The pages of the Palestinian political history book turn very slowly, incredibly slowly. By the time you read these words, Palestinians will have headed to the voting booths to elect municipal and village councils in what has become a saga of multiple waves of local elections with a continuous series of postponements. Furthermore, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections are set to take place on the 25th of January, more than half a decade late.
As in most societies, elections in Palestine ought to be the virtual fingers that turn political pages, usually closing a chapter and starting anew. Yet this has not always been the case here. Under a traditional leadership, with a stagnated political environment of internal hegemony and external military occupation, elections have been used over the years to entrench the already entrenched polity. Add to this the multi-pronged foreign interventions into Palestinian society politically, economically, and socially and elections have become watered down to the point where they are no longer enough of a force to turn the pages of history.
All of that is about to change, at least we hope so. More importantly, we hope that such a change will move our political life forward and not create a multiplicity of participation while paralyzing society at all levels. The fear of paralysis is real. Few countries, including countries-in-the-making like ours, renew every level of government in a short 12-month timeframe. Add to this the still evident lack of legal and legislative recourse, and the jitteriness in the Palestinian streets starts to make sense.
A new President was elected on January 9th, 2005. The election was boycotted by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and even so, President Mahmoud Abbas faced serious competition for the first time ever, taking 62% of the votes. Three waves of municipal and village council elections were orchestrated throughout 2005. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad participated and won significant seats across the Palestinian areas. More than a political systemic shift, in my opinion, this was a result of several factors: Palestinian despair after being battered by Israel for five years, following 38 years of occupation and 57 years of dispossession; the failure of the appointed municipal and village councils to be held accountable; and a loud and clear message to FATAH that it can no longer claim a monopoly on Palestinian politics. This message will be brought unequivocally home during the PLC elections.
The PLC elections of January 2006 will reshuffle the internal balances of power. Even before the elections, the process has shaken the very foundation that is supposed to carry the process forward. The election law was dealt with, by an expired PLC body, as if it were a t-shirt to be ripped apart with the winner getting the largest piece. All of this while Israel systematically moves ahead with destroying any remnants of a political horizon while daily ripping through what little remains of historic Palestine by continuing, unfazed, in building its illegal Separation Wall on Palestinian lands.
As lacking as the electoral process is, it does begin a historic process of elections in a multi-party environment. Elections do wonders in and of themselves; that is, if the political system itself has an acceptable level of confidence. Such a level of confidence has been nearly lost in Palestine and, in consequence, regrettably, we will not realize the full power of elections this time around. Instead of expecting wonders, we should be positively looking at this one-year election season as concrete that has now been poured. What remains to be seen is whether it will actually dry in time and remain in place to hold the Palestinian political house together.
Regardless, we should remember the insightful words of the renowned Israeli journalist living in Ramallah, Amira Hass, when she suggested that Palestinians would be better off to start acting like a serious national liberation movement rather than fall for the trappings of statehood without a state. She said: "The Palestinian people [are] capable of withstanding terrible trials and tribulations: physical, psychological and economic. It can certainly face those trials if they become a means within the context of planned, coordinated and deliberately led strategic action meant to break the rules of the game that faked peace and statehood, rules that were set down in the days of Oslo and are coming back to deceive us now once again."1
Hass boldly went on to say that, "In impersonating an ordinary ‘government’ to the world and to its people, at best it [the Palestinian Authority] is perceived as a corrupt and failing organization and at worst, as a sub-contractor for the bureaucracy of the occupation."2
Dr. Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University, recently said it point blank: "these [results of both Palestinian and Israeli] elections will set the stage for a third, ‘springtime’ intifada."3
Our future can only be shaped by our own hands. Are we ready, not only to turn the page, but to rip out and then rewrite the last chapter of the chronicle that has imprisoned us in occupation like never before?!
SAM BAHOUR is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian city of Al-Bireh. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
3 Published on 5 December 2005 in bitterlemons.org
This essay originally appeared in This Week in Palestine.