Issue No.
196, August 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Palestinian democracy
By Diana Buttu

Democracy has always been an essential part of Palestinian political life. Soon after the start of Israel's 1967 military occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Palestinians were casting their ballots in municipal elections. During the first Intifada, Palestinians were determining the leaders of the Intifada and, in prison, Palestinians continually determine their representatives through the electoral process. After the signing of the Oslo Agreements, Palestinians were casting their ballots in legislative and presidential elections.

Yet, internal Palestinian elections have always been plagued by Israeli interference. During the first Palestinian mayoral elections in 1976, Israel attempted to block the participation of candidates supported by the PLO. Israeli interference did not stop there: in June 1980, Israel attempted to assassinate three of the elected mayors and later deported two other mayors to Jordan. During the 1996 elections, the Israeli government attempted to prevent Palestinian East Jerusalemites from exercising their voting rights. Later in 2003 and in 2004, and in spite of Israel's demand for "reform," Israel barred Palestinian elections from taking place. Furthermore, despite overwhelming international support for Palestinian presidential elections in 2005, Israel again blocked the free exercise of democracy by hindering Palestinian Jerusalemites from freely voting and through the erection of military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.

Once again, Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now facing elections. The next round of PLC elections will take place this month, and most certainly, Israel will attempt to ensure that these elections are not free. Whether by determining Palestinian candidates and political parties, by blocking Palestinian participation through the erection of military checkpoints, or by denying Palestinian political prisoners the right to vote (in spite of the fact that many Palestinian prisoners are themselves candidates for PLC elections), the self-proclaimed "Middle East's only democracy" will attempt to ensure that the Palestinian exercise of democracy is not free.

Yet, despite difficulties, Palestinians, as in the past, will certainly prevail. Whether the results of the 1976 elections, in which 96 of the 116 candidates were PLO supporters, the 1996 PLC elections in which Palestinian Jerusalemites successfully cast their votes for the first time in history or the 2005 elections in which the international community pressured Israel to open polling stations in East Jerusalem, Palestinians have demonstrated their determination to exercise democracy.

Nonetheless, while Palestinians have been able to overcome Israel's attempts to block elections, one thing stands in the way of their true exercise of democracy: Israel's military occupation. What appears to be lost on many (though not lost on Palestinians) is the irony of exercising democracy while living under Israel's military rule. While Palestinians may be able to cast their ballots to determine their own leaders, they are not able to cast their ballots to determine their own future. Public opinion polls indicate that the issue of concern to Palestinians is not healthcare, education or taxes but Israel's military occupation and denial of freedom. The very candidates who will be elected in this month's election will still live under Israel's thumb, needing to obtain Israeli permits to be able to travel from one Palestinian area to the next. In short, no number of elections, no number of candidates and no number of political parties will be able to change the fact that Palestinian democracy will not be complete until Palestinian freedom is obtained.

This is not, however, a call not to vote. To the contrary. For despite living under Israel's military rule, the occupation cannot be used as an excuse to hinder Palestinian political, social and cultural development, all of which can be influenced by Palestinian elected officials. Elections will provide Palestinians with an opportunity to determine what type of government they wish to live under. Although this is not the first time that Palestinians will go to the polls for PLC elections, this is the first time that Palestinians will be afforded the opportunity to cast their acceptance or dissent of existing PLC members and political parties. The word "re-elect" – long absent from Palestinian political discourse – will once again be revived and Palestinians will be able to determine whether they are satisfied with the existing rule or whether it is time for change. Former PLC members will have to prove their track record and new candidates will need to demonstrate their ability to do better.

But beyond the campaign slogans and posters that will line the streets of Occupied Palestinian Territory, all candidates and parties will have to answer a number of questions and demonstrate their ability to lead and represent the people electing them. They will need to outline their vision for the future and, in turn, Palestinians will need to ask themselves how they, as a community, as a nation want to be internationally represented politically, culturally and socially. Furthermore, all parties must be forced to confront the fundamental issue facing Palestinians: how do they intend to address Israel's military occupation. It is not enough to simply state one's opposition to the occupation (as all of the parties will undoubtedly state) – what is needed (and what has been so desperately lacking) is a strategy to confront Israel's military occupation and free the Palestinians from Israel's grip. They will need to come up with a strategy to stop the tide of Israeli colonization that is taking over the West Bank; they will need to outline how they intend to stop Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes and will need to outline how they will create an independent Palestinian state and economy that is not largely based on foreign aid. While I am cognizant of the power imbalance between an occupier and the people it occupies, it does not mean that the Palestinians are powerless. Palestinians have the ability to garner support to end Israel's occupation and now is the time to use it. Without such strategies, Palestinian political parties will do little to achieve the Palestinian dream of complete and real democracy exercised when a people are free.
Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer.

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