The Israeli and Palestinian elections offend democracy – each in their own way

Salem Barahmeh

The Guardian  /  March 17, 2021

Polls taking place months apart simply highlight the two-tier system that denies Palestinians any real voice or freedom.

For the first time in decades, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel will hold legislative elections a few months apart. Many in the international community and media will see this as a joint exercise in democracy but it is, in fact, a window into the reality of a two-tiered system that denies Palestinians the basic freedom and rights that many across the world take for granted.

Drive across the winding roads of the West Bank this spring and you will see election posters interrupting the beautiful landscape of olive and almond trees. Upon further inspection, you may soon realise that the candidate advertised is not an eager Palestinian campaigning for a parliamentary seat. It is likely to be an Israeli candidate running for the Israeli parliament.

This raises a very valid question: why are Israelis campaigning in the West Bank, the territory designated by international law and consensus to become part of a future Palestinian state?

Israel occupies and controls the entirety of the West Bank and has de facto annexed large portions of it through the settling of 650,000-750,000 Israelis on Palestinian land. Under the Rome statute of the international criminal court, a settlement enterprise of this nature is not only illegal but also considered a war crime. Yet these illegal settlers are able to run, campaign, and vote in Israeli elections and have come to occupy the position of king-makers in Israeli coalition politics.

Israel’s famed “democracy”, like its expansionist policies, doesn’t stop at or recognise the green line – if anything it has bulldozed them into oblivion. In practice, Israel effectively exercises total control over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem don’t get to vote for the regime that rules every aspect of their lives, even though the Israelis living on the same land do. These 5 million Palestinians vote for the PA, an administrative body that today has only partial control over 40% of the West Bank and is dependent on Israel for its survival. The PA was supposed to exist for five years while Palestinians transitioned to statehood, but that state never came. Successive Israeli governments made sure of that, using settlements and annexation to turn the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem into an archipelago of disconnected Palestinian population centres.

PA legislative elections set for 22 May come after years of political repression and a recent wave of anti-democratic laws that were ushered in by Palestinian presidential decrees and have targeted the independence of the judiciary and civil society. Many consider the upcoming elections as a rubber stamp for power-sharing between the two ruling parties, Fatah and Hamas, with which they can solidify the gains they made from the last parliamentary election in 2006. The reality is that in a society where the average age is 21, the majority, if not all leadership positions are held by those with an average age of 70.

Despite real hunger among young Palestinians to participate in a democratic process and choose representatives, recent PA changes to electoral laws have made it virtually impossible to compete and break the monopoly of the ruling factions in the West Bank and Gaza. For example, the age requirement for candidates is 28, which is among the highest in the world and excludes many Palestinians from running. To get on the electoral list, candidates must pay a fee of $20,000 (US dollars) and resign if they work in certain jobs, which is extremely difficult in an economy that has very high unemployment rates.

Finally, the election was announced with only a few months’ lead-up time under a new voting system built on proportional representation, which favours established parties that have a strong national presence rather than young political upstarts.

Beyond these structural limitations there is the crushing impact of the military occupation on Palestinian political participation. Israel has consistently denied Palestinians the ability to hold elections in Jerusalem and has arrested elected members of parliament. Palestinians under occupation live under Israeli military orders and therefore have no civil rights; they have no freedom of assembly, association or expression, and it is illegal to start a Palestinian political party.

The tale of these two elections is not of democracy but of giving the veneer of legitimacy to a system that maintains the supremacy and domination of one people over another. In this reality, Palestinians are stripped of sovereignty and the agency to shape their lives, their futures and the ability to challenge this oppression. This system cannot offer true democracy and as such it must be dismantled. A new social contract must be built where every person can practise true self-determination and is free and equal.

Palestinians need an institutional vehicle to re-energise their national movement so it can challenge the status quo. The way forward starts with a reformed political system that is democratic and representative and can give a voice to all 13 million Palestinians around the world. The road to freedom starts with us.

Salem Barahmeh is a political advocate and the executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy