RAMALLAH, West Bank—As Israel pummeled Gaza with airstrikes for 11 days before a cease-fire went into effect on May 21, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was eerily absent from the scene, doing little beyond issuing pro forma statements of condemnation of the Israeli bombing campaign and the staggering death toll it caused.
But on the ground, civic leaders, especially Palestinian youth, have taken over the vacuum left by this rudderless leadership. Last week, they, together with Palestinian civil society groups, held a general strike throughout the occupied West Bank and Israel. The strike was significant in that it was strictly adhered to on both sides of the Green Line, essentially erasing—albeit temporarily—the pervasive geographical and political divide between Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and those who are not.
Before the current crisis, Palestinians’ frustration with their leadership had already reached unprecedented levels. The potential of Palestinian democracy has long been limited by Israel’s control of every facet of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories, including of the electoral system. The last time a Palestinian legislative election was held, in 2006, Israel heavily obstructed voting in East Jerusalem. When Hamas then won a decisive victory, the United States and Israel destabilized the new government, installing PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his party, Fatah, into power in the West Bank.
In January, Abbas called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held this spring and summer—but few were surprised when he ultimately indefinitely postponed them on April 29. Though Abbas blamed the decision on Israeli authorities’ refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem, many believe he was in fact responding to a schism within Fatah, which threatened to complicate his reelection and weaken his iron grip on PA institutions.
The elections might have offered Palestinian voters the chance to put their support behind independent electoral lists. Though repressive legal restrictions prevented some groups—such as the Generation for Democratic Renewal, a youth-led political initiative—from running, polls showed growing support for a new list led by Nasser al-Qudwa, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, which campaigned on a promise to fight rampant corruption, support the rule of law, and hold regular elections.
The election postponement contributed to growing disillusionment among Palestinians, who had registered to vote in large numbers despite polling showing deep skepticism that elections held under the current circumstances would be free and fair. Many Palestinians view the PA as preventing them from choosing representatives who speak to their needs and aspirations.
For young Palestinians in particular, fresh elections had presented a rare opportunity. Abbas is 85 years old and has been president since he was elected to what was supposed to be a four-year term in 2005. Many Palestinian youth born after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 have never cast a ballot. The United States has chosen to ignore this paradox, which sits in stark contrast to purported American values of human rights and democracy promotion.
“The canceling of the elections ramped up the frustration and anger,” said Nadia Hijab, co-founder and board president of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. “Elections under occupation are not as meaningful because you really have no control whatsoever,” but losing the opportunity to vote was still disheartening, Hijab conceded.