PA demands Israel allow East Jerusalemites to take part in Palestinian elections

Israel has long cracked down on Palestinian Authority activity in East Jerusalem; Palestinian elections official says contingency plans exist if Israel refuses request

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool/AFP)

The Palestinian Authority is set to formally request that Israel allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate in scheduled Palestinian national elections, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

“We will officially ask Israel to allow our people in Jerusalem to formally participate in the elections, whether as voters or as candidates,” Shtayyeh said.

On Friday night, PA President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree setting dates for three consecutive Palestinian national elections. If held, they would be the first Palestinian national elections in 15 years.

Observers are skeptical, however, that elections will actually take place. Abbas has vowed to hold elections several times since his four-year term ostensibly expired in 2009. However, repeated attempts to hold votes for president and parliament have flopped, largely due to the inability of rivals Fatah and Hamas to agree on terms.

East Jerusalem has also posed an obstacle to holding elections — or, some allege, a convenient excuse for Abbas not to hold them. Israel considers the entirety of Jerusalem to be its sovereign capital, and cracks down on Palestinian Authority activity within the city’s boundaries.

The European Union called on Monday for Israel to allow the Palestinians to hold their elections in East Jerusalem, which the EU considers part of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

“The EU also calls on Israeli authorities to facilitate the holding of elections across all the Palestinian territory,” the EU said on Sunday.

In his speech on Monday, Shtayyeh also requested the presence of international observers in Jerusalem to monitor the vote.

“We hope from the European Union… that there will be an international team of observers who can help us with the elections, and especially with elections in Jerusalem,” Shtayyeh said.

In the last round of Palestinian national elections, in 2005 and 2006, Israeli officials also initially said that Israel would not permit voting in East Jerusalem if the Hamas terror group, which avowedly seeks to destroy Israel, participated. Israel also detained several candidates who attempted to campaign in Jerusalem.

Israel eventually relented, however, allowing Palestinians to cast ballots at several post offices in the eastern part of the capital.

Palestinians view East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in 1967, as the capital of their yet-unrealized future state.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 20, 2012. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

When election talk filled the Palestinian airwaves in late 2019, Abbas refused to issue a decree before Israel guaranteed that East Jerusalem Palestinians could cast ballots. Israel reportedly ignored the request; as a result, political chatter circulated for months without any kind of formal process being initiated.

The overwhelming majority of East Jerusalem Palestinians cannot vote in Israeli national elections, as Israeli law only permits citizens of the Jewish state to cast ballots. Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem are considered “permanent residents” under Israeli law.

The Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s, outlined a mechanism to enable East Jerusalemites to participate in Palestinian elections. Under the Accords, Palestinians will be able to vote at any of five post offices scattered throughout East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

“Israel has said that it will uphold its signed agreements [with the Palestinians], and one of the most important is its commitment to allowing the participation of Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Shtayyeh said.

In the event that Israel does not permit election activity in the city, Palestinian Central Elections Committee head Hana Naser indicated on Saturday that there were options the Palestinians were examining use to circumvent the opposition.

“There are alternative plans, which will require some research and discussion with the various factions,” Naser said, without elaborating.

Palestinian Authority Central Elections Committee head Hana Naser addresses reporters at a press conference on Saturday, January 16, 2021 (WAFA)

There are ways to ensure East Jerusalemites can vote without requiring full Israeli approval. They can vote by mail, or, as in 2005, cast their ballots in Palestinian towns such as Abu Dis and A-Ram.

“These are technical problems, for which Palestinian civil society has proposed solutions,” Palestinian affairs analyst Jihad Harb told The Times of Israel late last year, during a previous election push.

In 2005 and 2006, East Jerusalem Palestinians also headed to the polls in parts of the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority defines as part of its Jerusalem Governorate. Ballot boxes were set up in Anata, Azariya, and Kafr Aqab, among other areas, said Palestinian elections official Ziyad Bakri, who directs the Jerusalem branch of the Palestinian elections agency.

“We can’t even register voters in East Jerusalem, because of the restrictions on our activity in the city. They came the day of elections, signed off their vote, we put some ink on their finger [to show they’ve voted], and that’s it,” Bakri said, adding that he had been briefly detained along with several other employees during a voting drive in the city in 2004.

It was not clear whether Shtayyeh’s remarks implied that an official request had already been submitted by the Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Commission, which is formally responsible for coordination with Israel. Two officials in the body did not respond to a request for comment.

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