By Khalid Amayreh
Frustrated by the utter lack of progress in the manifestly futile peace process with Israel, the American-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) has once again designated a date for holding general elections in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
But the organization of elections hedges to a large extent on Israeli consent. The Israeli occupation army, after all, still controls every nook and cranny of the West Bank, and it would be unimaginable to hold elections if the Israeli occupiers said "No."
Hamas has also objected to the unilateral announcement in Ramallah, arguing that the holding of elections in the absence of basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and expression would be a foolish and irresponsible act.
Hamas is correct. The West Bank is languishing under a police-state apparatus, with a nearly total absence of the rule of law as well as basic liberties, without which the organization of true elections would be meaningless.
The organization of elections would require the availability of basic rights and freedoms, including the freedom to hold rallies, meetings, do campaigning and electioneering without being suppressed and harassed by the police and other security agencies.
Needless to say, these rights and freedoms don't exist in the West Bank today. Mendacious claims to the contrary don't really warrant a refutation. The people and human rights organizations operating in the region know the truth too well.
Indeed, if a small child is caught in the West Bank today raising a small green flag, bearing the Islamic article of faith, there is no god, but one God, and Muhammed is His Messenger, the child will be arrested, beaten and his family will be held accountable for the "crime" of raising Hamas's banner aloft.
Some Palestinian officials might claim that for the duration of the elections and the immediate period preceding them, candidates and electoral lists would be able to do electioneering rather freely and that the elections themselves would be monitored by international observers.
However, that is wouldn't be enough. We all know that in order to hold true representative elections, equal opportunities must be given to all contenders and candidates, a condition that is conspicuously absent in the West Bank.
More to the point, we all know that most of the Islamist people who might contest the elections are already behind bars, either in PA or Israeli jails, and held without charge or trial, mostly on concocted and frivolous charge that have nothing to do with any genuine violation.
Indeed,in any other country that respects itself, the lengthy incarceration of people because of their ideology would be considered a taboo.
In addition to hounding and imprisoning people because of their thoughts, the PA has taken over or deliberately ruined hundreds of Islamic institutions, including Zakat committees, schools, orphanages, social and athletic clubs as well as health institutions.
In some instances, the PA has totally illegally seized businesses and workshops, thus depriving entire families of their source of livelihood.
Hence, one might wonder how genuine elections could be held under the existing abnormal conditions, this is unless the PA is planning to rig the elections by hook or by crook in order to compensate and avenge its electoral defeat of 2006.
The PA says it will be willing to allow international observers to monitor the elections. However, the presence of international observers by itself wouldn't create an ideal atmosphere for transparent elections.
I am talking about pre-election preparations, such as campaigning and holding rallies in a free environment.
True, the PA might allow one or two weeks of free and unfettered campaigning, but this short period would be utterly insufficient to make the transition from a police-state atmosphere to freedom where all political groups and parties, including Hamas, are given an equal opportunity.
Obviously, the PA decision to hold elections has been taken under pressure from a few leftist and liberal parties with little weight in the Palestinian streets. These parties hope that in the absence of Hamas's participation in the elections, they would be able to obtain a significant chunk of the people's vote.
The rationale of these parties is that people disgruntled and disillusioned with the Fatah rule, and they are certainly many, would give their votes to these parties.
Unfortunately, considerations having to do with national Palestinian interest seem to come a distant second after the above-mentioned parties' short-sighted expediency.
The PA decision to hold elections is in no way an expression of a commitment to democracy. In fact, Fatah, the political and security backbone of the PA, has never showed a genuine commitment to democracy, neither under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat nor under the current leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In fact, Fatah and democracy have always seemed an eternal oxymoron. Arafat, for example, held all the reins, controlled all the money and took all the decisions. His successor, Abu Mazen, allowed the Fatah-dominated security agencies to take over and dissolve democratically-elected institutions all over the West Bank.
It is widely believed that the election decision is related to two important developments that really shook and shocked Fatah to the core, prompting the movement to try rather desperately to enhance its public standing:
First, the recent revelation by al-Jazeera TV network of documents showing the extent of concessions to Israel by Palestinian negotiators. The revelations infuriated and embarrassed the PA, prompting PA leaders to accuse the pan-Arab network of waging an all-out war on the Ramallah regime in cahoots with Israel.
The so-called Palestinian Papers showed Palestinian leaders as "liars" who tell their people one thing with regard to Palestinian national constants on such paramount issues as Jerusalem and the right of return for the refugees, but tell their Israeli counterparts an entirely different thing.
This scandalous exposition of the true stands of PA negotiators seems to have seriously undermined the public standing of the PA leadership.Hence, the quest to seek a renewed popularity.
The other factor contributing to the election decision has to do with ground-shaking events in Egypt, which are also shaking the PLO regime to the core. The tyrannical regime of Hosni Mubarak has always been viewed as the PLO leadership's ultimate insurance policy in the Arab world. Its possible disappearance therefore and especially the emergence of a new regime in Cairo in which the pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood plays a certain role is a real nightmare for Fatah, the PA and PLO combined.
Hence, the decision to hold elections in the hope of neutralizing any possible ramifications of the Egyptian revolution, e.g. strengthening Hamas and enhancing its bargaining position vis-à-vis Fatah.
There is no doubt that holding elections is a positive thing to do in ordinary circumstances. However, when holding election obscures and hinders greater national goals, such as freedom from a foreign occupation, it becomes an impeder rather than a facilitator of true nation-building.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|