Israel has not responded to a request by the European Union in February for an exploratory delegation of observers to visit Jerusalem in advance of the upcoming Palestinian elections, EU officials said on Tuesday.
“On February 8, the European Union…sent a formal request to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting access for a European Union exploratory mission via Israel to the Palestinian territories,” the EU’s representative to the Palestinians, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, said in a press conference on Tuesday.
The Palestinian Authority formally asked the European Union for help in monitoring the scheduled Palestinian vote in mid-January, immediately after PA President Abbas ordered that elections be held.
Von Burgsdorff said the European Union did not receive a reply in the intervening weeks despite “continuous contact” from Israel. Election observation, the EU official argued, required an exploratory mission “several months before the elections to assess the situation.”
“The delay has considerably reduced the EU option to observe the May 22 legislative elections,” Von Burgsdorff said.
“We have no comment on this at this time,” the Foreign Ministry said in response to a query on the subject. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad claimed to official Palestinian Authority television on Monday night that Israel had asked the European Union’s observers not to arrive.
“Using the excuse of the coronavirus, the Israelis asked the European observers not to attend,” al-Ahmad said, in a potential reference to the heavy restrictions Israel imposed in late January on entering and exiting the country.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree in mid-January ordering the first Palestinian national elections in over 15 years. While Abbas has canceled election pledges before, anticipation is building that, this time, the Palestinians might actually head to a national vote.
The Palestinian legislative elections are scheduled for May 22, while presidential elections are set for July 31.
Some 25 Palestinian groups have registered electoral lists with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, including the Hamas terror group and exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan.
Palestinian officials have claimed that while they have formally updated Israel regarding their intention to hold elections in Jerusalem according to the Oslo Accords, Israel has yet to formally respond.
“We formally addressed the Israeli government regarding the participation of Jerusalemites, both as voters and as candidates, and we have the documentation for that. As such, what the President of Israel said was incorrect,” senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter in mid-March.
Around 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, they are considered permanent residents, not Israeli citizens, and they cannot vote in Israeli national elections. While Israel has offered citizenship to them on paper, East Jerusalemites face enormous practical hurdles to actually claiming it; others refuse citizenship on principle.
Israel is technically committed to allowing the Palestinians to hold elections in Jerusalem, according to the 1995 Oslo Accords.
The accords, a series of bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, specify that East Jerusalem Palestinians can vote at any of six polling stations scattered through the eastern part of the capital.
Critics accuse the Palestinian leadership of wielding the question of East Jerusalem participation as an excuse to not hold elections.
“It is an excuse, a way for all sides to climb down from the tree with dignity and not risk losing power,” former senior Israeli defense official Michael Milshtein told The Times of Israel in February.
Al-Sheikh appeared to be taking umbrage with statements attributed to President Reuven Rivlin in Hebrew media earlier in March. Rivlin reportedly told German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that “Israel will not intervene in the scheduled Palestinian elections.”
“The Palestinians are taking a great risk with democratic elections which are likely to bring an undemocratic movement to power, such as a group internationally regarded as a terror organization like Hamas — which will be able to take over Palestinian institutions,” Rivlin was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.
Al-Sheikh claimed that Israel had yet to respond to a request for the two parties to coordinate on holding the scheduled Palestinian vote.
Asked for documentary evidence, al-Sheikh’s office provided The Times of Israel with what it said was a formal letter to the Israeli military department tasked with coordinating with Palestinian officials.
That department — known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT — declined to comment.
Al-Sheikh’s letter — sent on January 17, two days after Abbas’s electoral decree — informed Israeli authorities that the legislative elections would take place on May 22 “in the Palestinian areas” and in accordance with Palestinian elections law.
“I appreciate your cooperation in facilitating this process, including the formation of a joint technical committee to discuss all matters relating to the implementation of these elections, in accordance with the same procedures of the 1995, 2005, and 2006 elections, based on the signed agreements between both sides,” al-Sheikh wrote.
While the letter does not explicitly mention East Jerusalem, bilateral agreements between Israelis and the Palestinians do guarantee the right of East Jerusalemites to vote in Palestinian elections.
According to al-Sheikh, Israel had informed the Palestinians, that no formal response would be forthcoming until after last week’s Israeli elections. Senior Palestinian officials have since said, however, that they still have yet to receive a response from Israel.