April, in short:

  • Palestinian elections postponed indefinitely: Abbas bases decision on lack of Israeli approval for East Jerusalem voting, while weakness of Fatah considered primary reason for postponement
  • Flare-up in Jerusalem and Gaza: April ends with calm restored, after violent protests in Jerusalem lead to rocket-fire from Gaza 
  • US aid to UNRWA resumes: Biden administration continues to rebuild US-Palestinian relationship as Congress debates aid to Israel
  • Moves taken to expand Jerusalem settlements: Settlers move into new building in Silwan while expansion of Har Homa clears hurdle
  • Coronavirus pandemic accelerates among Palestinians: Gaza enters lockdown with infections and deaths on the rise  

These events decreased the Two-State Index (TSI) by 0.3% (down 0.02 points from 5.63 in the previous month).

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Abbas postpones Palestinian elections

With the end of April came the decision by President Abbas to postpone the Palestinian elections “until the participation of our people in Jerusalem is guaranteed.” Abbas’ move had been increasingly expected after senior adviser Nabil Shaath declared on April 20th that “the electoral process will be postponed” if Israel continued to ignore the PA’s request to hold the elections in East Jerusalem. Abbas did not present any timetable for when the elections would occur, indicating that their postponement was effectively a cancellation. 

Although PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh claimed that he had been officially informed of Israel’s refusal to allow elections in East Jerusalem, the Israeli Foreign Ministry asserted in an April 25th meeting with 11 ambassadors of European countries that Israel would not interfere in the Palestinian elections. Previously, Abbas was reportedly told that no clear answer about voting in East Jerusalem would be given before Israel is able to form a new government. However, the Palestinian electoral commission affirmed that the majority of East Jerusalem Palestinians would be able to vote, regardless of whether formal approval was given by Israel.

Despite the public reasoning for the postponement, it was widely understood that Abbas chose to avoid elections because of Fatah’s expected defeat, a prospect made likely by intra-party splits. It also became clear that the PA would encounter serious difficulties with international partners – particularly the US  – if Hamas were part of the government, underscored by the latter submitting an electoral list that included figures involved in terrorist attacks against Israel. For its part, the US indicated that it would not object to a postponement, with State Department spokesman Ned Price stating on April 1st that the elections “are ultimately a matter for the Palestinian people to decide.”

Hamas, which boycotted the meeting during which Abbas’ announcement was made, charged that the postponement was “a coup against the path of partnership and national consensus” and explicitly blamed Abbas and Fatah. In a statement, the UN’s Tor Wennesland called on Abbas to set a new date for the election, warning that “a prolonged period of uncertainty risks exacerbating the fragile situation,“ while the EU’s Josep Borrell said the postponement was “deeply disappointing.” 

“The delay will cause a huge backlash and disillusionment to many Palestinians who genuinely [believed] that this time around their vote will be heard and can make a difference,” wrote Palestinian political analyst Daoud Kuttab in Al-Monitor. So far, however, the postponement has been met by only limited protests in Ramallah and Gaza. 

The decision by Abbas to postpone the Palestinian elections, and the resulting fallout, decreased the parameters related to PLO cohesion and Fatah-Hamas relations from 5 to 3 and 6 to 4, respectively.


Uneasy calm in Jerusalem and Gaza after outbreak of violence

As Ramadan began this month, protests by East Jerusalem Palestinians were sparked by a police decision to place barriers on the steps of the Damascus Gate plaza during the holiday, effectively banning public gatherings in the area. Palestinians viewed the move, taken ostensibly for security reasons, as a humiliation by Israel and a violation of Ramadan tradition. 

“Damascus Gate plaza is the equivalent of West Jerusalem’s Zion Square, and it was taken away from them,” explained Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann. “There is a sense that the Palestinian population [of East Jerusalem] is being denationalized, it’s being fragmented geographically and socially, and it’s being marginalized.”

The violence escalated after videos of Palestinians attacking Jewish Israelis were posted online. On April 22nd, far-right Israeli protesters led by the extremist Lehava group came out in force, beating Palestinians and clashing with police (who responded much less forcefully than against the Palestinian protestors). With their political representatives in the Religious Zionism party having now entered the Knesset, the far-right protesters were fueled by a new sense of legitimacy. The series of events prompted critical statements from the UAE and Bahrain, their first since signing normalization agreements with Israel last year. 

On the night of April 23rd, 36 rockets were fired into Israel by Palestinian militants, with Israel launching airstrikes in response. The rocket-fire was an explicit response to events in Jerusalem, and lasted for three nights, leading Israel to close Gaza’s fishing zone (later re-opened on April 29th). Ultimately, the Israeli police removed the barriers from Damascus Gate plaza on April 25th, and a tenuous calm was restored in Jerusalem and Gaza. May 10th now looms as a potential new flashpoint, with Israel’s Jerusalem Day set to coincide with the Islamic holy night of Lailat Al-Qadir, followed by Nakba Day on May 15th. 

The actions of the Israeli police in Jerusalem increased the relevant parameter from 5 to 6 in April. The firing of rockets from Gaza moved up the Palestinian attacks parameter from 5 to 6, and the Prospects for war parameter from 4 to 5.


Biden administration resumes aid to UNRWA as debate heats up in Congress

On April 2nd, US Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Israeli FM Ashkenazi and said that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy “equal measures” of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy. Five days later, President Biden reiterated US support for a two-state solution in a call with Jordan’s King Abdullah. That same day, the US announced $150 million in economic aid to UNRWA, bringing the Biden administration’s total resumption of aid to the Palestinians to $235 million. The move was welcomed by PM Shtyyah, while Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan said that Israel “strongly opposes” renewed funding. Push-back also came from Republican members of Congress, who subsequently (but only temporarily) blocked the administration from sending the aid. 

According to Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, “UNRWA is the only organization currently operating with the resources, infrastructure, and knowledge to be able to provide healthcare and education to Palestinian refugees … aid to the Palestinians is not a black and white, all or nothing proposition, yet the policy conversation on the aid question has become as polarizing [in Washington] as any other aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. approach.”

The issue of aid to Israel was also on the agenda for Congress this month, with Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introducing a bill on April 15th calling for increased supervision and accountability of Israeli military sales received through US aid. On April 19th, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both spoke in favor of restricting aid to Israel in order to end support for “policies that violate human rights and treat the Palestinian people as second-class human beings,” in the words of Sen. Sanders. Subsequently, 330 Congress members signed a bipartisan letter opposing any restrictions on US aid to Israel, making it clear that the McCollum bill has no chance of progress. However, the sustained public dialogue regarding US aid to Israel demonstrated how debate over this issue has increasingly become part of mainstream political discourse in the US.

The Biden administration continued its rhetorical support for a two-state solution and increased its material support for the Palestinians, while the political debate over US policy regarding Israel showed signs of movement. However, all relevant parameters remained the same in April.

New settlement expansion in Jerusalem

On April 8th, Israeli settlers associated with the Ateret Cohanim organization moved into three buildings, housing up to 16 families, in the Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. According to Peace Now, this move is “part of an effort to expand the Israeli presence in the heart of Silwan with the aim of connecting the settlement points from the Old City, through Wadi Hilweh, Batan Al-Hawa, towards Ras Al-Amoud and Mount of Olives.”

One day earlier, the Jerusalem planning and building committee approved a plan to build 540 housing units in the settlement of Har Homa. Construction there could ultimately join with the Givat Hamatos settlement to cut off the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa from Bethlehem, damaging future prospects for a contiguous Palestinian state. The plan is now being considered for approval by the district committee.

These efforts to expand East Jerusalem settlements decreased the Palestinian civil life parameter from 5 to 4 in April.

Gaza on lockdown as COVID-19 hits Palestinians hard

The coronavirus pandemic continued to ravage the Palestinian population this month, particularly in Gaza, where a sharp rise in infections caused the Hamas government to declare a total lockdown on April 7th. As of April 26th, the total number of infections in Gaza was close to 100,000, with 848 deaths. It was reported on April 29th that 253,937 Palestinians have received a vaccine.

The effects of the pandemic continue to pose a severe challenge to the Palestinian economy, but all relevant parameters remained the same this month.
The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.
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