Palestinian Vote Delayed, Prolonging Split for West Bank and Gaza

JERUSALEM — When the Palestinian Authority called in January for parliamentary elections, many Palestinians hoped the vote — the first in the occupied territories since 2006 — would revive Palestinian discourse, re-energize the independence movement and end a 14-year division between Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But those hopes were dashed Thursday night when President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced that the vote, scheduled for May 22, would be delayed indefinitely.

The news compounded an unsettled political dynamic across the occupied territories and the state of Israel, where both Israeli and Palestinian societies remain racked by political stalemate and division, where tensions are rising in Jerusalem and Gaza, and a return to peace negotiations appears less likely than ever.

The official reason for the postponement was the refusal by the Israeli government to confirm that it would allow voting in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. East Jerusalem is mainly populated by Palestinians who participate in elections for the Palestinian Authority, a semiautonomous institution that exerts partial jurisdiction in other parts of the occupied territories.

wrested control of Gaza from Mr. Abbas in 2007, and which has never recognized Israel.

“It is a big mistake to go to these elections,” Kamil Abu Rokon, an Israeli general who oversaw administrative aspects of the occupation until earlier this month, said shortly before leaving his post. “My recommendation is not to cooperate.”

at an impasse, following an election in March — Israel’s fourth in two years — in which both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents failed to win a workable majority.

In Jerusalem, the situation is tense, following a march last week by far-right Jewish supremacists who chanted “Death to Arabs,” attacks on both Palestinians and Jews, and the provocative Israeli decision, now rescinded, to close a central plaza in East Jerusalem where Palestinians enjoy gathering during the ongoing month of Ramadan.

That unrest broke months of relative calm in Gaza, where militants fired dozens of rockets toward Israel last weekend to protest the situation in Jerusalem.

The city is at the heart of the pretext provided by Mr. Abbas to postpone elections.

Under the interim agreements signed in the 1990s between Israeli and Palestinian leaders known as the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government is obliged to allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem.

second breakaway faction, headed by Nasser al-Kidwa, a former envoy to the United Nations, and Marwan Barghouti, a popular militant serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for five counts of murder.

In the most recent poll, Mr. Abbas’s faction still came out on top, with about a quarter of the vote. But it was projected to fall far short of an overall majority because nearly as many voters said they would vote for the rival Fatah groups. Hamas polled under nine percent.

No Palestinian official would admit publicly this week that these factors affected Mr. Abbas’s thinking. But speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat briefed by the Palestinians said that he feared losing influence to his former allies.

And after Mr. Kidwa and Mr. Barghouti broke with Mr. Abbas in March, a senior Palestinian official said in an interview with The New York Times that the move put the elections at risk because it risked undermining Fatah.

“Fatah’s situation needs to be strong, it needs to lead the Palestine Liberation Organization and the national project,” said Wassel Abu Yousef, a member of the executive committee of the P.L.O., the official representative of the Palestinian people. “If there is harm to the national project, there will be heavy and powerful voices that will be in favor of postponing the elections.”

Some Palestinians met the postponement with a shrug. Many felt the elections would not have occurred in a particularly free environment, while some always suspected they would be canceled. Others felt voting for a Palestinian Parliament would have little effect on the biggest problem in their lives: the Israeli occupation.

Elections suggest “there is a sovereign entity in which people are participating in a democratic process,” said Yara Hawari, a senior analyst at Al Shabaka, a Palestinian research group. “But you can’t have a full democracy under occupation.”

Many Palestinians were nevertheless furious at being deprived of a rare chance to choose their representatives. Crowds of protesters, many of whom were too young to vote in the last Palestinian elections, demonstrated against the decision in both the West Bank and Gaza.

“The people demand the ballot box,” they chanted.

Muhammad Shehada, a 28-year-old unemployed civil engineer from Gaza City, called the decision “a big disappointment.” The situation in Jerusalem was no reason to cancel the elections, he said: “The occupation controls Jerusalem, whether the elections are held or not.”

The lack of elections also raises the specter of intra-Palestinian violence, since different factions will now have no peaceful forum in which to air their grievances and express their frustrations, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.

“Many Palestinians were hoping that elections would ease the tension and friction between the factions,” said Dr. Abusada. But the election delay, he said, “will leave the Palestinians fighting against each other.”

Iyad Abuhweila contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.

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Rights Group Hits Israel With Explosive Charge: Apartheid

Mr. Regev added: “To allege that Israeli policies are motivated by racism is both baseless and outrageous, and belittles the very real security threats posed by Palestinian terrorists to Israeli civilians — whose fundamental human rights to live in freedom and security are callously ignored by H.R.W.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, said the report bordered on anti-Semitism.

“When the authors of the report cynically and falsely use the term apartheid, they nullify the legal and social status of millions of Israeli citizens, including Arab citizens, who are an integral part of the state of Israel,” he said.

Human Rights Watch does not draw a direct comparison with the notorious South African regime that segregated and subjugated people according to their skin color. Instead, it cites international laws that define apartheid as a crime against humanity in which one racial group dominates another through intentional, systematic and inhumane acts of oppression. And it contends that the word race as used in those laws applies broadly to ethnic groups.

While Human Rights Watch argues that these policies persist, to varying degrees, across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and within the state of Israel itself, it points to the occupied West Bank as exhibit A. There, the group says, Israel has created a two-tier system with some Palestinians living under military rule and Israeli settlers under a civil legal system with greater freedoms, an inequity that H.R.W. said “amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.”

Israel fully governs over 60 percent of the West Bank, and uses checkpoints and a permit system to regulate Palestinian movement between areas of nominal Palestinian self-rule and to Israel. H.R.W. also cites “the forcible transfer of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes, denial of residency rights to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their relatives, and the suspension of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians” as policies that meet the definition of apartheid.

“These policies, which grant Jewish Israelis the same rights and privileges wherever they live and discriminate against Palestinians to varying degrees wherever they live, reflect a policy to privilege one people at the expense of another,” Mr. Roth said.

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A Ramadan Closer to Normal for 2021

CAIRO — Compared with Ramadan 2020, when mosques around the world were closed for prayer during the holiest month of the year for Muslims, and curfews prevented friends and family from gathering to break the fast, the religious holiday this year offered the promise of something much closer to normal.

“Last year, I felt depressed and I didn’t know how long the pandemic would last,” said Riyad Deis, a co-owner of a spice and dried-fruit shop in Jerusalem’s Old City. On Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim fasting month, its narrow alleys were alive with shoppers browsing Ramadan sweets and worshipers heading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Mr. Deis, 51, who was selling whole pieces of turmeric and Medjool dates to a customer, recalled how empty and subdued the Old City had felt last year as virus cases surged and the authorities closed Al-Aqsa to the public. “Now, I’m relaxed, I have enough money to provide for my family and people are purchasing goods from my shop,” he said. “It’s a totally different reality.”

rising coronavirus infections across many countries.

In Kenya, the authorities have introduced longer curfews, closed bars and schools, restricted gatherings at spaces of worship, and limited travel in and out of five counties including Nairobi, the capital.

For Nairobi residents like Ahmed Asmali, this means a prolonged inability to break the fast with loved ones or attend prayers with larger congregations.

“It’s the second year now that we are in a lockdown,” said Mr. Asmali, a 41-year-old public relations worker. The experience, he said “feels weird. Feels out of place.”

Lebanon Crisis Observatory, a project by the American University in Beirut.

The pandemic still shadows much of the festivities. Shop owners in Jerusalem’s Old City said they were worried that Israel would not allow large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank, where few have been vaccinated, to visit the Old City this Ramadan, depriving the area of their holiday spending.

Prepandemic, Israel usually allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to visit Jerusalem on Fridays during the fasting month. The arm of the Israeli government that liaises with the Palestinian Authority said on Tuesday that Israel would allow 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to pray at the Aqsa on Friday. It also said authorities would permit 5,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to make family visits in Israel between Sunday and Thursday next week.

Omar Kiswani, the director of the Aqsa Mosque, said he was overjoyed that the compound was open to worshipers — an estimated 11,000 attended the taraweeh prayers at the compound Monday evening — but he emphasized that people would still need to be careful. He said masks and two meters’ distance between worshipers are required at the mosque, and the indoor and outdoor spaces will be sterilized daily.

“These are times of great happiness,” Mr. Kiswani said. “We hope the blessed Aqsa Mosque will return to its prepandemic glory. But these are also times of caution, because the virus is still out there.”

Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem. Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting form Istanbul and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi.

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Severe Covid Cases Surge in Gaza as Ramadan Nears

Severe and critical cases of Covid-19 have hit record highs this week in the blockaded Gaza Strip, a development that health experts attributed to the proliferation of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in Britain.

Medical officials in the Hamas-run Health Ministry estimated that the variant now accounts for four out of five new cases in Gaza. They detected it in the densely populated territory for the first time in late March.

“We are in a dangerous place,” said Dr. Majdi Dhair, the director of the ministry’s preventive medicine department. “We expect more people to become infected and more people to enter hospitals. We ask God to pull us out of this situation.”

Over the past three weeks, severe cases — typically when a patient’s oxygen level falls to 94 percent or less — have risen to 219 from 58, according to ministry data. Critical cases, which can involve respiratory failure, septic shock or multiple organ dysfunction, jumped to 58 from 17.

On top of that, the ministry said on Monday that about 38 percent of the 4,700 virus test results it had received over the preceding 24 hours were positive — one of the highest rates in the past month.

Dr. Dhair said he believed that hospitals in Gaza were prepared to handle more severe and critical cases, but that they would probably have to postpone some surgical procedures to free up intensive care beds.

Devastated by years of conflict, Gaza’s hospitals were already dealing with challenging circumstances before the first cases of community transmission of the virus were discovered in the territory in August.

Gaza’s population is overwhelmingly young, and less than 1 percent of residents have been vaccinated so far.

The sharp rise in severe and critical cases has come just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Tuesday. Traditionally during Ramadan, many Palestinians in Gaza would gather for large meals after sunset, pack streets in popular commercial districts and crowd into mosques for special evening prayers. But a number of those traditions will be prohibited this year because of the pandemic, the authorities said.

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