointed by Abbas to serve as secretary general of the PLO, is seen as more deferential to Israel. “Isn’t it worth discussing how to manage this conflict with the Israeli occupation?” al-Sheikh said in a December interview with Reuters. Hamas has branded him “spokesman of the occupation.

There is no clear path to reconcile these seemingly incompatible positions.

No matter who replaces the aging Abbas, they will face the same problems as the longtime president: The Palestinian people see Fatah as corrupt, ineffective, and a barrier to Palestinian statehood.


Hamas supporters celebrate in the streets with flags and guns
Hamas supporters celebrate in the streets with flags and guns

Hamas supporters celebrate the group’s victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections at Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Jan. 26, 2006.Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Hamas won the 2007 elections for exactly that reason. And the terror group’s popularity has only grown since the Oct. 7 attacks: A poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found Hamas’s support nearly doubled as opposed to just months prior.

Hamas has seized on the opportunity. At a press conference in January, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s political leader, appeared alongside a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and called for an end to the fighting between the two factions and for fresh elections.

But the Palestinian Center’s polling has also shown a deep malaise. When surveyed in person in June 2022, more than 7 in 10 Palestinians said they wanted fresh elections. Yet faced with the choice of either Abbas as Fatah’s presidential candidate, and Haniyeh as the stand-in Hamas candidate, fewer than half said they would actually vote.

Asked who they would like to see replace Abbas late last year, just 1 percent named al-Sheikh, while Rajoub’s name didn’t appear at all. There is one name, however, that was consistently named by a third of Palestinians as their preferred leader: Marwan Barghouti.

The problem is that Barghouti has sat in an Israeli prison since 2002, serving consecutive life sentences. An Israeli court convicted Barghouti of murder and terrorism, but to many in the territories, he is Palestine’s Nelson Mandela. There have been frequent pleas and campaigns to release Barghouti over the years, but they have all come to naught. Israel, Hassan says, has “no interest whatsoever” in releasing Barghouti. (He has long been at odds with Abbas and his loyalists as well.)



An election worker explains how to vote in the 2006 Palestinian election
An election worker explains how to vote in the 2006 Palestinian election

An election worker explains how to vote during the Palestinian parliamentary elections in Gaza City on Jan. 22, 2006. Abid Katib/Getty Images

As soon as the fighting stops or slows, there will be a desperate need for a functioning state in a devastated Gaza. Any attempt by Hamas to reassert control will likely be met with force from Israel, while the PA says it will not even try to return to Gaza unless a broader peace package is on the table.

A longer-term Israeli occupation is unwanted and untenable, while a vague plan for an Arab-led peacekeeping force seems impractical and unlikely. Palestinians, for their part, seem justifiably hostile to the idea of foreign powers setting their political agenda. In an open letter, a group of Gazan activists vowed to “denounce and refuse any political discussions” so long as Israeli military operations continue.

One plan, put forward by Israel, would see the establishment of “civil committees,” possibly approved by Israel directly, which would govern Gaza. The idea may be modeled after the “village leagues” initiative of the 1970s. Such a plan is likely to fail for the same reason the original incarnation did: Because local government cannot be imposed on a population by an occupying power.

An increasingly likely possibility is that Gaza will simply have no government—the PA may claim notional control, but Gaza will be essentially administered by a coalition of Western donors, as the Israeli Defense Forces manage its planned “buffer zone,” clearing Palestinian territory and launching selective raids as it sees fit. Meanwhile, the Israeli blockade will continue.

The Israelis will also need to sign off on any vote, Pran says.

“If the Israelis don’t facilitate those elections, then they really can’t happen,” Pran said. “Because the election commission cannot travel to Gaza, sensitive election material cannot be sent from the West Bank—the ballot papers, you know, all that stuff—training of officials: Really, nothing can happen if Israel wants to block those elections.”

“In terms of electoral process, I know this sounds paradoxical, but Palestinians have the best election commission in the Middle East,” Pran said.

 


Palestinian members of the Central Elections Commission open the organization headquarters in Gaza city
Palestinian members of the Central Elections Commission open the organization headquarters in Gaza city

A man exits the headquarters of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission in Gaza City on Jan. 24, 2012.Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission, he says, is widely respected as neutral, independent, and capable. While there will be challenges for the commission going forward, it nevertheless represents a rare spot of credibility amid public frustration with the PA.

One thing the rest of the world can do on this hypothetical “day after” is to ensure that the electoral commission is set up for success. “Number one, they have to update the voters list—because the last update was done in 2021,” Pran said. The massive displacement inside Gaza means that list will need significant revision.

The Palestinian people seem keen for political choices beyond Fatah and Hamas. The current law, however, makes founding a new competitive party essentially impossible. Reforming the electoral system to allow for real multiparty democracy could be one way to disrupt Fatah’s hold on power while offering an alternative to Hamas. Luckily, much of the work has already been done. The United Nations Security Council released a road map to a two-state solution in 2003, including political reforms.

Focusing on how to get a real political process started in Palestine will be vital for a lasting peace—but it requires buy-in from actors who often loathe each other. Failure will doom Palestinians to another generation of political corruption, dysfunction, and unrealized aspiration.

The Palestinian people want and deserve better.

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