Negotiating a Free and Fair Palestinian Election under Occupation

Published January 12th, 2005 - 06:36 GMT

By Erica Silverman*


Ramallah, West Bank – Ginger Rogers performed the exact same dance routines as Fred Astaire only backwards, in high heels and a long flowing gown.  In the same regard Palestinians are working diligently to hold a free and fair democratic presidential election under Israeli military occupation with little experience, limited resources, lacking precedent in electoral law, and the question of whether Palestinians in East Jerusalem will enjoy full participation in the electoral process has yet to be answered.


Road closures, permits and ID cards granting freedom of movement, the separation wall, and the almost complete inaccessibility to the Gaza Strip were the overarching topics of the first official press event held Thursday by the Central Elections Commission headquartered in Ramallah.  The CEC is an independent electoral authority responsible for the preparation, administration, and supervision of Palestinian elections with 16 regional offices for each voting district.


Majdi Abu Zaid from the regional CEC office in Gaza, containing 5 of the 16 districts, reported major problems in the movement of staff and materials within Gaza, and between the area and the West Bank.  Two presidential candidates from Gaza, Sayyed Barakeh and Dr. Abdel Karim Shbeir, have yet to receive a travel permit to leave the area. 


Mr. Abu Zaid reported that two central checkpoints, Abu Holi, placed directly on the main Palestinian access road between the north and the south, and Netzarim are closed for days at a time severely limiting their movement.  In certain areas no one is permitted to enter, not even residents let alone campaign staff and electoral supervisors.


It took Mr. Abu Ziad one month to make arrangements to transport election materials from Gaza City to Rafah, although the official campaign period, commencing December 25, is only two weeks long.  For weeks his office submitted repeated applications for permission to transport campaign materials that were declined, and eventually the material had to be transported in UN vehicles to clear the checkpoints.  It has not been possible to unify procedures between the West Bank and Gaza, such as the training of thousands of supervisors, mostly teachers, who will be manning the polling stations on election day.


The on going violence in the Gaza strip has made it difficult for Palestinian residents to become engaged in the election.  Five Palestinians were killed in Khan Yunis, a southern refugee camp, the day of the press event.  Two teenage Palestinian civilians, one with Down's Syndrome, were hit by Israeli gun fire and the other three slain were members of Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.  When the candidates attended their funerals to pay their respects they were met with negativity, recounted Mr. Abu Zaid.  A total of 12 Palestinians were killed in the raid and Israel may re-enter the area in the coming days.


The CEC has not been able to ameliorate the situation since they deal directly with the Civil Affairs Ministry of the Palestinian Authority and not the Israeli government.  
Palestinian Institutions are struggling to rapidly formalize and professionalize themselves with little resources and a wide technology gap between the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel.  In a few voting districts election materials are transported by donkey and human porters.  CEC expects the number of journalists covering the election on January 9th may number a thousand and are trying to provide resources and facilities, while developing their own system of accreditation in a culture in which meetings with governments officials can often be held without an appointment.


Dr. Hanna Nasir, CEC Chairman and one of nine elections commissioners, and President of Birzeit University, reiterated the CEC’s commitment to holding free and fair elections and requested that members of the press and international observers give exposure to all candidates.  The commissioners are comprised of Palestinian judges, lawyers, and academics from Birzeit and An-Najah National Universities.


International media professionals and observers were in attendance, including journalists from Japan, China, Canada, Australia, and a strong presence of female Palestinian journalists representing media outlets such as Sky News from the UK and JIJI Press from Japan.  The CEC is funded by the Japanese and Canadian governments, along with support from liaison offices of the United Nations.  It has been speculated that Japan, the largest donor nation to the Palestinians, is motivated by geopolitical forces related to its dependency on the Middle East for almost 90% of its oil supply.  If there is a future embargo the Japanese could rely on this support to act as a catalyst for a continued oil supply from Arab Nations.  After the US, Japan is the world’s largest oil importer.


Frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yassir Arafat as chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the candidate of the mainstream Fatah party has a significant lead over his nearest rival, Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.  There are a total of seven candidates on the ballot.


Israel's cabinet adopted a series of measures on December 26 aimed at facilitating Palestinian elections, stating the presidential election will be held along the same framework as the 1996 election.  Supposedly Palestinians will be given greater freedom of movement and Israeli troops will pull out of Palestinian population centers over a 72-hour period before, during, and after the election.  Additionally, candidates are allowed limited campaigning in East Jerusalem; they are allowed to hang posters and distribute campaign literature, but rallies in public places are prohibited.


The campaign is in full swing in Ramallah; campaign posters, billboards and banners adorn the cityscape, political rallies are being held, and the pulse of a national election beats through the city center.  In contrast, there is little electoral activity in East Jerusalem where Mr. Barghouti was arrested this week while campaigning in the Old City, the second time he has been arrested for his mere presence during the campaign.  Israeli police have been spotted tearing down campaign posters in the night and those remaining are only for Abbas, in an effort to quell any public display of a Palestinian national election out of fear it may color Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.


Ahmad Mansour, a 23 year old Palestinian police officer in Ramallah, stated he would vote for Abbas because “he is the heir to Arafat.”  Working at the Plaza Shopping Center it takes him nearly two hours to travel to work from his home in Deir Jarir, a trip that would otherwise take fifteen minutes without traversing four checkpoints.
Inside the Shopping Center three young female students from Birzeit University enjoy ice cream sundaes around a small table.  Two of the women will vote for Abbas affirming he will “make their situation better,” and the third is undecided.  At 18 they are pondering viable solutions to the occupation through a pink aura of hope.  A law student, Nariman Hamed believes “education, a non-violent resistance, and intervention by the United States, or perhaps the EU” are the necessary components to ending the occupation.


Former U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher agreed with Ms. Hamed in his opinion piece “O come, o come, United States” published in Sunday’s International Herald Tribune.  “What is missing now, and urgently needed, is the active hands-on involvement of the United States,” he wrote describing a rare opportunity for US intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In his approach a high ranking U.S. emissary, preferably the new secretary of state, would travel to the region frequently to conduct face to face negotiations with the ability to speak for the president.


It has been suggested by Palestinians and the international community alike, that if Abbas is unable to resume successful negotiations with the Israelis to end the military occupation, and if Fateh is unable to reform the Palestinian Authority, a third Intifada will erupt.  It is hard to envision this will be the next step for the Palestinian people considering the sense of hope and desire for fair negotiation that permeates their dialogue at this time. 


* Freelance Journalist, Jerusalem


Editor's note:  A variation of this article was published on Arab News after Al Bawaba's date of publishing.


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