January 9, 2005 — Many friends and family in the US have asked me whether or not I thought the Palestinian elections would be conducted in a free and fair manner. Today was an eye-opener with respect to the meaning of ‘free and fair’. Take a deep breath, dear reader, and I will take you through the many twists and turns taken by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who were trying to vote in the Palestinian Authority elections.
Palestinians in Jerusalem
Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens. This means that although they are required to pay taxes to the Israeli government, they are not represented by the Israeli government. In addition, they also receive poor social services from the Israeli government. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem receive between 6 to 8 per cent of the social services in the municipality even though they pay one third of the taxes.
Voting rights for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were enormously challenged in these elections. From the Israeli perspective, if all of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were permitted to vote in Jerusalem, it would mean that the Palestinian Authority would be responsible for protecting their interests. If the Palestinian Authority were to have a significant number of constituents in East Jerusalem and these constituents were acknowledged as Palestinian by Israel, this would strengthen the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem.
Such is life for Palestinians in the only ‘democracy’ in the Middle East.
Of the 124,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem only six thousand were eligible to vote within East Jerusalem itself due to Israeli imposed restrictions. The Israeli government limited Palestinian voting locations to six Israeli post offices that had minimal capacity to serve as polling stations. The other 118,000 residents had to cross through Israeli checkpoints or go around Israel’s apartheid wall in order to vote in surrounding villages and towns.
Jerusalem is a sensitive issue in terms of sovereignty over holy sites and because of territorial matters. The city’s Palestinian residents are left in the middle of the disputes, without proper representation and under threat from settler nationalist groups intent on keeping all of Jerusalem as part of Israel.
‘Free and fair’ election
We began our day as election eyewitnesses at the largest voting station in East Jerusalem, the Salahadin Street post office. There were a few people gathered and ready to vote. It was then that things grew rather hairy, as many who came to Salahadin were turned away from the voting station because their name was not on the list of people eligible to vote in East Jerusalem. It seemed that no one knew which 4% of the 124,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were eligible to vote in the place where they lived and which of them had to go to the surrounding villages and towns.
Never mind that Israel and the US picked their favourite before the election even started. You have, no doubt heard of Abu Mazen? Never mind that the Israelis restricted freedom of movement for every other candidate running. Have you heard about the multiple arrests of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi? Do you even know who he is? Did you know that he holds a PhD in Medicine as well as a graduate degree in Philosophy and one in Civil Administration? Did you know that he is the president of the Union of Medical Relief Committees, which he also founded?
Have you heard of Bassam El-Salhi, who holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Birzeit University? What about Tayseer Khaled, who holds a Masters degree in Economy and Political Science from Heidelberg University?
These men, including Abu Mazen (who, before you ask, has a PhD in Law from the University of Damascus) have been among the leaders of the Palestinian struggle for justice. They are not rag-tag thugs as our government, or the Israeli press, would have you believe.
But I digress. Never mind that Israel and the US hand-picked the winner before the elections had even started. Never mind the significant Israeli police presence around each and every polling station in East Jerusalem. Would you feel comfortable voting, knowing that you could potentially be arrested and held for months without trial, without even knowing what you were being accused of? Never mind the American presidential election loser John Kerry stopping by for photo ops with the Shin Bet (Israeli Secret Service). Never mind all of this.
In addition to the police presence, when our group arrived at our second destination, the Jaffa Street post office polling center, there were teenage Jewish settlers hanging around outside the post office, eyeballing Palestinians unsuccessfully attempting to vote. At 12:30pm, only one out of 50 potential Palestinian voters was allowed to vote at this polling station. The settler children were given microphones and cameras by Israel National Radio (aka Arutz Sheva, “Channel Seven”), an anti-Palestinian propagandist radio station based out of the Beit El settlement near Ramallah. We, the international observers, were like a magnet to them.
A Jewish representative of the Jerusalem Municipal Council, a man in his thirties, tried to walk into the post office with an enormous Israeli flag in his hand. When he was stopped by security he said, “Jerusalem is part of my country, the State of Israel, and this is the flag of the state of Israel. I should be allowed to go wherever I want to go in Jerusalem with this flag.”
After the incident subsided, one of the settler teens, with an Arutz Sheva microphone in hand and a yellow star with the word ‘settler’ written in Hebrew on his lapel, asked if I wanted to give an interview. I said no. He asked why. I said that I was not interested. He asked me why. I told him that I do not talk to Israel National Radio.
We were approached again by a different settler teen who insisted on knowing our opinion on whether the elections were free and fair. I told him that we were not interested in speaking to him. He insisted on knowing our opinion. I told him to stop harassing us and to leave. He said that he had the right to stand there. I told him that I would call the police if he did not leave us alone. I stood my ground (although I was boiling inside) and he left.
It was at this point that another settler teen shoved a video camera in the faces of the other three members in my group. He demanded that they tell him the names of the candidates running for Palestinian president.
My Swedish friend insisted that he stop filming her. When she put her hand to her face, the settler teen went to the police and claimed that she had assaulted him. The police, of course, did nothing and the settler teen came right back over and shoved the video camera in our faces again. It was at this point that the four of us turned our backs and he went on to harass one of the EU election monitors.
Another settler teen approached and insisted on knowing why we supported these Arabs. He asked if we knew what he knew: that there has never been a Palestinian people, and that the term was a construct?
We refused to answer his ridiculous question. Are the people who have lived in this place for centuries also a construct? Are they fungible, like the US loans with repayment waived (in other words, grants for Israel with no US oversight)? It was at this point that the settler teen accused my Swedish friend of perpetrating the Holocaust. He told her that she wanted all of the Jews in Israel to move back to Europe. She clarified that she did not want him or any of his friends anywhere near her country.
It was at this point, after the realization that Palestinians had left the polling place, thoroughly intimidated by the settler presence and aware that they would probably be turned away if they tried to vote inside the post office, that we decided to leave. The Israelis were clear about the fact that they were not interested in reining in the settlers (are they ever clear in action that they want these people to stop?). The settlers sent their children out to incite violence but confronting them was not what we were there to do. We heard about more incidents throughout the day of settlers trying to intimidate Palestinians on their way to the polls, but the EU monitors claim that every one was able to reach the polling places without physical violence.
At around 2:30pm, former president Jimmy Carter negotiated a deal with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office that allowed Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to vote inside the city with their ID cards, whether their name appeared on the list of those eligible to vote in the city or not. However, by the time the polls closed and Abu Mazen was declared the winner (a huge shock to all, what a roller coaster ride!) only six or seven Palestinians had voted at Jaffa Gate.
So, dear reader, were the elections free and fair as reported?
The Palestinian residents of Jerusalem worked as hard as they could, organizing buses and vans to the surrounding areas in order to vote. The Palestinians care deeply about changing their situation and want more than anything to have a just and democratic society. They made every effort to make the elections run smoothly under occupation. I share their hopes that Israel will stop this nonsensical occupation and that they will one day achieve their goal.
The day after the elections, the Israelis closed the Kalandia and Al-Ram checkpoints for “security reasons” in both the direction of Ramallah and in the direction of Jerusalem. While my friends and I waited at Kalandia along with about 200 to 300 Palestinians, all too familiar with these regular hassles, I thought, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, no matter what is decided, I will always remember that these people are Palestinians and that this place is Palestine.
Molly Picon is volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement.