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Abbas' former opponent speaks out on postponed elections

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti wants to see agreement between Fatah and Hamas and local elections held in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Palestinian official Mustafa Barghouti, speaks to reporters during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 24, 2015, on the file being prepared for the International Criminal Court (ICC) providing proof of what Palestinian authorities say are Israeli crimes committed against Palestinians. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI        (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is a medical doctor who graduated from Moscow University in 1978 and then specialized in internal medicine and cardiology at Al-Maqassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. In 1979, he co-founded a nongovernmental organization now known as the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS); in 2002, he co-organized a political movement, Mubadara (Palestinian National Initiative), for which he ran as candidate in the 2005 presidential elections that took place two months after the November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat.

Barghouti won 19.8% of the votes when running for president against Mahmoud Abbas in 2005. He said he considered it a victory, vowing to win the next time. But there haven’t been any further national presidential elections — though elections were announced by President Abbas in October 2009 and scheduled for January 2010, then canceled in November 2009 upon a request from the Central Elections Commission.

In 2006, Barghouti was elected to the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC), a body authorized in the Oslo Accord and based in the occupied Palestinian territory. But the work of the PLC was formally suspended in 2007; Hamas had effectively lost the presence of more than half of those elected on its Change and Reform List, as at least 45 out of 74 Hamas-backed elected legislators were either charged, tried or locked up in Israeli jails for being members of the Hamas movement.

The arrests and jailing of ministers, political figures and legislators occurred continuously. In a June 2010 interview, Barghouti said of the PLC, “The reason for its freezing is mainly the fact of Israel’s arresting one-third of the members of parliament. But the second reason is because both Fatah and Hamas could not agree to meet. And if they meet under the situation where one-third of the members are in jail, how would that reflect on the voting? So all these were complications. But the main factor that is preventing the council from properly working is the arrest of about 48 members of our council.”

He further explained in the 2010 interview that the problem is “the absence of a majority. If Fatah comes, Hamas does not come. If Hamas comes, Fatah does not come. What we need is an agreement. Of course, if the people are out of jail, Hamas automatically has a majority, and then the council can meet. But, the fact that one-third of Hamas' (parliamentary) members are in jail is preventing the normal procedure, and requires an agreement between the two factions to have the council meet. That is why it is not able to meet.”

Local elections initially scheduled for Oct. 8 — but now postponed and nowhere in sight — would have been an essential preparatory step for presidential and PLC elections, in addition to promised, first-time-ever elections for the PLO's Palestine National Council.

“The cancellation of elections was a negative thing; we opposed it,” Barghouti told Al-Monitor in an interview in his PMRS office in Ramallah on Oct. 8, the same day the elections were supposed to have been held.

One of his goals, Barghouti explained, was to obtain governmental authorization for elections in East Jerusalem — but that did not happen, apparently to avoid Israeli objections. “We [in the Palestinian National Initiative] said, if you can’t have it because Israel will block it, let’s do it by consensus. But we should have a council for Jerusalem.” 

With an official authorization for elections in East Jerusalem, the door would have been opened for candidates, and East Jerusalem Palestinians would have been able to work toward a consensus list, as has happened in some places in the West Bank. “In some places in the West Bank, they have already formed councils without elections,” Barghouti explained. “The different parties and families have agreed upon a certain number of officials — such as 11 members out of 11 members, so no competition. So [if the elections had proceeded], they would have been elected by consensus.”

If this could happen in East Jerusalem, balloting then would not be necessary, and there would be, at long last, a representative council there. Conceivably, an East Jerusalem council could conduct discussions on matters relating to the Palestinian East Jerusalemites’ daily lives with whomever they saw fit, including with officials of Israel’s Jerusalem municipality — where Palestinians have never had any representation due to a decision to avoid participating in municipal elections in order not to confer legitimacy on the occupation.

Barghouti said it would be up to the hypothetical, not-yet-formed Palestinian East Jerusalem council to decide what’s next: They “will decide on their own what they will do; they will be representing the public there. And they will fight for the rights of the public in every possible way.”

He seemed angry that the authorities in Ramallah did not order elections in East Jerusalem. “We asked for that, two months before the court’s decision. I mean, the Palestinian National Initiative, my party, which is a non-Fatah, non-Hamas, democratic group that advocates nonviolence, but which advocates democracy heavily. We demanded that the elections also take place in Jerusalem. … But to claim that because we didn’t have elections in Jerusalem — which is the responsibility partially of the [Palestinian] government — you [the Palestinian government] cancel elections or stop elections altogether? Unacceptable. They [the Palestinian government] should have said, ‘No, hold the elections also in Jerusalem’ if they cared about the matter.” 

“You know, they [Israel] have not allowed me to go to Jerusalem since 2005, when I ran for president,” Barghouti said, adding, “Since then, I was punished.”

Regarding whether there was a link, he said, “Of course! It happened when I was running for president, and since then I was arrested four times in Jerusalem — first for running [for president] and then for refusing their [Israeli authorities’] order and going to Jerusalem. Since then, they don’t allow me to go to Jerusalem, where I was born and where I worked as a medical doctor for 15 years, and I have a sister living in Jerusalem. They confine me; they don’t allow me to go to Jerusalem. But I don’t listen to them. Yesterday, I was in Jerusalem.” It was a Friday, and Israeli authorities had allowed men over the age of 60 to go to Friday prayer in Jerusalem. Still, he was lucky he wasn’t spotted. He could have been subject to arrest — or he could even have been beaten. Barghouti has been injured by Israeli forces, by his count, eight times.

“I was shot twice, in 1996, when I was treating an injured person in my white coat, as a medical doctor. A sniper shot me twice with high-velocity bullets; I have 36 pieces of shrapnel in my back and shoulder. That was at the entrance to Ramallah in 1996, when there were demonstrations following [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s effort to build a tunnel below Al-Aqsa Mosque. [On other occasions] I was hit with tear gas bombs, with stun grenades, with metallic bullets that they call rubber bullets. I was beaten by Israeli soldiers on Jan. 2, 2002, when we held a press conference in Jerusalem with members of the European Union. They arrested me and then they released me at the checkpoint after a few hours — and then, at the al-Ram checkpoint, the army attacked me again and dragged me and hit me with rifles on my knee, and they fractured my patella. … So it’s not the first time, and I am lucky that I am still alive, but many other Palestinians unfortunately were not that lucky,” he said. This was reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

On Oct. 24, 2015, Barghouti was attacked as he was returning home from a dinner with friends in Darna Restaurant in Ramallah by an assailant with a knife whom, Barghouti believed, was aiming to kill but in the end was only able to slash his face. Palestinian authorities promised an investigation, but the attacker and possible accomplice were neither identified nor caught.

Concerning Gaza, Barghouti said that even if there were unresolved problems that made it difficult or impossible to hold local elections everywhere in Gaza, the elections still should have gone forward where it was possible. Balloting could have been rescheduled for a later date in those places in Gaza — as happened in a few places in the West Bank where redistricting was being contested, during local elections in 2012 (they were held only in the West Bank, and the net result was to remove many Hamas-linked officials from local office). 

It is very important to move away from the one-party rule system, Barghouti said — with Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza — and to develop a more democratic culture.

“I think that having pluralism in these elections would have helped smooth the relationships between political parties, and especially between Fatah and Hamas, because we would have ended up with many [local] councils with a mixed political pluralistic system, which means that people have to learn to work together. And that, in my opinion, is the entry point to ending the internal division and to have real reconciliation and re-establishment of democratic structure and democracy as a way of dealing with our differences,” Barghouti said. 

Barghouti said he would favor a quota for the representation of young people in the municipalities, as there is for women and for Christians in Palestine. Currently, young people are excluded from the political process. Barghouti did succeed, at a PLO leadership meeting held in Cairo once [he did not specify when], in lowering the age of eligibility for membership in the PLO’s PNC from 28 to 21. Now, he said, “We need to do more for the other Palestinian councils,” considering that “80% of the [Palestinian] public is below the age of 33, and one/third are between the ages of 17 and 28.”

Asked if he is still planning to run for president, Barghouti hesitated, “I don’t know; I mean it will depend on what I’m running for. … First, we have to see what is going to happen.” 

But he feels strongly about recent outside discussions of succession. “What people should know, especially in the West, is that you cannot impose a president just because this country likes him or that country loves him. No president will have legitimacy without elections by the people.” 

Some, particularly in the United States, have lobbied for there to be a vice president — a post that would not be elected, but rather appointed. But Barghouti rejected the idea sharply, since Palestinian law “does not say anything about a vice president. There is nothing like that in our constitution, which is [technically] not a constitution; it is called a Basic Law. There is nothing. How can you put a vice president without changing the law first?”

About Abbas’ health being in the spotlight when he underwent a medical procedure as part of testing after reportedly not feeling well in Ramallah, Barghouti said, “He’s OK. That’s what they [the doctors and Abbas’ aides] say. … He looks OK. … I don’t know the medical condition exactly, and I can’t give you speculation about somebody’s health. He went [to the brand-new Consultative Hospital in Dahiet al-Reehan in Ramallah], as it was announced, for tests. The tests included catheterization, which came out to be normal as they said. He came out walking from the hospital on the same day, which means he’s OK. … It’s a very well-equipped hospital, and the doctor who did it for him is a governmental doctor from Ramallah Hospital; [the doctor is] a Palestinian [citizen].”

“The problem is not the succession issue,” Barghouti said. “The problem is the lack of democratic practice, the fact that we did not have presidential elections on time, and we did not have [Palestinian] Legislative Council elections on time. And what we need today is to find a way of having these elections.” Currently, Abbas holds two presidential titles (in addition to being the head of Fatah). 

Abbas was elected in 2005 as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In November 2008, he was formally confirmed as president of the State of Palestine by a vote of the PLO’s Central Council during a meeting in Ramallah. Abbas actually already had that title, by virtue of becoming chairman of the PLO Executive Committee soon after the death of Arafat. The PLO Executive Committee unanimously agreed that PLO Secretary-General Abbas would succeed Arafat as chairman of the PLO Executive Committee. After Arafat died, the then 69 year-old Abbas was appointed chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Weeks later, Abbas was “elected to the head of the PA because he ran in elections when I ran against him,” Barghouti added. “If I [had] won, I could have become the president of the PA, and he would have been the head of the PLO” — and president of the State of Palestine.

But the first time Abbas publicly used the title "president of the State of Palestine" was in signing the letter he wrote to apply for UN membership for the State of Palestine on Sept. 23, 2011 — now preserved and recorded as UN Security Council documents.

Barghouti explained that Abbas was indeed elected to the position — that is, he was elected by the PNC in 1996 to the PLO Executive Committee, and then elected by the Executive Committee as secretary-general of the PLO. “The Executive Committee can temporarily choose him, but this had to be approved by the PLO’s Central Council,” Barghouti explained, and that happened eight years ago.

While there may appear to be no statutory limit to time in office for the president of the State of Palestine, Barghouti disagreed. “There is a limit, because each time, according to the law, each time we have a meeting of the PLO’s PNC, he [Abbas, as head of the PLO] has to go through elections — he and all other members of the Executive Committee. So, basically, nobody can be elected as president or chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, and thus as president of the State, without being elected by the PLO’s PNC. The problem is that we have not had a full meeting of the PNC since 1996” — which was the last time the PLO’s PNC elected members to the PLO Executive Committee.

The prospect of elections offered hope for some movement, but external and internal constraints continue to block the situation, and people are again just marking time, waiting to see what will happen next. 

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication. 

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