A different view on the Palestinian legislative elections
The Palestinian people should boycott a third set of Palestinian legislative elections and choose a democratic alternative instead, writes Haidar Eid from Gaza
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Israeli border policemen detain a Palestinian activist during clashes at a protest against a nearby Jewish settlement in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah
Following assurances and promises by US president George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair to spread democracy in the Middle East, only to see the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, a third of the Palestinian population (those in the pre-1967 territories) voted against the existing Palestinian Authority (PA) government, led by Fatah.
Instead, they voted in favour of what seemed then to be the only political force capable of challenging the remnants of the Oslo Accords. They did not vote based on their own political perspectives, but rather to punish a "Third-worldish" authority characterised by corruption, suppression of freedom, de-prioritisation of the national struggle, minimisation of the Palestinian people to the population of the West Bank and Gaza, security coordination under the oversight of a US general, the steady growth of layers of an unproductive bureaucracy and comprador class, and the suppression of the national opposition parties.
Add to this the transformation of Palestinian national aspirations through the marginalisation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the establishment of an "independent" Palestinian mini-state on a fraction of the land of historic Palestine, and the recognition of Israel without asking Israel to reciprocate and recognise the rights of the Palestinian people, thereby bestowing legitimacy on the Zionist project. This process had been unprecedented in the history of national liberation movements, including the Bantustans or ethnic enclaves alleged to be sovereign states within apartheid-era South Africa. In Palestine's unique case, the oppressed and colonised accepted the process of bantustanisation, ceding to the coloniser 78 per cent of the land.
The rights of return and compensation for refugees, full equality under the law, i.e. self-determination, were diverted into a marathon "peace process" without a timeframe or benchmarks. And the illusion of two "equal parties," Israeli and Palestinian, went mainstream. Each party has a president, prime minister, ministers, government, and security forces that coordinate with each other against "terrorists elements" capable of disturbing the peace, who are always necessarily Palestinians.
In order to complete this fallacy and reinforce the new reality that emerged after 1993, the parties had to create new institutions reflecting the supposed equality between them and sell the illusion of "independence" to the Palestinian people. Among these institutions was the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which represents only the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
When the first elections were held to this in 1996, most left-wing and Islamist forces boycotted them, for reasons largely consistent with what is proposed by this article and which remain valid: namely, the impossibility of voting freely and choosing a candidate under the threatening guns of the occupier. History has never witnessed such a process, unless we consider Afghanistan and Iraq to be free countries. But the election result was known in advance: it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a political force that had consistently shown opposition to the Oslo Agreements to win a majority of seats in the new Legislative Council. As a result, victory went to the right-wing political force that had signed the Accords, with some token opposition included to complete the picture. This was why Haidar Abdel-Shafi resigned from the Legislative Council and explains the effective opposition from the late Edward Said to the Accords as a whole and why he called them a "second Nakba".
Despite the non-participation of many political forces from the religious right and the left, an enormous change in the political culture of Palestine took place, reflected in the emergence of new terms -- "a culture of dialogue", "recognition of the other", "empowerment", "NGO-isation" -- accompanied by favours to those in power and the elevation of the security services, who were now considered as an extension of the revolution and the resistance. All contributed to the spread of the Oslo virus, which infected the political powers that had previously refused such things. This paved the way for broader participation in the 2006 elections, on the basis of the possibility of change from within and the adaptation to the new reality created by the Agreements and hopes for forming a strong opposition from within, etc. Reasons cited to explain the lack of participation in the 1996 elections were completely ignored.
The Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza thus went to the polls again, but this time in order to avoid repeating the outcome of the previous election, and to repudiate the PA and its governing party. Their defeat brought great hopes that the status quo had successfully been ended. And then the problem became the religious right that had won the elections, but had forgotten that many of those who had voted for it had not necessarily been supporters of its political, or particularly ideological, programme.
The formerly leftist, now turned neo-liberal NGOs, had decided to join the 2006 elections due to the fact that they had been historically marginalised by the secular right-wing leadership of the PLO and then got infected by the new political culture. Some of their revolutionary leaders were eliminated, and some were even handed over to the occupation forces. This would cost them dearly, as evidenced by the very few votes they got in 2006.
The results of the PLC elections were a surprise, if not a blow to the domination of imperialism, Zionism, and the Arab reactionary regimes, in spite of the money poured into advertising campaigns attempting to consolidate the same culture that had prevailed for over a decade -- the culture of Camp David and Taba, and Gaza-Jericho first, and Oslo, and Wadi Araba. This was a culture based on racial partition and two states for two peoples. During the apartheid era, South Africa was similarly partitioned into five "countries", four of which were Bantustans, for five "peoples." White South Africa controlled 88 per cent of the land and resources, leaving little for the natives. The Palestinian signatories to the Oslo Accords were similarly aspiring to establish an "independent state" on 22 per cent of the land.
But the outcome of the 2006 elections carried a clear message against this political logic, and it came as a surprise even to those who won a majority of seats. The Oslo virus, however, continued to infect even the victorious right-wing religious party that had won through its opposition to such Agreements, but only by disregarding the principle that participation in the elections was in itself a tacit approval of the foundations on which they were held. It was forgotten, alas, that the PLC is one of the institutions, amongst others, including the PA itself, with its "ministries" and security apparatuses, that had emerged from the Oslo Agreements.
As the election results ran contrary to the scenario envisioned by the US and Israel, it was necessary to punish the Palestinian voters who had dared to take a lie -- the spread of democracy in the Middle East -- seriously. The result was inevitable: a long-lasting and horrific, crippling blockade was imposed on the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air, with the participation of the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. This blockade, in its diverse forms, has caused the deaths of over 700 patients denied life-saving treatments, continuous power interruptions, an unprecedented medical crisis, the prevention of travel through the seven crossings that divide the Gaza Strip from the outside world, scarcities of fuel supplies, and the prevention of the imports of textbooks and other materials, milk foremost among them. There is no room here to write at length about this mediaeval siege, but the United Nation special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, summarised its intent by calling it "a prelude to genocide".
This is exactly what happened two years after the first transparent and free-and-fair elections in Palestinian history. The siege failed to subjugate the Palestinians of Gaza; on the contrary, it entrenched a culture of resistance in multiple forms. The Israeli occupation forces therefore waged an unprecedented onslaught on the Gaza Strip, causing the deaths of more than 1,440 inhabitants, 443 of them children killed in broad daylight, with the tacit approval of the so-called international community and the Arab reactionary regimes. Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni declared the war from Cairo, in the presence of the foreign minister of the Mubarak regime, the same minister who had threatened to "break the legs" of the children and women of Gaza if they dared to encroach on Egypt's "national security".
In spite of this high price and the enormous sacrifices they endured, the Palestinian people did not kneel. But the question here relates to the most prominent link between the 2006 elections and the price paid by ordinary people for its outcome. The equation has become clear: if you go to the ballot box and elect a government that is against the continuation of the "dialogue" with Israel through a US-brokered process, you will face a crippling blockade, accompanied by a brutal genocidal war, with the finger of blame pointed at you.
Just as the 1996 elections did not lead to an independent Palestinian state with the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, the 2006 elections similarly did not lead to either independence or liberation, despite their dramatically different outcome. On the contrary, each election birthed an authority that did not enjoy any form of sovereignty, unless we consider flags, red carpets, the national anthem and the title of prime minister to be the most important manifestations of sovereignty.
The 1996 elections cemented and legitimised the division of the West Bank into Bantustans, continuing the established pattern of the infamous apartheid system, naming through creating the regions A, B, and C, and they created a Palestinian national authority whose only task was to implement repressive security measures against its opponents and elevate the idea of "independence" at the expense of the right to self-determination, thereby dealing with only one form of oppression, namely the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even this now became worse, since these regions were now acknowledged to be "disputed".
The 2006 elections, however, also spawned another, albeit unwanted, authority, entrenched in the Gaza Strip and playing the role of prison sergeant, or chief of prisoners, regulating the lives of 1.6 million prisoners. Many attempts were made by the winners of the elections to appease the US through messages reassuring US President Barack Obama and emphasising more than once from the lips of the most prominent leaders their willingness to accept an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 borders without the reciprocal recognition of Israel. This is notwithstanding the obvious fact that this is an acceptance of a racist proposal originally made by the Zionist left and one that ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Palestinian people are in the Diaspora and 1948 territories.
This Oslo-ised pragmatism has been accompanied by the application of strict religious laws, without formally legalising them, reflecting the new rulers' ideological background, but under the claim that they sought "the protection of customs and traditions." Day by day, we have seen this authority shift from a stage of resistance to the siege to coexisting with it, and finally to reaching a stage of taking advantage of it. It has created a new, unproductive rentier class, whose capital is based on trade in the tunnels (essentially the only lifeline for the people of the Gaza Strip), land trading, a monopoly on the marketing of building materials, and so on. This has gone hand-in-hand with a monopoly on the definition of resistance, excluding the possibility of reconciliation with those who do not follow its ideology.
Today, as part of the falsely constructed binary between these two authorities comes the call to register at polling stations and to prepare for new PLC elections as part of a new reconciliation agreement between them. The choice again is between the religious right and the secular right, with a third, necessary alternative absent. What is the desired outcome of these elections? And are they radically distinct from their predecessors? Are they meant to address the crucial mistakes that plagued the previous two elections or that resulted from them? This time, will the right to self-determination as defined by every Palestinian appear on the ballot? In other words, will the electoral process include all the sectors of the Palestinian people and their aspirations, or will it, like its predecessors, be exclusionary and limited? Will it help to deconstruct the fetish of "independence" away from foreign intervention?
In other words, will they be free elections, even though they will be held once again under the barrel of the gun of the occupier? Will they reflect the genuine desires of the colonised Palestinian people? What will happen if these desires conflict with those of the coloniser, as happened in 2006? All the messages sent to the White House then did not help convince it to accept the results. Similarly, all the concessions made by the authority of 1996 did not contribute to convincing the Israeli occupier to live up to its commitments made in the signed Accords, let alone under international law.
It is time to break the idols and to overcome illusions. This is the time of revolutions, the time of change in the Arab world. No election held under occupation, colonisation and apartheid and excluding most sectors of the Palestinian people can be considered free. If all Palestinians, especially in the Diaspora, do not participate, the result will be known in advance. The results can only serve the will and interests of the occupier, promoting further the fragmentation experienced by the Bantustans of the West Bank and Gaza, either through futile negotiations, lasting forever by design, if the secular right wins, or through continued blockade and further genocidal wars, if the religious right again manages to surprise everybody. Either/or is the only choice we are given by the new PLC elections, which would in any event represent only a third of the Palestinian people.
The democratic alternative is the one that reflects the collective will of the Palestinian people. This alternative lies in elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) after reconstructing the PLO on the basis of true democracy to ensure the genuine representation of all national and Islamist factions. PNC elections would ensure the representation of the Diaspora away from the mentality of a false independence cultivated under an oppressive occupier. These elections could bring the Palestinian people closer to self-determination, as defined by international law, while restoring their legitimate right to multiple forms of resistance.
We should not, therefore, repeat the same mistake for a third time by falling into the trap of PLC elections, regardless of the meaningless wrangling over the allowance or disallowance of the work of the Central Election Commission in Gaza, as if this would be a national achievement. The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank should NOT go to the polls again, even if the two rival factions reach such an agreement. Our registration at the polls should only work to advance simultaneous PNC elections, since PLC members earn automatic membership to the PNC.
NO to PLC elections held under policies of occupation, colonisation, and Israeli apartheid. And YES to elections to the PNC, the Palestinian parliament, the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people.
The writer is an independent political commentator from the Gaza Strip.