A dispute over the vote in East Jerusalem threatens to cancel or delay the first Palestinian elections in more than 15 years.
As President Mahmoud Abbas vows to hold the vote, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem could give him an excuse to call off an election that seems increasingly threatening his power.
The Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and Abbas has stated that its residents cannot be excluded from the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 22nd.
But the Palestinian Authority may need Israel’s permission to allow around 6,000 residents of the city to cast ballots. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its unitary capital and prevents the PA from operating in the city. It remains to be said whether it will allow a vote in East Jerusalem, but it has signaled that it will not agree to do so.
These 6,000 voters are unlikely to affect the outcome of an election in which more than 2.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are eligible to vote. There might even be workarounds that allow them to cast ballots without Israeli permission.
However, the issue has great symbolic significance for Palestinian claims to the city and provides Abbas with a pretext to abolish elections where his Fatah party is expected to lose power and influence. With the militant Islamic Hamas movement poised to make a profit, Israel could also welcome any delay. However, abandoning the vote could create tension in a city that has clashed in recent days and unrest elsewhere in the areas.
Here’s a look at what’s at stake:
A city on the edge
In the 1967 war, Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas that the Palestinians want for their future state. Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly afterwards and regards the entire city – along with its holy places, which are sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians – as its unitary capital.
The Palestinians consider East Jerusalem an Occupied Territory, a position with broad international support. Palestinians are eligible for Israeli citizenship, but most have refused so as not to legitimize Israel’s claims to the city. Those who apply face a long and uncertain bureaucratic process.
Most of the 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have some form of permanent residence that allows them to travel freely, vote in local elections, and receive Israeli welfare benefits. However, it can be revoked for a number of reasons, including an extended stay out of town. Israeli Jews born anywhere in Jerusalem automatically receive full citizenship.
The fate of Jerusalem and its holy places is one of the most explosive themes of the conflict, and the city has seen several waves of violence over the years. For the past few days, Palestinians have been arguing with Israeli police outside the Old City over barricades erected to prevent crowds from gathering during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
The planned elections were originally intended to be a competition between Abbas’ Fatah movement and his rival in Hamas, which won a landslide in the last election in 2006 and took power in Gaza the following year.
But in recent weeks, Fatah has split into three rival lists, including one led by Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Polls suggest a split Fatah vote that could leave united Hamas as the largest party in parliament. If Barghouti decides to run for president in a vote scheduled for July 31, he is likely to easily defeat Abbas.
These results would likely mark the end of the 85-year-old Abbas’ political career and raise a new leadership who view Israel, the United States and the European Union as terrorists.
East Jerusalem offers a way out for everyone.
Abbas could cancel the elections and accuse Israel of refusing to vote in East Jerusalem. He could point to Israel’s brief detention of three candidates over the weekend.
Few Palestinians would vote in favor of holding elections excluding East Jerusalem. Israel and the international community could tacitly welcome the move in order to avoid the headache of another victory for Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Abbas has not yet given a clear signal of his intentions. In a speech on Sunday evening he said: “We are determined to hold elections on time in all the Palestinian territories where we previously held them – namely in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.”
In a sign that a delay may be in the works, the Palestinian Central Electoral Commission said late Sunday that if Israel does not allow a vote in East Jerusalem it will be “ready to implement any agreements based on instructions from the Palestinian leadership”.
A risky move
The Electoral Commission says, as in the previous election, around 6,300 East Jerusalem residents would vote in post offices that require Israeli permission to accept. It is said that the rest of the 150,000 or so eligible voters in East Jerusalem could vote on the outskirts of the city with or without Israel’s consent.
For those living in the inner city, the Palestinians could either defy Israeli restrictions in a campaign of civil disobedience or build voting booths in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy place under Jordanian supervision. Israel may hesitate to stop such activities for fear of creating tension or preventing free and fair elections.
Less provocatively, the 6,300 Palestinians could possibly vote in the West Bank or on the other side of Israel’s separation barrier, areas to which the residents of East Jerusalem normally have free access. The Palestinians could also try to use UN facilities in East Jerusalem.
Any attempt to call off the elections – even through Jerusalem – could potentially hit Abbas, who has become increasingly authoritarian and unpopular since his four-year tenure as president ended in 2009. The cancellation of an election that his party is likely to lose could anger the Palestinians and potentially spark violence among rival factions.