Reading the New Chapter of the Palestinian Struggle

Originally scheduled for 22 May 2021, the 2021 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA) were indefinitely postponed on 29 April. The last round of legislative elections was held in 2006 with Hamas winning the majority of the council’s seats. The agreement on the elections framework and mechanisms was reached by virtue of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation that was launched in Beirut and resumed in Istanbul and Cairo in September 2020.

The total number of registered voters upon closing on 17 February 2021 stood at 2 million and 622 thousand out of 2 million and 809 thousand, which is equivalent to 93.3% of eligible voters. This figure is nearly twice the total of registered voters in the last legislative elections, in which the total number of voters reached 1 million and 349 thousand.

The growing number of voters reflects Palestinians’ eagerness to participate in the election process, probably seeking to drastically change the harsh living conditions they endure in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are many reasons behind these difficult circumstances, particularly political fragmentation, the deterioration of the humanitarian and economic situation, as well as the waning influence of the traditionally momentous Palestinian cause in Arab, Islamic and international forums.

Postponement of Elections and Al-Quds Intifada

The decision to hold elections threw the legislative polls into turmoil. Rifts within Fatah appeared and the possibility of the movement running with multiple lists emerged: the official list headed by Abbas, Nasser al-Qudwa’s National Democratic Assembly list and Mohammed Dahlan’s Democratic Reform Bloc list. Political prisoner and veteran Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti put together his own independent list of candidates as well, aiming to run for the presidential elections.

For its part, Hamas held internal elections in three districts: Gaza, the West Bank and abroad. The process started in February and ended in April with the election of Yahya Sinwar on 10 March as Hamas President in Gaza for the 2021-2025 term and Khaled Meshaal to head diaspora office on 12 April 2021.

Both Israel and the PA leaders feared the elections for the following two prospects:

Barghouti might win the presidential elections, which would lead to severe political and legal complications for both Israel and the PA.

Hamas might win the legislative elections, which would allow it to expand its influence in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Israel, Hamas is not in favor of recognizing the political agreements between the PA and Israel. Despite Hamas displaying moderation in theory, given its outreach to Egypt, Jordan and the UAE through Muhammad Dahlan, the consolidation of Hamas leadership could lead to a profound change in the relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Eventually, Abbas postponed the elections blaming Israel for preventing Palestinians in Jerusalem from voting.

Serving as a pretext for the elections’ postponement, these developments sparked the third Al-Quds Intifada, in Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. It all started when an extremist Israeli settler group harassed worshipers in Al-Aqsa Mosque aiming at carrying out a “major storming” on the 28th of Ramadan, celebrating “Jerusalem Day,” which marks Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Violent clashes erupted when security forces entered instead and started firing sound grenades and tear gas canisters inside the covered Al-Qibli Mosque (located to the south of Al-Aqsa Mosque complex) which held hundreds of worshipers. Monday night, on the tenth of May, the situation escalated dramatically, with rockets fired and the commencement of military operations. 

The cause of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, Al-Quds and Al-Aqsa sparked the fourth Gaza War. To understand why we have to go back to the conflict’s obvious roots.

Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank

Israel, which occupies Palestine in a flagrant violation of international laws, applies double standards in how it deals with the residents with whom Israelis supposedly share land, air, water and services. Mistreated by Israel, Palestinians fall into four categories:

Palestinians residing in the territories occupied since 1948: Although holding Israeli citizenship, Palestinians constituting 17% of Israeli total population, do not share the same rights as Jewish Israelis, and endure all types of discrimination in terms of employment, education, housing, occupation of lands and utilization of state resources. 

East Jerusalem: In 1967, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem in violation of international laws. Nowadays, nearly 350 thousand Palestinians reside on these lands holding the status of “permanent residents,” which entitles them to live and work in Israel without the need for special permits. They are also entitled to social security, health insurance, and participation in municipal elections. Nevertheless, the Interior Minister has the right to automatically revoke the residency from anyone without any justification thereof.

Palestinians of the West Bank: Despite the fact that Israel did not officially annex the West Bank, it acts as if it has de facto. In the West Bank, 2.6 million citizens live in tens of dismembered and isolated enclaves under a strict military regime that deprives them of their political rights. In nearly 40% of these territories, Israel has transferred civil powers to the PA. However, the PA is not allowed to exercise its limited powers without Israel’s consent.

Palestinians of Gaza Strip: Gaza has a population of about 2.1 million people. Palestinians residing there are deprived of their political rights and have been living under a constant siege since 2007. Israel controls their movement and every other aspect of their lives.

Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid

Racism, discrimination, oppression, humiliation and displacement are the roots of the Palestinian cause. Israel constantly strikes Gaza with state-of-the-art weapons in a massive power imbalance. However, Palestinians have grown accustomed to attacks and they deal with them with an unprecedented endurance. Never have a people dealt with brutal attacks, such as the Israeli ones, with the composure the Palestinians display.

Thus, the motivating factor for the Palestinians is the situation of apartheid. We must draw attention to this framework when we tackle the details of what is happening, since the occupation and state of apartheid, as per Human Rights Watch, are the roots of the problem and the cause of this bloody violence in which Palestinians pay much dearer costs compared to Israelis. Many people paid similar heavy costs under colonialism and apartheid, which has come to an end in most regions of the world but the Middle East.

Preliminary Outcomes for Israel

The most important and most worrying outcomes for Israel are the following:

The uprising in the occupied territories of 1948 highlighted the limits of the “Israelization” of Palestinian society. Clashes erupted between Palestinians and Jews, stores were destroyed and mosques and synagogues were set on fire. These events were accompanied with an unprecedented and reciprocal incitement campaign on social media with Israel working hard to rein it in.

The popular momentum in the West Bank and Jerusalem as Palestinians flooded to Al-Aqsa and took to the streets in conjunction with the outbreak of the Gaza War and the resistance’s launching of rockets.

The Palestinian issues proved to be interconnected, starting with the displacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem and its neighborhoods, the discrimination between Arabs and Jews, the illegal settlements in the West Bank, the continuous attacks on Al-Aqsa and its worshipers, and the ongoing siege of Gaza since 2007. This reality links the Palestinian scene to a new comprehensive formula that is not subject to political divisions or powers distribution.  

The use of non-Iranian missiles that precisely and accurately hit targets relatively far from Gaza. This highlights that growing capacity and competence of the resistance independent from the Iranian support.

Preliminary Outcomes for Palestine and the Arab World

Contrary to what happened during the wars of Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, this time there was no divergence in the PA and Hamas’ positions. The PA did not accuse Hamas of making a mistake by firing rockets at Israel, nor did they hold it responsible for the bombing and incursions of Gaza. Rather, a few days into the Operation “Sword of Al-Quds,” the PA gave Fatah supporters rein to demonstrate and occupy the streets even reaching the borders with Israel. These developments signal that the PA needed this resistance to gain leverage in negotiations with Israel.

On the regional level, Egypt is back to playing a pivotal role in the dynamics of war and peace from Gaza to Palestine. It is worth noting that Al-Ula reconciliation between Gulf states has clearly been influential on this level, as Cairo, Doha and Ankara coordinated to contact Hamas leaders and manage negotiations to reach a ceasefire and set acceptable conditions.

Concerning Saudi Arabia, it reiterated its steadfast stance in support of the righteous Palestinian cause. Also reports suggested the exchange of positive messages between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hamas as the confrontations intensified in Gaza.

Finally, the Abraham Accords sealed in 2020 between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel and Sudan and Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel, prompted the Palestinians to recenter their struggle within the global struggles for social justice.

It appears that the Palestinians have decided to escalate their turning to international laws that prohibit discrimination, oppression, displacement and confiscation of lands, crops and homes. It also appears that the political performance of the PA, Hamas and other factions will be integrally connected with the protests that broke out in Sheikh Al-Jarrah and Al-Aqsa that reached the territories of 1948, the West Bank, Gaza and cities across the world. If the political powers are capable of reaching a new framework that maintains Palestinians’ unity, enhances their sense of belonging to the land and promotes the Palestinian cause, this shift might be highly impactful and productive.

Preliminary Outcomes for the United States and Europe

Despite international parties repeated statements of Israel’s right to defend itself- even if striking infrastructures in Gaza under the pretext of striking military installations- a change of heart has been clear. Twenty-four hours before the announcement of the ceasefire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “indirect talks” with Hamas were essential to advancing efforts towards a Middle East ceasefire. In addition, a senior European official told Al-Jazeera TV that “dealing with Hamas is conditional on achieving Palestinian reconciliation first.” Once reconciliation is achieved, the European Union could establish indirect contacts with Hamas, through a third mediator, namely Egypt and Qatar, the official said.

On the popular level, the United Kingdom (UK) witnessed the largest rallies in support of Palestine in Europe, as tens of thousands demonstrated in the center of London in solidarity with the Palestinian people, condemning what they considered the British government’s collusion with Israel in its crimes against Palestinian civilians. 

In Germany, the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) censored reports criticizing Israel, while hundreds demonstrated in several cities, including Berlin, Frankfurt and Leipzig. In Paris, demonstrators demanded the French government and the European Union to end all forms of military cooperation with Israel.

In the US, the escalation took the Biden administration by surprise, as it had not placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its list of priorities. While the US presidency resorted to “silent diplomacy”, the pressure kept mounting on the US president following an Israeli air strike on “Al-Jalaa” tower, which housed the offices of the U.S.-based Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and other international news media.

The US’ firm stance calling for the need to quickly reduce tension took 10 days and 4 phone calls. It was accompanied with a change in the US statements’ rhetoric and CNN reporting a “blunt” phone call between Biden and Netanyahu.

On Wednesday, the White House issued a statement that Biden “discussed progress in Israel’s military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.” Biden was reported to have told Netanyahu that he expects “a significant de-escalation today” in Gaza. The US administration insisted on the need to return to the two-state solution and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken traveled to Egypt, Jordan, Ramallah and Tel Aviv to bolster the Gaza ceasefire.

Moreover, the Gaza War helped prompt a significant shift in the Democratic Party, as its progressive members criticized Israel more freely and even introduced a bill to block arms sales to Israel.

In addition to Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s powerful speech before Congress, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote a scathing article in the New York Times. He condemned Washington’s unwavering support for Israel, saying: “In the Middle East, where we provide nearly $4 billion a year in aid to Israel, we can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior.” Experts who have been tracking US views on the Middle East for decades describe the shift within the Democratic Party as “dramatic” and “tectonic”, noting that the Israeli escalation captured the attention of world public opinion, since demonstrations swept across American, European, Australian and Arab cities in support of the Palestinian people.

In a move reflecting the impact of social media activism, Facebook and TikTok restricted pro-Palestinian content, with activists confirming that bans were imposed on political pages and journalist reporting that they could not access their personal accounts.

In the same context, Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Facebook and TikTok executives with reports suggesting he called on them to remove content which could “possibly incite violence or spread misinformation.” Gantz also stressed that immediate action must be taken to “prevent as much violence as possible.” 

Last Saturday, the Times revealed that senior Facebook executives apologized to the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, after officials complained to the company about Palestinian posts being blocked amid the conflict with Israel, according to a diplomat who facilitated the meeting.

The rehabilitation of the Palestinian cause relies on three elements: the adherence to the intra-Palestinian reconciliation, Arab’s mobilization under a single banner, and shaping an international public opinion that pressures Israel to comply with international laws that criminalize apartheid and discrimination and with demands for the Palestinians to be granted their full rights within their lands, without any delay.