The two largest Palestinian factions — Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the Islamic Resistance movement Hamas, which governs Gaza — signed a historic accord on October 12 in Cairo. If the agreement holds, it would end a decade of uneasy coexistence, following a near-civil war in 2007. Though only sketchy details have been revealed, the agreement would give the Palestinian Authority administrative and security control over the Gaza Strip and would almost certainly require Hamas to separate its political and armed wings, if not disband its militias altogether. Palestinians hope it would open Gaza’s border with Egypt and relieve the humanitarian crisis which the United Nations has called “dramatic” after a decade-long Israeli blockade. It would also clear the way for national elections to be held for the first time since 2006.
Numerous efforts to create unity governments have failed, largely due to pressure from the United States, which invariably threatens to bankrupt the Palestinian Authority if it makes peace with Hamas. The Trump administration seems to be following that playbook: US Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt issued a statement demanding that Hamas disarm and recognize the state of Israel before being accepted into a unity government, echoing the position of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who says he will not negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.
These negotiations and countermoves have their roots in Palestinian elections held between 2004 and 2006. In late 2004, when I was last in Palestine, my friend Intisar Salman was traveling all over the West Bank, leading workshops for women on how to participate in the upcoming local elections, both as voters and as candidates.
Most Palestinians saw elections as a distraction from “real politics.” The major conditions of their lives were determined by the Israeli military occupation of their areas. The Israeli army controlled where they could go and how long it took to get there, whether their loved ones would be arrested, even whether they could add a floor to their homes. No Palestinian elections, local or national, were going to change these big facts on the ground.
In this malaise, Palestinian feminists like Salman saw an opportunity. For women who hold down social institutions, local leadership does make a difference. The Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government created in 1994 by the Oslo accords, licenses nonprofit organizations, allocates funds for cooperatives, runs the schools and hospitals where many women work, where their children get educated and their families get health care.
Feminists organized heavily in 2004 for a quota requiring that every local council include at least two women. Shortly before his death in 2004, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat agreed to support the quota, and it was approved.
Salman said without the quota, “Even if a woman was the only person running, no one would vote for her.” She may have underestimated her fellow citizens. In some of the municipal elections in 2004 and 2005, women exceeded the quotas or defeated male candidates. By 2010, women constituted 18 percent of local council members, which was above the global average of 15 percent. This was partly due to the work of women like Salman.
Her workshops educated not only women, but men as well. She didn’t start out to hold workshops for men, but in one village, women she spoke to said they could not attend because their husbands would be suspicious. So she met with the mayor and he agreed to attend a mixed workshop. Once the ice was broken, both women’s and mixed workshops could take place.
These were the first Palestinian elections in more than 10 years. In preparation for these elections, Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement founded in 1987, formed its first political party, Change and Reform. Friends throughout the country told me that Change and Reform recruited candidates who were known as independent and honest, not necessarily members or even supporters of Hamas. Many of them were women.
Municipal elections were held in phases during 2004 and 2005. Change and Reform candidates won many districts, surprising the dominant Fatah party. Fatah, the party of Arafat and his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, had for years been criticized for corruption and beset by infighting.
The municipal elections should have been a wake- up call, but no one heeded the alarm, and in 2006, Change and Reform overwhelmingly won the elections for the national legislature, in an election called free and fair by both the George W. Bush administration and the Carter Center. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya became prime minister. Everyone I spoke to, whether they voted for Change and Reform, Fatah or one of the numerous smaller parties, told me that they saw the election result as a demand for government accountability and better quality of life, not an endorsement of religious fundamentalism or war with Israel.
The Bush administration, which had urged President Abbas to hold the elections, now joined Israel in expressing fury at the Palestinians’ choice. As Israel arrested at least a quarter of the Palestinian legislators along with Hamas officials in the West Bank, terming them members of a “terrorist organization,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressured European allies to cut off promised funds to the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli government also refused to release tax money it had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
When this pressure did not succeed in derailing the new government, the US took bolder measures. As detailed by Vanity Fair in its March 3, 2008 issue, President George W. Bush signed off on a plot to overthrow the elected government, which reporter David Rose calls “part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs.” The destabilization efforts ultimately created an almost impassable breach between the two halves of Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank, with Hamas in total control of Gaza and Fatah leading the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. East Jerusalem, which was promised to the Palestinians as their capital under the Oslo accords, remains off limits to nearly all of them.
What Intisar Salman — who does not belong to either Fatah or Hamas — and the women and men she organized stood up for over a decade ago was a more democratic country. Though subsequent elections have been disrupted by the split between Gaza and the West Bank, women’s groups have continued organizing to challenge patriarchy in creative ways. When the US government acts to destabilize and delegitimize Palestinians’ elected government, it sends a message that Americans do not recognize their right to choose their own leaders and solve their own problems.
As the Palestinian factions move forward in a new effort to create a unity government, we owe it to Palestinian women to tell our government not to sabotage them.