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As Israel returns to polls, Palestinian democracy in stasis

The last time Palestinians voted in parliamentary elections was in 2006
The last time Palestinians voted in parliamentary elections was in 2006 AFP/File
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Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

When Israelis vote next week it will be their sixth general election since Palestinians last had the chance to cast ballots in parliamentary polls more than 13 years ago.

Whether in Ramallah, Nablus or Gaza, 30-year-old Palestinians have never had the opportunity to choose their leadership.

In the Palestinian territories, where unemployment is around 30 percent, a combination of factional rivalries, infighting and Israeli restrictions mean no elections have been held since 2006.

Following a 2007 split, two governments effectively rule separate territories -- with president Mahmud Abbas leading the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Islamists Hamas in control in Gaza.

A decade of reconciliation talks have brought no results, while both are accused of centralising power and seeking to quash criticism.

Polls show Palestinians are angry with their political leaders and want them to put aside their differences to resist the Israeli occupation.

"For both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas governing without elections is very comfortable. The split provides a cover -- you can say you want elections but the other side doesn't," Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian pollster and political analyst, said.

"This has been used as a pretext and most people believe it is a pretext -- that there is no seriousness involved in seeking to organise elections."

- No functioning institutions? -

Following the 2004 death of long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the end of the bloody second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, a push was made to rejuvenate Palestinian democracy.

In 2005, Abbas comfortably won presidential elections held in both the West Bank and Gaza.

But a year later, Hamas shocked the world by beating Abbas's Fatah movement in parliamentary polls.

Unlike Fatah, the Islamists reject all negotiations with Israel and support violent means.

In a 2007 near civil war Hamas overthrew Abbas's forces in Gaza.

Palestinian politics has been static since, with the two tightening their grips on their respective territories.

Abbas maintains partial autonomy in the cities of the occupied West Bank, where Israel controls the majority of territory and 400,000 settlers live alongside 2.7 million Palestinians.

The 84-year-old has relied on presidential decrees to pass laws, while continuing security coordination with Israel -- a policy unpopular with Palestinians.

Last year he officially dissolved the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), or parliament, which had not met since the 2007 split.

At the time he pledged to hold new elections by May, but none have occurred.

"We don't have functioning institutions," said Nasser al-Qudwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister, senior official in Abbas's Fatah party and Arafat's nephew.

"The PLC is not there. Whose fault is that? I would say Hamas, but the legislative branch of the government is not there. The judiciary has always been weak and now it is very weak."

"So you have the executive with complete concentration of power."

- 'First Arab democracy' -

In Gaza, Hamas has established a parallel government and its security forces crack down on political dissent.

Unemployment in the strip is over 50 percent, with desperate poverty.

Israel maintains a crippling blockade of Gaza it argues is necessary to isolate Hamas and prevent it from obtaining weapons or materials to make them. The two have fought three wars since 2008.

UN officials and rights groups say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's two million residents.

"You could argue Palestine was the first Arab democracy," Hugh Lovatt, an analyst specialising in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said.

"If you look back to 2005-6, democracy was steadily growing. It wasn't perfect but there were municipal, legislative and presidential elections. But we have seen a severe backsliding."

Hamas and Fatah blame each other for the lack of elections, while both accuse Israel of obstruction.

Palestinians say any new elections should also take place in predominantly Palestinian east Jerusalem -- an impossibility under current circumstances.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in moves never recognised by the international community. It considers the entire city its capital and outlaws any Palestinian Authority activity there.

Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for Abbas's government and now prominent critic, said the split was convenient for Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking re-election in September 17 polls.

"Israel is loving it. This is their greatest dream," she said.

Shikaki's polling, for the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, found little optimism about new elections, but also that democracy was not a top priority.

Only 10 percent see holding new elections as their top priority, while ending Israel's occupation was the top choice for 44 percent of respondents.

"Palestinians live under Israeli occupation. The issues of poverty and unemployment are huge for the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians," Shikaki said.

"These two issues are a lot more important than the transition to democracy."

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