January 9, 2005 — At approximately, 12:30 PM today, five-and-a-half hours after the opening of polling stations, the first Palestinian voter succeeded in casting a ballot at the Jaffa Gate post office in the old city of East Jerusalem. Israeli-imposed obstacles to voting at the Jaffa Gate polling station typify the problems Palestinians are experiencing as they attempt to conduct democratic elections under Israeli occupation. The Israeli government is attempting to limit Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem in particular as part of an attempt to deny Palestinian rights and identity there.
Because of Israeli-imposed conditions, only 6,000 of the 124,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem who hold Israeli-issued Jerusalem IDs are eligible to vote within East Jerusalem near their homes. Those 6,000 must vote for their President in six Israeli government controlled post offices. The remaining 118,000 East Jerusalem residents must travel to surrounding towns and villages to vote, often passing through Israeli checkpoints or around Israel’s Apartheid Wall.
Only 4.8% of East Jerusalemites will actually find their names on the East Jerusalem voting lists at the six Israeli post offices near their homes. The vast majority are being turned away and told to travel on to the surrounding towns and villages to vote. The Jaffa Gate post office seems to represent an extreme example of this problem. By 12:30 PM, ISM volunteers were told by an Israeli post office employee there that only one of approximately 40 Palestinians who came to vote there had been allowed to vote so far. Similarly, ISM volunteers have been told that only 34 few East Jerusalemites succeeded in voting at the Israeli post office in Shufat, and 56 voted in Beit Hanina so far.
On top of restricting the vote to 4.8% of the eligible Palestinian population in East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities have imposed numerous other constraints on East Jerusalem residents’ right to vote. The requirement that Palestinians cast ballots in Israeli post offices allows Israeli authorities to maintain a façade that Jerusalem residents are casting absentee ballots, and mailing their votes back to their homeland.
During visits to voters’ homes over the last week in East Jerusalem, a number of Palestinians explained to ISM volunteers that voting in Israeli post offices is intimidating and will reduce turnout. They fear Israeli authorities will take the list of voters, and, as a punishment for voting in a Palestinian election, strip voters of their Israeli-issued Jerusalem identification card and their right to live in Jerusalem, and of the benefits that they have paid for through taxes to the Israeli government.
Already worried about voting in Israeli post offices, East Jerusalemites also fear traveling to vote in the towns and villages outside of East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities could claim that as evidence that they are not residents of Jerusalem, and strip them of their Jerusalem IDs and their rights and benefits.
Other major violations in East Jerusalem include Israeli restrictions on registering voters and campaigning in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities closed down Palestinian voter registration centers in East Jerusalem. While they eventually allowed door-to-door registration, staff conducting the registration told ISM volunteers that they were prohibited from carrying any documents identifying them with the Palestinian Central Election Commission, and from displaying the Palestinian flag or colors.
Israeli authorities have also limited the posting of candidate and voter education posters to a few designated public locations. Presidential candidates have also been arrested and harassed by Israeli police on the few occasions when they attempted to campaign in East Jerusalem.
The Israeli government’s effort to deny Palestinians’ right to vote in East Jerusalem serves as one example of the impossibility of conducting free and fair elections under Israeli military occupation.