Hoping to unify the deeply divided Palestinian community – and perhaps to curry favor with incoming U.S. President Joe Biden – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Friday that legislative and presidential elections will take place this spring in the West Bank and Gaza.
It’s a move that many Palestinians and international observers say is long overdue.
But if they really happen, such new elections come with enormous risks.
Chief among them: Will the Hamas terrorist organization – which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and which seized full control of the Gaza Strip after Abbas badly mishandled the last round of elections – gain full political control of the West Bank as well?
This would be a highly dangerous development and could put the security of Israelis – and possibly Palestinians and Jordanians – at risk.
Abbas is currently in Ramallah, consulting with the heads of Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence services on how best to proceed in a way that doesn’t create a new crisis.
I, for one, am concerned that Palestinians Christians in the West Bank could also be in severe danger if Hamas took over.
Radical Islamists terrorized Christians in Gaza after the 2006 elections, causing many to flee to the West Bank for their safety. The only Christian bookstore in Gaza – run by the Palestinian Bible Society – was bombed in 2006, and warned to close. It was firebombed again in the spring of 2007. In October 2007, Rami Ayyad, a 31-year-old Palestinian Evangelical who was the manager of that bookstore, was murdered, stabbed and shot to death. Other reports suggest some Christians in Gaza are being forced to convert to Islam.
“Most Palestinian Christians fear Hamas taking political control of our government,” one Palestinian Christian who asked to remain anonymous told me.
Indeed, a February 2020 poll found that nearly 7-in-10 Palestinian Christians are worried about the presence of armed Palestinian factions such as Hamas.
Such fear of Hamas winning an election is likely to push more Christian to leave the country.
Yet some early signals suggest Abbas is more worried about his main rival, Mohammed Dahlan, than a Hamas takeover.
On Saturday, one day after announcing new elections, “two senior Palestinian officials” told The Jerusalem Post that Dahlan – a former Fatah military commander in charge of Gaza – would not be allowed to run for president, or any office.
Since 2006, Dahlan has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates and has reportedly become more moderate under the influence of his UAE hosts, which just signed the Abraham Accords with Israel.
As part of our ongoing coverage of Palestinian society here at ALL ARAB NEWS, I’ve been reaching out to Palestinian political experts to get their reactions.
In a moment, I will share with you their intriguing – and contradictory – views.
But first, a bit of context.
ABBAS BEGINS 17th YEAR IN OFFICE
Abbas this month began the 17th year of his four-year term in office.
He was elected on Jan. 9, 2005 with 62% of the vote.
The following year, Abbas held legislative elections to decide who would serve in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
However, Hamas outmaneuvered Abbas’s political party – Fatah – and captured control of Gaza.
Hamas operatives then began torturing and murdering Fatah members.
Since then, Abbas has refused to hold any national elections, fearful that Hamas could seize control of the West Bank, as well.
Now, Abbas says he is ready.
Here is the proposed timetable:
- Legislative elections will be held on May 22
- The presidential election will be held on July 31
- “Elections for the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents the Palestinian cause internationally, would be held Aug. 31,” reports The Associated Press.
Here is what the latest credible poll is saying, according a December survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research:
- Three-in-four Palestinians are demanding new elections
- Two-in-three want Abbas to step down
- 38% say they will vote for Fatah, 34% for Hamas, 10% will vote for all other third parties combined, while 19% are undecided
- In a head-to-head showdown between Abbas and Ismail Haniyyeh, the head of Hamas, the former would receive 43% of the vote and the latter 50% – thus showing the potential political potency of Hamas
- At this point, however, polling does not suggest that Dahlan is a viable contender for the presidency, even if he were allowed to run, and wanted to
PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS MUCH NEEDED, SAY SOME
“The elections are long overdue,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist based in Amman, told me in an interview via text.
“[The elections] will bring in new blood, and the big question is whether they will resolve the split powers [between] Gaza and the West Bank or not.”
“I think that Abbas has succeeded and Hamas has blinked first,” Kuttab added.
“I know of the skeptics and there are enough reasons for them,” he said. “But I think there are many, many more reasons that it will happen. Now that an official presidential decree has been issued, there is local, regional and international support (not sure about Israel) for it and the momentum will be unstoppable.”
Khalil Sayegh, a fellow with the Philos Project who serves on the ALL ARAB NEWS advisory board and as our senior correspondent, also believes the elections will happen and are likely aimed at Biden.
“Both Hamas and Fatah need the election to regain legitimacy and to end the 15 years of division between Gaza and the West Bank,” Sayegh told me.
“However, on a practical level, it is not wise for Fatah to run an election at this time when they are divided between Dahlan supporters and Abbas supporters.”
“I would be interested to learn what the Biden administration thinks about Palestinian elections, and whether they back such a move or not right now,” Sayegh added, “because the timing seems to be correlated to the inauguration and we know the PA has already been having quiet conversations with the Biden team for many months.”
Sayegh is a Palestinian Evangelical journalist who was born and raised in Gaza.
After Hamas came to power, he moved to Ramallah and lived there for years, though he recently he moved to Washington, D.C.
“There is a higher chance for Hamas to win, which worries me,” Sayegh told me. “However, we have to ask: How would Hamas winning in the West Bank affect the security coordination with Israel? Would the IDF allow Hamas to stop that and turn the West Bank into another security threat to Israel? I don’t think so. Therefore, even if Hamas won the West Bank, Israel wouldn’t let them turn it into a new Gaza.”
ELECTIONS WON’T HAPPEN THIS YEAR, SAY OTHERS
Abbas may, in fact, be trying to send a signal to the incoming Biden administration that he can be a partner with whom the White House and State Department can work.
Abbas is especially interested in restoring direct ties with Washington, as well as receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that was cut off after repeated spats with the Trump administration.
But skeptics abound.
“Despite Abbas’s decrees, elections are unlikely to take place,” Ghaith al-Omari, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team between 1999 and 2001, told me, in an email interview.
“Recent moves by Hamas and the PA are designed to show flexibility and avoid blame, but both sides have too much to lose and have no intention of following through,” al-Omari added. “Hamas has shown no indication that it is willing to relinquish control over Gaza irrespective of the results of a vote. For the PA, elections right now would complicate relations with the incoming Biden Administration and create tensions with its Arab allies.”
Currently, al-Omari is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and previously served as the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.
Khaled Abu Toameh, the Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post who broke the Dahlan story on Saturday, also does not believe the elections will really happen.
“Many Palestinians are skeptical about the announcement,” Toameh told me. “They don’t see how the elections could be held while the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain divided. They also don’t believe that the 85-year-old Abbas has any intention to step down or pave the way for the emergence of new and young leaders.”
“The joke among Palestinians is that they are so fed up with their leaders that the people in Gaza [currently ruled by Hamas] will vote for Fatah, and the people in the West Bank [currently ruled by Fatah] will vote for Hamas,” Toameh added.
WHAT EXACTLY IS GOING ON?
In light of the division between these respected analysts, I asked Ghaith al-Omari three follow up questions.
- If Abbas is not really going to hold elections, why is he saying that he will?
“Hamas recently reversed its longstanding rejection of one of Abbas’ key demands, namely they accepted that elections for the PLC [Palestinian Legislative Council] presidency and PLO be held consecutively rather than simultaneously,” al-Omari replied. “So Abbas felt that he would be blamed if he did not take a step. But in my view both Hamas’ and Abbas’ moves are more geared towards assigning blame when things fail than actually proceeding with elections. Also, before issuing the election decrees, Abbas made some changes that further consolidated his control over the judiciary, which is creating a real-time crisis with Hamas.”
- Could the election announcement actually be legitimate and coordinated with the Biden team?
“Unlikely,” said al-Omari. “While the Biden administration is likely to reverse some of the Trump policies on the Palestinian issue, the issue is not a priority, and it does not want to have to deal with a crisis resulting from a potential Hamas win. Such a crisis would distract it from other regional priorities. Moreover, a Hamas win – or even a strong showing that allows it to demand a role in the PA government formation – would severely complicate the re-establishment of US-PA relations, a goal favored by both sides.”
- Are you worried that Hamas could take over the West Bank if elections really do happen?
“I am not too worried,” said al-Omari. “Years of efforts by the PA security forces and Israel, as well as high vigilance in Jordan, have severely degraded Hamas’ armed infrastructure in the West Bank. Right now, it does not have the capability of doing a repeat of Gaza.”
Who is right?
What will happen next?
It’s a story ALL ARAB NEWS and I will track very closely in the days and months ahead.