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First-Hand Reports from Israel/Palestine

The Election Labyrinth of East Jerusalem

International Solidarity Movement Media Office

At approximately 2:30 PM on election day, former US President Jimmy Carter intervened with the Israeli government on behalf of 124,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were not allowed to vote near their homes because of Israeli government restrictions. This belated intervention allowed Palestinian residents of the city who hold Jerusalem IDs and who had registered for the election to vote at any of the six Israeli post office polling stations in East Jerusalem.

This was a significant change from the system employed from 7:00 AM until 2:30 PM, which allowed only 6,000 residents to vote at the six Israeli post offices, while forcing 118,000 residents to travel through checkpoints in order to reach polling stations in surrounding towns and villages. Despite the improvements implemented after Carter’s intervention, the day was already marred by confusion and changing rules. Election staff told ISM volunteers that thousands of voters were turned away from the six Israeli post offices before the rule change took affect at 2:30 PM, because they were not on the list of 6,000 eligible voters. These problems could have been avoided if the Israeli government had simply allowed Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote near their homes from the start of the voting process.

Some people label Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Yet, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians belies that claim on many levels. In the case of East Jerusalem, Israel refuses to allow 124,000 Palestinian residents to vote in Israeli elections, and also attempts to block them from participating in Palestinian elections. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem deserve proper representation without having to forsake their rightful place of residence. Allowing such un-democratic procedures in East Jerusalem until a last minute change at 2:30 PM on Election Day was a serious violation of Palestinians’ right to free and fair elections.

The Election Labyrinth of East Jerusalem

By Molly Picon
International Solidarity Movement
January 9, 2005

Many friends and family in the U.S. have asked me about whether or not I think the Palestinian elections will be conducted in a free and fair manner. Today was an eye-opener about the meaning of free and fair. Take a deep breath, dear reader, and I’ll take you through the many twists and turns taken by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem trying to vote in the PA elections.

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. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem cannot vote in Israeli elections. They also receive poorer social services from the Israeli government. According to the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem receive 6-8% of the social services in the municipality even though they pay one third of the taxes. Voting rights for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were an enormous problem 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. This 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 the Israeli imposed restrictions. The Israeli government limited Palestinian voting to six Israeli post offices which had minimal capacity to serve as polling stations. The other 118,000 residents had to cross through Israeli imposed checkpoints or around Israel’s apartheid wall in order to vote in surrounding villages and towns. Naturally, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem worried about losing the meager social services provided to them by the Israeli government, not to mention their rights to their homes, if they succeeded in voting in the areas surrounding Jerusalem. Since the city of Jerusalem is such a sensitive issue in terms of sovereignty over holy sites and territorial issues, the city’s Palestinian residents are left in the middle of the dispute, without proper representation and under threat from settler nationalist groups intent on keeping all of Jerusalem as part of Israel.

We began our day as election eyewitnesses at the largest voting station in East Jerusalem, the Salahadin post office. There were a few people gathered and ready to vote. It was then that things became 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 had to go to the surrounding villages and towns.

Never mind that Israel and the U.S. picked their favorite before the election even started. You have, no doubt heard of Abu Mazen, my reader? Never mind that the Israelis restricted freedom of movement for every candidate running besides the one they picked. Have you heard of the multiple arrests of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi? Do you even know who he is? Did you know that he is a PhD in medicine with one graduate degree in philosophy and one in civil administration? Did you know that he is the president of the Medical Relief Committee, which he founded? Have you heard of Bassam Al-Salhi who holds a master’s degree in political science from Birzeit University? What about Taysir Khaled who holds a Masters degree in Economy and Political Science from Heidelberg University? These men, along with 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 us believe.

But I digress. Never mind that Israel and the U.S. hand-picked the winner before the elections even started. Never mind the significant Israeli police presence around each and every polling station in East Jerusalem. I mean, would you feel comfortable voting knowing that you could potentially be arrested and held for months without trial and without even knowing what you were being accused of? Never mind the American loser John Kerry who stopped by for photo-ops with the Shin Bet. 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 place, there were teenage Jewish settlers hanging around outside the post office, eyeballing Palestinians trying to vote unsuccessfully. At 12:30pm one Palestinian out of 50 potential voters was allowed to vote at this polling station. The settler children were given microphones and cameras for Israel National Radio (aka Arutz Sheva), an anti-Palestinian propagandist radio station. We internationals were like a magnet for them. A Jewish representative of the Jerusalem Municipal Council 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 I’m not interested. He asked why. I told him I don’t 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 weren’t 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 didn’t leave us alone. I stood my ground (I was boiling inside, just boiling) 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 (who you may remember from my last report back, with the Barbie-doll hair?) 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 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 have 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 Barbie-blonde 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 didn’t 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 if they tried to vote inside the post office they would probably be turned away, that we decided to leave. The Israelis were clear about the fact that they were not interested in reigning 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, as after all, they are the ones who spawn terrorists and 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 prime minister’s office that allowed Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to vote inside the city with their I.D. cards, whether their name appeared on the list of those eligible to vote in the city or not. However, at the time at which the polls closed and Abu Mazen was declared the winner (a huge shock to all, I mean what a roller coaster ride!) only six or seven Palestinians had voted at the Jaffa Gate.

So, dear reader, were the elections free and fair as was reported? The Palestinian residents of Jerusalem worked as hard as they could, organizing buses and vans to the surrounding areas in order to get out the 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 Qalandia and Ram checkpoints for “security reasons” in both the direction of Ramallah (away from Israel) and in the direction of Jerusalem. While my friends and I waited at Qalandia with about 200-300 Palestinians all too familiar with these regular accusations and hassles, I thought “no matter what they say, no matter what they do, no matter what’s decided, I will always remember that these people are Palestinians and that this place is Palestine.”

Read more first-hand reports.

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