Israel yet to allow EU officials into Palestinian territories before crucial elections

The EU said it sent a formal request to Israel’s foreign ministry on February 8 and has yet to receive access

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2017 file photo, Israeli border police officers look over the Arab neighborhood of Issawiyah in Jerusalem. A dispute over Israeli restrictions on Palestinian voters in east Jerusalem is threatening to cancel or delay the first Palestinian elections in more than 15 years. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
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Israel has yet to allow European Union officials to visit the Palestinian territories, the regional bloc said on Wednesday, jeaopordising diplomats’ ability to observe landmark elections slated for next month.

The EU said it sent a formal request to Israel’s foreign ministry on February 8, asking permission for a delegation to travel through the country to meet Palestinian officials before their first legislative election in 15 years.

"Despite continuous contact with the Israeli authorities, over the past ten weeks, a reply granting access has yet to be received," the EU's Jerusalem office told The National.

“The delay has considerably reduced the EU option to observe the 22 May legislative elections,” it added in a statement.

When Palestinians last went to the polls in 2006, some 185 European observers were deployed across Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s foreign ministry and the Palestinian Central Elections Commission declined to comment on the affair when contacted by The National.

While entry to Israel has been curbed as part of efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, there have been numerous diplomatic visits during the pandemic.

Earlier this month a delegation led by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin travelled to Jerusalem, followed by the arrival of British Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove this week.

Despite the lengthy wait for the EU, the bloc said it remained “strongly determined” to ensure the deployment of election observers on polling day.

Riyad Al Malki, Palestinian foreign minister, meanwhile travelled to Brussels this week where he met the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, to discuss the coming vote.

President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday said the Palestinian leadership is “incessantly working to conduct general elections in all Palestinian territories”, though doubts remain as to whether the vote will go ahead.

The Palestinians have insisted the election must include voters in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since 1967. The Israeli government bans Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem and has not yet announced whether it will allow voters to cast their ballots in the city.

A refusal by the Israelis could serve as a pretence for the Palestinian leadership to delay or cancel the election, amid deep divisions within Mr Abbas’ Fatah party.

Fatah has split into three lists of candidates, a development which could see the party’s rival Hamas, which rules Gaza, emerge triumphant in the elections.

One breakaway list is led by Nasser Al Kidwa, a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He has the backing of popular leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for his alleged involvement in deadly attacks during the second Palestinian uprising.

Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ former security chief in Gaza, is heading another rival list from exile in Abu Dhabi.