Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly seeking to postpone the Palestinian elections, citing a disagreement with Israel over the right of East Jerusalem Arab residents to vote.
However, Abbas and his Fatah party – whose popularity has plummeted in the PA-held territories – fear that the rival Islamist movement, Hamas, is going to surge in the upcoming election.
In January, Abbas announced that the first PA election in 15 years would be held this year. Until then, Abbas’ reluctance to announce elections had widely been criticized for its lack of democracy and political transparency. At the time, Abbas’ office issued a decree that declared legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“The president instructed the election committee and all state apparatuses to launch a democratic election process in all cities of the homeland,” the decree said.
The decree also referred to Arab residents in East Jerusalem, despite the fact that it is currently not under Palestinian control. Israeli governments have traditionally opposed Ramallah’s ambitions to seek political influence in East Jerusalem.
However, the reality is complex in Jerusalem. Almost 40% of Jerusalem’s population is Arab and they number some 350,000 people. Unlike Arab Israeli citizens, the vast majority of Arab Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens, however, because they hold Israeli ID cards, they are counted in Israel’s population statistics. Since they are not Israeli citizens, Arab Jerusalemites do not vote in Israeli elections and the majority do not even vote in Jerusalem’s municipality elections.
At the same time, Arab Jerusalemites are counted as part of official Palestinian Authority population statistics, despite not holding PA-issued passports.
As a result, Arab Jerusalemites currently exist in a legal and political vacuum, neither fully part of Israel, nor part of the PA. While most Arab residents in Jerusalem have so far rejected Israeli citizenship, many also oppose PA interference and some even seem to prefer their current ambivalent status quo.
Abbas’ Fatah party risks losing the election due to widespread unpopularity stemming from years of corruption and political misrule. By linking the election to the controversial East Jerusalem voting issue, Abbas could postpone the elections while officially blaming Israel for not allowing Arab East Jerusalem residents to cast their ballots.
However, Hamas, which seeks to supplant Fatah, has been pushing hard for the elections to proceed according to plan. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election with 44.45% of the votes, compared to 41.43% for the ruling Fatah party. In a coup, Hamas – a terrorist organization – eventually expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip, but the Western-backed Fatah has maintained control over the PA areas in the West Bank.
Abbas on Sunday declared that the election cannot take place without the inclusion of East Jerusalem ballots.
Presumably Israeli authorities also share Abbas’ fear of a potential Hamas victory if the elections are held according to schedule.
Ironically, the European Union, which is widely considered friendly towards the Fatah party, could undermine Abbas’ secret effort to find an excuse to postpone the elections. According to the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper, Al-Akhbar, the EU is reportedly seeking to push the Israeli government to allow East Jerusalem ballots to be cast in order to prevent the elections from being postponed.
While Israel officially views Jerusalem as its undivided capital, the PA views East Jerusalem as its future capital.