The right to participate in free and fair elections is enshrined in every major human rights instrument:
Art. 21.3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948:
Art. 3, Protocol 1, to European Convention on Human Rights, 1950,
Art. 25, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966:
Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights, 1969.
It is also protected for its citizens in every democratic written constitution: see the Basic Law of Israel, The Knesset, 1958.
Tragically, this basic human right is not available to the Palestinian people of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian National Authority in January, 2005, for a four year term. There has been no such election since, and he has remained in office. The last Parliamentary elections were in 2006, which Hamas won, taking 74 seats to Fatah’s 45. Only local elections were held in the West Bank in 2012 and in May, 2017.
No doubt, factionalism between Fatah and Hamas has played a part in this impasse.
Even there though, there has been little recognition of the connection between the so called ‘seizure of power’ by Hamas in Gaza in 2007, and the manipulations of the then Bush US administration. These were exposed by David Rose in ‘The Gaza Bombshell’, Vanity Fair, April, 2008.
It is also idle to pretend that the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory has not been determinative. After all, it is the response, which has been the main division between Fatah and Hamas. So many ‘realities on the ground’ flow from the Occupation: the absence of a recognised state structure; the divided territories; the lack of freedom of movement; the detention and harassment of candidates and elected representatives; the crippled economies and infrastructure; the violent incursions; and the closure of Gaza. This is not fertile ground for an effective democracy.
There is convenience too in the projected image of Israel as the only functioning democracy in a sea of unruly and uncivilised Arabs. Thus the old ‘Orientalist’ tropes of Lord Cromer about the Arab people are still actively perpetuated: see Edward Said, ‘Orientalism’, p. 46- 57.
Which brings us to the recent anti-semitic statements of Mahmoud Abbas on 30 April 2018. In his address to the Palestinian National Council: [which by the way had not met since 1998], he said, with regard to the pogroms and the Holocaust: “The hatred towards the Jews is not because of their religion but because of their social roles related to taxes and banks.” In a rambling address, he suggested that this was endorsed by three Jewish writers, including Joseph Stalin [sic]: and that 60,000 wealthy Jews had freely chosen to leave Germany for Palestine with all their property between 1933 and 1939.
He has since apologised for any offence caused, but it is impossible to wipe the record or explain his words away. These remarks will no doubt be used to perpetuate the fears of a truly democratic independent Palestinian state. Such fears would be as blinkered as suggesting that Palestinians cannot run a health service, because of the state of the hospitals in Gaza.
The Palestinian people understand the meaning and experience of ‘racism’. It is highly unlikely that any truly representative leadership could express Abbas’ sentiments. There is no personal excuse for his statements. The Palestinian people as a whole do not deserve their taint.
Patrick O’Connor Q.C.
Doughty Street Chambers.