Recent municipal elections in Palestine highlight the multiple divides among the population living in the West Bank and Gaza. These divisions are contributing to a dangerous breakdown in the rule of law in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and to increased cynicism among Palestinians regarding their future prospects. Combined with escalating tensions and violence between Israelis and Palestinians, such as the confrontation this week that resulted in the death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the fissures have the potential of leading to a larger outbreak of violence.
To better understand the political dynamics in the West Bank and Gaza, the Carter Center organized an expert mission for the second phase of municipal elections, which took place in the larger West Bank cities on March 26, following a first phase of voting in smaller West Bank towns and villages on Dec. 11. The mission concluded that the elections were well-administered and competitive, but occurred in “a highly challenging political and electoral environment marked by frequent human rights violations, including intimidation and harassment of political actors.”
As a member of the mission, I stayed mostly in Ramallah for two weeks before and two weeks after the elections. While the streets of Ramallah and other cities visited were festooned with large posters promoting the competing municipal party lists, many Palestinians expressed disappointment that they are unlikely to also see legislative elections, which have not taken place since 2006, nor presidential elections, which last occurred in 2005, anytime soon. Without such elections, they fear the divisions in their society will continue to fester.
The most obvious internal Palestinian divide is, of course, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The former is dominated by Fatah, the political faction led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007. To heal the breach, Abbas in January 2021 scheduled legislative elections for that May, but he abruptly cancelled them three weeks before election day, citing Israeli intransigence over the issue of voting in Jerusalem. Hamas criticized the postponement and, claiming that Abbas had breached his commitment to schedule national elections prior to municipal elections, prevented this year’s municipal elections from being carried out in Gaza.
Crossing into Gaza provided me with a concrete manifestation of the Palestinian Authority-Hamas divide. After making my way through an Israeli security labyrinth, I boarded a bus for a short ride to the Palestinian Authority checkpoint, where my passport was subject to a perfunctory check. I then travelled another short distance by taxi to the Hamas checkpoint, which as if to emphasize who is really in control was located in a much more impressive building and included a comfortable room for VIP travelers. My documents were again checked, and only then was I allowed to travel further south toward Gaza city.
At the time of my Gaza visit, a couple of days after the polls in the West Bank, civil society organizations were mobilizing to pressure Hamas to allow a further phase of municipal elections for Gaza’s 25 municipal councils. Their hope was that such elections would serve as a confidence-building measure for Gazans and a precursor for national elections. Contrary to the impression that Hamas’ rule in Gaza is unduly repressive and almost Taliban-like, several of my Gaza interlocutors, all of whom are well-connected through social media, asserted that Palestinians were freer to express themselves in Gaza than was the case for their compatriots in the West Bank, where the combined efforts of the Israeli and Palestinian security forces intimidated the population and discouraged peaceful political activities.
Neglected National Elections
A further divide among Palestinians emerges in opinions about scheduling national elections. One group believes such voting for a single national legislature and a president to represent all Palestinians is critical for achieving much-needed reconciliation among political factions. At least 40 percent of the voting-eligible population has never participated in national elections, because they were too young the last time such elections were held in 2006. Supporters of national elections also believe the Central Election Commission, whose credibility among Palestinians is extraordinarily high, can devise creative mechanisms to ensure that Palestinian residents in Jerusalem can participate in the elections without requiring formal Israeli cooperation.
But other Palestinians worry that national elections will instead exacerbate their existing divisions. Moreover, they note there is no guarantee that the election results will be accepted by the international community if, as happened in 2006, Hamas emerges as the majority party. Hence, this group, supported by among others the United States, Egypt, and Jordan, advocate for the formation of a consensus government for an extended period before national elections are held; in their scenario, that government should be one supported by both Fatah and Hamas, although the ministers would be selected for their technocratic expertise rather than party affiliation, thus smoothing the way for the international community to engage with it.
Ultimately, Palestinian political leaders must decide whether national elections might serve as a unifier, or whether some form of reconciliation must occur before national elections can be meaningful. Certainly the status quo is untenable; it fosters cynicism among Palestinians that the situation will never change and that their political leaders, who are viewed as both corrupt and inept, are simply playing power games. And while more than 75 percent of the population seeks Abbas’ resignation, according to a September 2021 poll, some also are concerned that Abbas’ sudden departure from the scene without an electorally legitimized succession plan will result in political chaos.
Engaging With Israel
A third divide among Palestinians is reflected in attitudes toward engagement with Israel. A vocal segment of the population objects to any form of normalization and advocates for a more complete severing of the Palestinian economy from reliance on Israeli goods. However, the practical challenges of such a posture are evident when visiting Palestinian grocery stores, where a majority of the products are either made in Israel or have been sourced from Israeli suppliers. Other Palestinians, particularly those involved in the private sector, have adopted a more pragmatic attitude, seeking permits to enter Israel for work, business, or social outings, even as they avoid publicizing their Israeli connections.
A final split exists between those Palestinians who have essentially given up on their national aspirations and those who believe they are still achievable, albeit not immediately. The first group no longer believes in the prospects of a better future for themselves and their children, while the second group remains committed to taking concrete steps to improve Palestinian society from within as a first step toward achieving broader national aspirations. Within this latter category, priorities vary. Some focus on restoring respect for the rule of law in a society where the executive, legislative, and judicial functions have been consolidated under the singular control of Abbas. Others express concern about the abuses committed by the Palestinian security forces. And there are those who emphasize the building of Palestinian social capital by improving the quality of education opportunities.
Ultimately, overcoming Palestinian divides will require providing greater opportunities for Palestinians under the age of 40 to have a voice, as they comprise an estimated 78 percent of the total West Bank and Gaza population. Sadly, the municipal elections reinforced the political marginalization of younger Palestinians, as individuals under 35 won less than 16 percent of the seats on the local councils in the large cities, and their turnout as voters appeared much below the levels of older Palestinians. If future elections are to help overcome the divides in Palestinian society, greater effort must be directed at involving the younger generation in the process and ensuring that the cacophony of voices they represent are heard and taken seriously in public forums.
(The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of The Carter Center.)