Anas Osta has never voted in his life, but now he wants Palestinians to cast their ballots for him.
This summer, Palestinians in the occupied territories are set to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time in 15 years. Osta, 30, is running as the head of Nabd al-Balad (“the pulse of the country” in Arabic), an independent list seeking to represent Palestinian youth and their interests.
Osta is not alone: half of those eligible to vote this year are between the ages of 18 and 33 and have never cast a ballot in national elections before. Despite polls showing they are the most disillusioned age group in Palestinian society, many youth seem hopeful about the elections — though not without skepticism.
Osta is from the Askar refugee camp in Nablus, but his family is originally from Jaffa, his grandfather having fled in 1948 during the Nakba. He is the youngest of four siblings — because, he said, “the occupation forces imprisoned my father a month before I was born.” Osta has subsequently lived more of his life without his father than with him, an upbringing common to many Palestinian children, he said.
At 22, Osta was appointed the director of Tawasal, a nonprofit organization that works to connect Palestinians in the occupied territories with those living in Israel and the diaspora. Then in 2017, he founded Qamat, an organization documenting the Palestinian struggle. These initiatives allowed him to build a network of young Palestinians hailing from Jenin to Gaza, he said, despite Israel’s restrictions on their movement.
While women make up 29 percent of all political candidates this year, according to data published by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, Osta said that 40 percent of Nabd al-Balad is comprised of women. More than 70 percent of the list’s 28 candidates are young people, among them engineers, doctors, academics, journalists, and activists.
Osta said he was approached by some of the bigger political lists to run as a leading candidate, but he refused their offers. Palestinian youth deserve a list “that clearly represents them,” he explained. “I want to be able to say that I received my mandate from the people who demand change, the people who want to fight corrupt leaders.”
And change, for Osta, means nothing less than the complete overhaul of the Palestinian political system.
‘The youth are stronger, and they are fed up’
In January, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree calling for legislative elections on May 22 and presidential elections on July 31, both under the Palestinian Authority. A third election for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) — the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and which represents Palestinians from both the occupied territories and the diaspora (though not Palestinian citizens of Israel) — is slated for Aug. 31.
There are 36 candidate lists registered to run for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which is made up of 132 representatives. Close to 40 percent of the candidates are between the ages of 28 and 40 — generations younger than the 85-year-old Abbas.
“The lists understood that they can’t succeed otherwise; if they integrate the youth, they will also get youth votes,” noted Rula Salameh, a journalist and community activist based in East Jerusalem who is also the education and outreach director at Just Vision, a nonprofit that spotlights Palestinian and Israeli leaders working to end the occupation. “What we’ll see in these upcoming elections will be different from the previous two, because the youth are stronger, and they are fed up.”
However, there are several stipulations that make running disproportionately more challenging for younger Palestinians. Lists are charged a $20,000 registration fee, and candidates must be 28 or older. They are also required to resign from their jobs already as contenders, regardless of whether they win or not.
This resignation demand is unjust and has discouraged many youth from running, said Salameh, as younger Palestinians are unlikely to risk their income while many have loans to pay. Veteran politicians, in contrast, have their hands in multiple projects and business ventures to profit from if they lose their PA salary, and can rely on their networks to secure other government positions if they are not elected.
Such economic difficulties have become a central concern for Palestinians. As of 2020, unemployment rates reached 47 percent in Gaza and 16 percent in the West Bank. In the latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), more Palestinians pointed to unemployment and corruption, rather than the Israeli occupation, as the most serious problems facing Palestinian society today.
This economic reality is leading young Palestinians to try moving abroad to “live a life of dignity,” said Osta. One of his running mates, who is 29, holds a doctoral degree but has had to work as a painter in Israeli settlements to make ends meet.
The only path to affording young people more opportunities, Osta argued, is to try and affect change from within. “In life, there’s bad, and there’s worse,” he said. “The ‘bad’ is the existence of this system that has brought our demise and has allowed for corruption to fester. The ‘worse’ is forgoing our chance to change that system in these elections.”
‘All of a sudden, elections became much less risky’
The first Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections took place in 1996, soon after the Palestinian Authority was created under the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to be provisional. Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s longtime chairman, served as president until his death in 2004, and the following year Abbas was elected to replace him.
Elections for the PA’s legislative council were held again in 2006. The Islamist movement Hamas secured a majority of the votes, to which Israel, the United States, and the European Union — which classify the group as a terrorist organization — responded by imposing sanctions on the Palestinian government. The ensuing power struggle, exacerbated by international pressure, devolved into a violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah, resulting in the former taking control of Gaza and the latter ruling the West Bank.
The political divide between the leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza — both of which have grown more authoritarian and repressive — have since incapacitated Palestinian politics. The PA, which was tasked with governing Gaza and less than 40 percent of the West Bank, has consistently failed to deliver on its promise of achieving a Palestinian state, and is widely perceived as corrupt and incompetent.
This is not the first time Abbas has declared elections, having done so repeatedly as far back as 2011. Holding elections now could be especially risky for the Palestinian president: since his tenure began in 2005, his popularity has been in decline, with 68 percent of the Palestinian public wanting him to resign, according to the latest PCPSR poll.
“If there is a free and fair competition, [Abbas] will definitely lose,” said Dr. Khalil Shikaki, the director of PCPSR and a leading polling expert. “Similarly, Fatah, his political party, is divided, and if he goes to parliamentary elections, this division could mean significant difficulty for Fatah to form the next government.”
Two of the party’s senior members have splintered to form their own competing lists: Arafat’s nephew, Nasser al-Qudwa, who has allied with the popular political figure and militant Marwan Barghouti, currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison; and exiled former security minister Mohammad Dahlan, who currently lives in the United Arab Emirates.
Hamas, for its part, has been holding internal party elections in secret for its various political and administrative branches. In March, Yahya Sinwar was re-elected as the organization’s leader in Gaza, and this month, longtime exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was made the party’s diaspora director. The rest of the results, including whether Ismail Haniyeh will remain the head of the party’s political bureau, are expected to be released later in April.
But there are political considerations that make elections more feasible and opportune at this time for both Fatah and Hamas, the two parties dominating the elections. According to Shikaki, recent joint discussions revealed that Hamas would be willing to support Abbas’ nomination as president, meaning that “all of a sudden, elections became much less risky for [him].” Some analysts have also explained the timing of elections as an effort by Abbas to win the support of the new Biden administration and to increase international donor aid.
‘We need a new political system’
For Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the West Bank-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, participating in the PLC elections legitimizes the same broken political system and the corrupt leaders who have been governing for the past 30 years. There is, he said, “a Palestinian political tribe that wants to continue the status quo — which means the Oslo paradigm, which means Palestinian fragmentation, which means not understanding and challenging the reality of apartheid.”
Instead, Barahmeh and about a dozen other young Palestinians have decided to launch a progressive virtual parliamentary list called Jeel al-Tajdeed al-Democraty (JAD). Palestinians aged 18 to 45 from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem can submit their nominations online until the end of April, and between 16 to 32 candidates will eventually be elected by JAD members. The group received close to 30 nominations in the first days alone, noted Barahmeh — most of them from Gaza.
There was initially much excitement among Palestinian youth about running, said Barahmeh, but when the registration deadline came closer, many of them were not able to put together a list due to the restrictive election laws. Furthermore, President Abbas issued a decree changing the electoral system: whereas previously every district was guaranteed at least one seat, PLC candidates are now elected entirely based on proportional representation, which favors more established movements.
“If you haven’t had the space to politically organize for 15 years, it’s very hard to put together a national list that can compete in two months. It’s virtually impossible,” explained Barahmeh.
The fact that many of the candidates are young is also misleading, he added, as most of them occupy lower positions on lists that are unlikely to make it past the electoral threshold. Meanwhile, the lists that are projected to do well are largely powered by a cult of personality, which JAD resents and is trying to change, he said. “We don’t need a transformational leader, we need a new political system. Having one leader isn’t going to do that. We need a movement.”
The purpose of running a digital list parallel to the official election is to build the infrastructure for a movement that can serve as a fierce challenger in future elections, explained Barahmeh. “We wanted to offer an alternative vehicle that can excite and mobilize young people and get their voices heard, without being the token [youth] list that rubber stamps a process that gives legitimacy to the same faces and the same system.”
With the coronavirus still restricting movement and social gatherings in the occupied territories, the lists will have to rely significantly on social media and digital campaigning — a domain that young candidates are more likely to navigate successfully than older ones.
“The best compliment we got online is some guy trying to take a shot at us saying, ‘Oh, you’re young people but it looks like you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to create content,’” said Barahmeh. “Little does he know, we create everything on a video editing app on our phones.”
‘Young people realize they need to have a voice’
Elections, if they do transpire, would be taking place as Palestinians see ever-increasing expansion of Israeli settlements and a tightening grip over nearly all aspects of their lives. Despite the semblance of Palestinian self-governance, Israeli authorities continue to obstruct people’s right to move freely, expropriate the territories’ natural resources, restrict the land on which Palestinians can build their homes or tend to their crops, and detain people without charge or trial for months on end.
The social, economic, and political hardships that Palestinians face today are “all the result of a policy based on capitulations that can only offer us a quasi-Palestinian state,” said Osta. He describes the international agreements that the PA has signed, primarily the Oslo Accords, as “humiliating.”
“I am the biggest believer in peace,” Osta declared, “but how can I endorse international agreements that prevent me from visiting my city, Jaffa? Not to mention the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who see no end to their misery?”
According to PCPSR’s Shikaki, Palestinian youth espouse more liberal values than their elders and are more dissatisfied with their political leadership — particularly on issues of governance, economic conditions, and the status quo with Israel. Young Palestinians are also more likely to support armed resistance to the occupation and favor a one-state solution, since to them, “the demand for independence and sovereignty is less important than the demand for equal rights,” Shikaki continued.
While young Palestinians seem just as enthusiastic about elections as the rest of the population, polls reveal a wide gap in excitement between the West Bank and Gaza. “The youth in Gaza are much more energized, in fact twice more energized and willing to participate than youth in the West Bank,” explained Shikaki.
Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on Gaza since 2007, tightly controlling the movement of people and goods. Egypt controls the only other crossing in and out of Gaza.
“Given the blockade and the sluggish economy, young people realize they need to have a voice, that change is imperative,” said the head candidate of an independent list from Gaza, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. “Work opportunities, travel, and the freedom of movement — we’ve been deprived of all that for a long time. This may be the reason that young people in Gaza are more enthusiastic.”
A chance to transform Palestinian politics
It remains unclear whether the PLC or presidential elections will even take place. Abbas is insisting on the participation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, which the Oslo Accords permit. Yet Israel — which has aggressively targeted any form of Palestinian political activity in the city, particularly since the Second Intifada — is unlikely to allow that.
Over the past several months, Israeli forces have been arresting notable Palestinian public leaders in the occupied territories. Earlier this month, Israeli police issued an order against a Jerusalem hotel, demanding it shut down an election-related meeting set to take place there. These attacks, along with East Jerusalem’s exclusion, “could be a good excuse for Abbas to abandon elections altogether,” said Shikaki, given that a split Fatah vote could spell the end of Abbas’ rule.
On Monday, Abbas’ senior advisor Nabil Shaath said that elections are “very likely” to be postponed if Israel continues to ignore the PA’s request to include East Jerusalem. Most Palestinians, however, believe elections will go through: in the latest PCPSR poll, public expectation for elections shot up from 32 percent to 61 percent in the three months since they were announced.
“I believe voting is our responsibility. If you are advocating for change, you must vote, no matter who for,” said Salameh, the East Jerusalem journalist and activist. “If each one of us raises their voice, change will happen. But if we decide to stay home and waste our ballot, the same defunct system will prevail.”
Of the three contests, the PNC elections are considered to be the least likely to materialize. But for many Palestinians, the PNC, as a major organ of the PLO, is arguably the most important forum to transform the political system and revitalize the Palestinian national project.
“More important than winning in the PLC elections is our chance to enter the PNC,” said Osta. “Our ultimate goal is to change the PLO and revive it, to spur it to reconsider all the international agreements that have humiliated our people.”
Barahmeh agreed. “We need to transform the Palestinian political system to become more representative and democratic. And for us, the PNC is the most important body, because it’s supposed to be the parliament of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.”