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Is the right to have elections a gift from Israel?

Many believe that the right for Palestinians to participate in elections as Israeli citizens is a gift from the Israeli state; something that the "forgiving democracy" of Zionist ideology has bestowed on them. This belief in Israeli generosity and fairness has been pushed by Zionists and the state itself from Theodor Herzl's "new ancient land" up to the latest election campaign.

Those who claim that the right to vote is poisoning Israel's Palestinian citizens fall into the same trap of imagining the state's largesse. In fact, descriptions of the electoral "gift" are suspect, coming as they probably do from Israeli sources.


I will explain in this concentrated study why I think that the right to participate in elections is a Palestinian right earned through rebellion, and that the Zionist movement has always been against Palestinians' right to elect their own representatives. Indeed, that the government and main political groups in Israel want to erode and remove the right to vote from Palestinian Israelis as well as those in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel's democratic "gift" to the Palestinians is a continuous thread in Palestinian and Israeli political and cultural writings. The issue is always present in debates during Israeli election campaigns, so it is extremely topical.

We need to look back into history to see that Palestinians have, in fact, a long record of voting in general elections which pre-dates the creation of the state of Israel. When elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to elect committees following the Oslo Accords, some Palestinian commentators wrote that they were taking part in an election process for the first time in two thousand years. Even such people were trying to show how proud they were, they were aping the Zionist way of boasting about doing things "for the first time in two thousand years".

We need only to look at the Ottoman era to see that elections were commonplace in the region. Egypt's recent election was following in the Ottoman tradition, as was the Palestinians', who participated in elections long before millions of Americans and Europeans did. That includes those European Jews who migrated to and occupied Palestine, created the state of Israel and now claim democratic superiority over the Palestinians.

Palestinians, including Jews and others who lived in the Ottoman Empire, participated in elections and sent their delegates to the parliament in Istanbul. Unfortunately, Palestinian historians have not registered this historic step as an important stage in the Palestinian narrative. This humble effort is perhaps the first to record this complex element of Palestinian political history.

Although the democratic process under the Ottomans was far from perfect, the Sultan's tyranny could not dampen the quest for political participation and accountability through general elections. In this, the Ottomans were no different to their counterparts in Europe. Moreover, Ottoman elections included Palestinians and other Arabs voting equally alongside Turks, Kurds and others.

Palestinians elected their representatives and participated in the political process until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and its land and people were fragmented at the end of World War I.
Despite the harshness of the Ottomans' defeat and break up of their empire, Palestinians continued to hold onto their right to political elections as they held fast to their right to self determination. This became an internationally-recognised political principle contained in the founding documents of institutions such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945.

With the allocation of League of Nations "mandates", responsibility for Palestine was given to the British government. The British Mandate authority cancelled Palestinians' right to self-determination permanently, not for a limited period as was the case with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, which all went on to become independent countries.

Post-1919, Palestine moved from being within the Ottoman constitution and participation in elections and the wider political process to the British Mandate. This abolished all Palestinian political rights and introduced instead civil and religious rights, as was stated in the British imperial government's infamous "Balfour Declaration in 1917. This document was drafted in collaboration with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann.

Thus Zionism in the shape of Weizmann shaped the nature of Palestinian political participation by influencing the cancellation of the right to elections and self-determination. This was done to enable the creation of the "national home for the Jewish people" as promised by Balfour, with the intended beneficiaries being European Jews whom the Zionist movement wanted to move to Palestine. The wording of the Balfour Declaration negated Palestinian identity, describing the historic community simply as "non-Jewish".

Weizmann went on to become Israel's first President, when he could continue the act of denying rights – electoral, civil and legal to Palestinians in their homeland.

Ghassan Fawzi is a Palestinian activist from Umm Al-Fahm, and a PhD student at Colombia University, New York.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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