Palestine Pulse

Will Israel allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem?

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Article Summary
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called for legislative elections within six months, but the ability of East Jerusalemites being able to participate is uncertain, as usual.

With reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas having reached an impasse, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on Dec. 22 and called for legislative elections to be held within six months. The move also highlights another Palestinian divide in returning the status of East Jerusalem to the spotlight, renewing the struggle with Israel over allowing residents there to vote in Palestinian elections.

On Dec. 24 at the presidential compound in Ramallah, Abbas met with Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Elections Commission (CEC), to discuss the elections. There was no mention of East Jerusalem or the participation of Jerusalemites. On Jan. 4, however, Abbas said, “We will not accept the holding of elections if they do not take place in Jerusalem too. Back in 2006, Israel objected to holding elections in Jerusalem, but I stood my ground until the elections were actually held in the city.” 

According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in May, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem number 332,000. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported in March that they number 435,000. In the recently dissolved PLC, eight deputies represented the city, five from Hamas and three from Fatah.

Amin Maqboul, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, told Al-Monitor, “In every [Palestinian] legislative race, Israel announces its rejection of voting in Jerusalem. This was the case in 1996 and 2006 and in the 2005 presidential elections. The Palestinian leadership, however, remains steadfast every time, deploying efforts to galvanize the international community into pressuring Israel to finally yield to their demand to hold elections [there].” 

The status of East Jerusalem is central to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an issue notably evident during the 1996 and 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. According to the CEC website, in past elections, Israel circulated false information in a bid to intimidate Jerusalemites and discourage them from voting, and it threatened to deprive voters in East Jerusalem of the services and benefits provided by the Israeli municipality.

Also during previous elections, the Israeli police raided registration centers and apprehended staff for investigation. It also closed some voting-related offices in the city and hung banners prohibiting the use of the premises for voter registration. There were also official Israeli orders to block CEC staff from working in East Jerusalem.

Khaled Abu Arfa, the minister of Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian government elected in 2006, told Al-Monitor, “The participation of Jerusalemites is subject to three factors. First, they are not excited to vote or even optimistic that they will be able to do so. Second, the coming days will witness a race among the Israeli parties to try to prevent Jerusalemites from voting in the elections. Third, the Palestinian leadership does not appear to be adamant enough to impose its will on their participation in the elections, as it is feeling weak against Israel.” 

The Oslo II agreement signed by Israel and the PLO in September 1995 stipulates that Palestinians in East Jerusalem can cast votes in Israeli post offices in East Jerusalem at specified locations. In part at the behest of the Palestinian Authority (PA), previous US administrations, along with the European Union, maintained pressure on Israel to adhere to the agreement, as happened with the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2006.

Ahmad Abu Halabiya, former head of the PLC Jerusalem Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas’ talk about holding legislative elections in Jerusalem is for the sake of the media only and carries no weight.” He further charged, “Abbas is not really interested in holding elections because he knows that he will not obtain the majority he wants. He just made this statement to threaten and pressure Hamas [into a reconciliation]. So far, no presidential decrees have been issued on the date of the elections and no election laws.”

Khalil al-Tufakji, head of the Maps and Survey Department at Orient House, in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor, “Israel will not allow any Palestinian elections in the city under an Israeli right-wing government, where political parties are trying to boost their status for the upcoming elections, especially when it comes to [East] Jerusalem, which they consider [part of] the capital of Israel.”

Tufakji expects that Jerusalemites will end up voting in the central West Bank cities of Ramallah and al-Bireh, although they are frustrated with the PA, which is not providing them any benefit. According to him, Abbas's talk of holding elections in East Jerusalem amounts to empty slogans to the city's residents.

Meanwhile, Hamas, which controls Gaza, would like all elections — legislative, presidential and for the Palestinian National Council — to be held simultaneously. The group also opposes conducting legislative elections alone, as it appears that Abbas plans to hold them without the movement's participation. Hamas is joined in its opposition by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad, which consider the decision illegal and unconstitutional. If Palestinians in the West Bank go to the ballot box while those in Gaza are denied the opportunity, the elections would be viewed as lacking legitimacy.

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Adnan Abu Amer heads the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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