Jerusalem has always been an enormously significant component of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is often at the center of major developments in relations between the two sides. At the moment, Jerusalem is one of the main issues threatening, in different ways, the possibility of holding free and democratic Palestinian parliamentary elections.
The issue of Jerusalem is at the top of the agenda of all Palestinian candidates. The need to end the military occupation of East Jerusalem is very much in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian public. Having reached a point of no return in its preparations for elections, the Palestinian Authority would face great difficulties if Israel should decide not to allow elections in the city to proceed. Israel, which directly controls all aspects of Palestinian life in Jerusalem, has been using this fact and its power as leverage in order to pressure the Palestinian side.
The public reasons behind the Israeli threat to prevent elections in Jerusalem are first, its position that East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel and thus it refuses to accept the legal and internationally accepted definition of East Jerusalem as being under military occupation; and second, the fact that some of the candidates recognize neither Israel nor the peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian side.
The actual reason, however, is different. Israel, behind the scenes and through third parties, has been using its leverage in order to indirectly bargain with Hamas. Since Hamas is eager to take part in these elections, and since some elements within the PA and Fateh might seize on the Israeli position as an excuse to cancel or postpone elections, Israel has used this as a bargaining chip to make Hamas stop launching rockets from Gaza.
Nevertheless, and in spite of Israel’s recent declarations that it will allow elections in Jerusalem, in practice, and until now, candidates and campaigners, whether from Jerusalem or from other parts of the Palestinian territory, haven’t been allowed to campaign in East Jerusalem. Non-Jerusalemite Palestinians, not only from Gaza but also from the West Bank, are not allowed to even enter Jerusalem to campaign. In some cases, Israel is also selective in dealing with Jerusalemite candidates in a way that goes beyond discriminating only against Hamas candidates, prejudicial as this is in the first place.
The irony here, which may or may not be understood by the political echelon in Israel, is that its attitude and behavior on the issue of elections in Jerusalem has been benefiting the Palestinian opposition and mainly Hamas.
First, discriminating against Hamas and opposition candidates or preventing campaigning in Jerusalem because Hamas is taking part in elections simply serves to single out Hamas and thus increase its public support. Second, the fact that the PA hasn’t been able to guarantee the right of its citizens to participate in elections in Jerusalem has been portrayed as a sign of weakness of the PA. One of the possible outcomes is a low turnout among the general public in East Jerusalem. This can also be expected to be unfavorable to moderate parties.
But this is consistent with Israeli positions and practices throughout last year, which have negatively affected the public image of the PA and the moderate leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. The shift in the balance of power in favor of Hamas and the opposition that might be witnessed in the results of the upcoming elections can at least partially be attributed to Israeli policies. Whether intentionally or otherwise, these have steadily been weakening and undermining the peace camp in Palestine.