Reading time: 7 minutes

For the first time since 2006, Palestinian citizens were expected to exercise their right to vote in legislative elections initially scheduled for the 22nd of May 2021. In a complex geopolitical territory located at a crossroads between Africa and Asia and with a past of Western influence, the opportunity to express their voice in the polls is a rare occasion for Palestinians. As it has been seen in current events, these elections are expected to trigger reactions from the international community and neighboring powers, notably Israel.

Modern Palestine’s complex past

Although the region of Palestine has long been controversial, regarded as the Holy Land by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the State of Palestine dates back to the 20th century.

Between 1896 and 1948, due to Zionist movement [1], and later to flee prosecution across Europe during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Jews re-settled on what was initially the Ottoman Empire and following the Empire’s fall, British Palestine, in a majorly Arab and Muslim populated area. The local Arab community, which started developing their identity as Palestinian Arabs, resisted the attempt of a national Jewish homeland, claiming the land was theirs. Arabs thought Britain would endorse them in return for their support against the Ottomans during the First World War [2], but Great Britain and France predicted instead an international division of the territory [3]. In 1947 and marking the fall of British rule, the United Nations (UN) proposed a partition plan to split the territory in two and grant the city of Jerusalem, disputed by both parties as their rightful capital, a special international status. While the Jewish community agreed to the plan, Palestinians feverishly opposed it, the scheme being interpreted by locals as “Europeans trying to steal their land”.

Figure 1: UN proposed division of territory between Israel and Palestine in 1947
Source: Vox

Two major conflicts in the 20th century were especially defining for Palestine. Firstly, the Arab-Israeli war (1948) opposed Israel to five Arab powers: Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, seeking to establish “a unified Arab Palestine”. Following the conflict, Israel controlled more than two-thirds of former British-ruled territory. Additionally, Jordan took over the West Bank while Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded with the objective of forming an Arab state in Palestine, largely comprised of the territories that had previously been British dominated and would now be illegitimately occupied by Israel. The second major event was the Six Day War (1967), which again resulted in significant land losses for Palestine to the benefit of Israel, who took over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, the PLO’s existence was recognized by the Israel through the Oslo Accords (1993), in exchange for Israel’s right to exist to be recognized by the PLO itself. Following these agreements, Yasser Arafat (PLO), Shimon Peres (Israel) and Yitzhak Tabin (Israel) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.

Palestinians wish to establish a State in a part or in all territory that is now occupied by Israel. Today, the State of Palestine is officially recognized by more than 135 UN powers (but not by the United States and Israel) and includes parts of modern Israel as well as the Gaza Strip, along the Mediterranean Coast, and the West Bank, which is located west of the Jordan River, although no international consensus regarding the borders has been achieved. Around 20% of the Israeli population identify as Arabs. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are home to a majorly Arab population, territories which are also disputed by Israel, although many Palestinians also live in neighboring countries like Lebanon.

Fatah, Hamas and the long-lasting division of Palestinians

For decades, Fatah, the major political party in the PLO, dominated Palestinian politics. Fatah leaders negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords that handed limited control of Palestinian territories from Israel to the new Palestinian Authority (PA). Since then, they have led the government through successive crises and peace deals with Israel and international parties.

In 1987, however, the opposition party Hamas was created on the pretext that Fatah and the PLO were too compromised with Israel. Hamas disagreed with many of the deals, and soon came to be seen by many as a threat to peace in the region, a violent extremist group who did not accept the existence of Israel and actively seeked its destruction. In 2003, Fatah negotiated with Israel under US President Bush’s “roadmap for peace” – a plan to end conflict in the region by creating a stable Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Hamas opposed.

In the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won a surprising victory. With 74 out of the 132 seats in the Legislative Council, it could take control of most government positions. In response, the US and Israel imposed economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. They hoped these would destabilize the government, leading to new elections.

The formation of a Hamas government, in which Fatah refused to participate, led to an increase in hostility between both sides. These tensions quickly turned into incidents of violence between the supporters of the two groups, leading to dozens of deaths.

Figure 2: Hamas demonstrators clash with Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank
Source: The Eletronic Intifada

In early 2007, Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a coalition government, in order to end violence in the streets and lift international sanctions against Palestine. However, it was just some months until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s leader, declared a state of emergency and dismissed the coalition, including the Hamas Prime Minister. Hamas, regarding the President’s actions as unconstitutional, formed an alternative government. A brief civil war erupted, with each party supported by different factions of the armed forces. These conflicts concluded with Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip, and Fatah having control of the West Bank.

Figure 3: Division of Palestinian State in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Fatah
Source: ResearchGate

Since 2007, many attempts have been made to mend the conflict. Disagreements over holding elections led legislative and presidential votes to be postponed in both territories. Numerous talks and attempted deals between the two parties were unsuccessful. Most recently, in 2017, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold new legislative elections in 2018, but these never occurred. On the West Bank, President Abbas announced elections would be held in 2019, but then postponed them.

Palestinian Elections – Dream or Reality?

In 2021, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold legislative and presidential elections once more, later scheduling them for the 22nd of May. However, it was not long until Abbas postponed both indefinitely, allegedly due to uncertainty regarding Palestinians’ access to polls in East Jerusalem. In fact, just as in the 2006 elections, while Israel has control of the area, it has issued no formal announcement on whether it will allow elections to take place.

This postponement has been widely criticized not only by Hamas, but also by future voters, especially those under the age of 34, who have not yet been able to exercise their rights. Some believe Mr Abbas postponed the elections by fear of not having enough support, as he has seen his popularity shrink in polls. Having led the country for a decade over his initial mandate, new younger faces are now competing against him even within his the party. Both Fatah’s party member Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in jail, and Nasser Al-Qudwa, who is the nephew of Fatah’s founder, will compete against Abba, being a symbol of a younger generation who seeks to reshape the party’s values. However, Fatah still holds some advantage over Hamas in election polls, partly due to the latter’s mismanagement of Gaza, who has seen three destructive wars over the last 10 years.

Figure 4: Mural painting in Gaza City calling on people to vote for the 2021 elections
Source: BBC

15 years later, these elections could symbolize a reunion of Palestinians with democracy.

The delay will cause a great disappointment among Palestinians, most of (whom) hoped it was time to end the dividiond and bring about a change.

Talal Okal, Gaza analyst

In light of the previous events, what will these elections mean? Will they mark a turning point in Palestine’s history, or is history just repeating itself?


[1] According to Britannica, Zionism is a “Jewish nationalist movement supporting the creaton of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. [..]. Though Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient attachment […] of the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine, where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion.”

[2] McMahon–Hussein Correspondence.

[3] Sykes–Picot Agreement.


Sources: Britannica, History, BBC, Vox, Albawaba, Aljazeera, Reuters, Washington Post, Financial Times, Oxford Journals, Brandeis University Publication


Ana Terenas

Manuel Barbosa

Antonio Payan

Maria Mendes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s