Palestine elections: Gaza voters sceptical about upcoming polls

Tareq Hajjaj

Middle East Eye  /  February 23, 2021

With the Israeli blockade still the prime preoccupation in Gaza, youth there hold little hope for Palestine’s long-overdue vote.

The besieged Gaza Strip bears few signs of its impending elections: there are no posters on the streets, and no debates between candidates.

On 15 January, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to hold legislative, presidential and National Council elections between May and August. 

For the first time in 15 years, Palestinians will have the opportunity to elect their leaders. But even after this long, some residents of Gaza are reluctant to return to the ballots.

People are waiting, wary. This is the fifth time that Palestine-wide elections have been promised since the last successful ballot.

Delayed democracy

The rivalry between the Palestinian territories’ two largest political factions has long undermined attempts to rule over both the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip. 

Fatah, the party in power in the West Bank, led by Abbas, and Hamas, the group that governs Gaza, have not contested an election since 2006 parliamentary polls. Hamas won those polls, triggering a conflict that led to near civil war in Gaza the following year, and a political split between the two occupied territories.

Since then, local and regional players – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt – have sought to help end the damaging internal split, but attempts to secure new elections have repeatedly failed.

Events of the past year seem to have reconciled Palestinian leadership to the idea of holding elections as the factions seek to unite against continued Israeli annexations and Arab normalisation with Israel, following deals between Israel and the UAEBahrainMorocco and Sudan.

Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated drastically since Israel and Egypt began an ongoing siege of the Palestinian enclave following the 2006 election.

A decade and a half later, some are sceptical of their leaders’ motives in agreeing to another ballot.

“If Palestinians see these elections as a democratic process and a push toward a better future, then they need to wake up,” said Ahmed Jalal, 30, a journalist in Gaza City, as he walked around a public park with his four-year-old son. Jalal believes that without an internationally recognised, autonomous Palestinian state, the upcoming vote is worthless. 

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has called upon the international community to pressure Israel to allow Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to participate in the upcoming elections. Israel permitted these votes in 2006, but so far hasn’t commented on whether it will do the same this year. Both Palestinians and Israelis claim the city as their capital.

“Palestinians have no independent state, borders are closed, the capital is occupied,” Jalal told Middle East Eye. “Any new government for Palestinians will be part of an agreement that acknowledges the power of the (Israeli) occupation.

“When we have an independent state, [then] Palestinians can organise the elections by themselves – this process can’t be done backwards.”

Ending the siege

Majd Ibrahim, an 18-year-old student from the al-Shujaiya neighbourhood east of Gaza City, believes elections could briefly stabilise Gaza’s tanking economy, but that to sustain any long-term prosperity, Palestinian leaders must push to end Israel’s siege. 

“They may promise new opportunities and better living conditions, but this will only happen when Palestine is free for Palestinians,” Ibrahim told MEE.

A UN report last year stated that Israel’s blockade had driven Gaza’s economy to “near collapse”, pushing more than one million people below the poverty line.

 “The Palestinian Authority made calls this month to redress the living situation for its employees in Gaza,” said Ibrahim. PA staff in Gaza received 100 percent of their salaries for the first time in three years when the election was announced. 

“Hamas as well has made some changes,” he added, referring to promises to reimburse the group’s underpaid employees in Gaza. “That happens when election campaigns seek votes, but we don’t see any leader promising the end of the Israeli occupation.

“Long-term occupation has caused all our severe economic, social and political crises. The solution to resolving them is not by running elections under the power of the same occupation – but by ending it.”

Hani Abu Marzouq, 27, an unemployed designer, is also downbeat about the election, which he sees as dominated by the same faces – leaders who haven’t achieved progress for their people. 

Fatah’s Abbas and Ismael Haniyeh of Hamas – who left Gaza on a foreign tour in 2019 and still hasn’t returned – remain Palestine’s most dominant politicians.

Not many options

But Marwan Barghouti, a veteran Fatah party leader, is reportedly considering running in the presidential elections from his Israeli prison cell.

Public opinion polls by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) have regularly shown that Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences for allegedly plotting attacks on Israeli targets during the Second Intifada, would win presidential votes.

“Fatah and Hamas, the main rivals for the elections, have foreign supporters among Arabs who want [them] to happen,” Abu Marzouq told MEE, as he sat with a friend at the Gaza port. “The Palestinian people have been calling for an election for the past 15 years and no leader has responded – why should we now believe that they will pay us any attention?

“Palestinians don’t have many options to choose from,” he added. “There is not one new figure in the elections – I expected to see a list of young people.”

But he has some hope that a newly unified leadership could stand up for Palestinians where the international community has not.

A PCPSR poll conducted in December found that 34 percent of Palestinians would vote for Hamas in parliamentary elections, and 38 percent for Fatah. Abu Marzouq expects the ballot to result in a Fatah-Hamas coalition government. 

“If they then decide to stand with each other to achieve what all Palestinians want, then I believe they will be able to end the occupation.

“Palestinians are known for turning bad circumstances to their advantage,” he added. “This is one of those times.”

Tareq S. Hajjaj is an author and a member of Palestinian Writers Union