Elections under occupation

The Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah (click for larger image) The territories occupied by Israel that should constitute a future Palestinian state (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) are just that – under military occupation. It is currently the longest military occupation in the world, dating back to 1967. In the run up to this past 9th of January, the Palestinians here did everything they could to run an election as professionally as possible under harsh constraints from the Israeli state. Contrary to the racist picture painted every day in the western media, the Palestinian people understand what democracy is and how to get it. And they understand that the primary thing preventing democracy is the Israeli military occupation. Democracy under occupation is an oxymoron. Since the first intifada in the late 80’s it has been crystal clear that the vast majority of Palestinians recognise the fact that Israel exists and is not going to go away. Even before this, the “rejectionist Arabs” of Palestine had in reality been trying to find ways to live alongside Israel. At every turn, these moves are blocked by the US government, which – beyond the rhetoric – has been rejectionist in practice for a long time, supporting Israeli state terrorism no matter which political party is in government in either country.

These basic facts are important to bear in mind when the media talk about free and fair elections in Palestine. The same applies when George Bush and his ilk talk about the need for democracy in the Palestinian Authority, and an end to violence. Always with the implicit qualification that Israeli violence does not count as violence at all.

On Tuesday the 4th, a couple of meetings had been set up for us in the Jerusalem-based ISM affinity group, so that we could to try and understand better the concerns and problems for Palestinians in Jerusalem during the elections. The first was with a group called PASSIA, the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. Its chairman and founder Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi met with us for about an hour and tried to clarify and explain some of these issues for us. The other meeting was with Sabeel which is an ecumenical liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. They were very busy, but met with us for half an hour and outlined the group’s activities and shed more light on the elections in general and the Jerusalem situation in particular.

A poster for Mustafa Bargouti (the main opposition to Abu Mazen) in Ramallah (click for larger image) From these and other meetings beforehand, as well as observation of what happened on the ground, we managed to gather the following facts about the status of East Jerusalem based Palestinians. Firstly, as in the 1996 PA elections, Israel allowed only 5,376 registered voters from East Jerusalem to vote in East Jerusalem itself. The polling stations were Israeli post offices throughout the city. ‘Why post offices?’ you may well ask. Apparently this was because Israel – contrary to the international consensus – considers East Jerusalem to be part of Israel and therefore Palestinians living there are ‘absentee voters’ that Israel is generously allowing to take part in the PA elections via post! An even more vital concern was the rest of the 120,000 eligible voters in occupied East Jerusalem. Where could they vote? It turned out that they had to travel – often through checkpoints – to outlying regions near Jerusalem. Add to this the large amount of rumors going around that the Israelis would strip health benefits, social security or even the valuable blue Jerusalem ID from tax-paying Jerusalem Palestinians who dared to vote, and it is no surprise that only 26,365 out of the eligible 120,000 voted. In the event many Palestinians who went to their local Jerusalem post office to vote were turned away for various technical reasons. Most ended up being prevented from voting.

Presidential candidates other than Abu Mazen had a very hard time campaigning. Mustafa Bargouti asked for ISM accompaniment on the leg of his campaign from Gaza to Jerusalem, but was detained there for some time by the military. Previously he had also been arrested in Jerusalem and beaten outside of Jenin. Some of our group did manage to go around with him at one stage of this campaign. My initial impression was the candidates (other than Israel’s favourite for President Abu Mazen) were not so much being harassed for campaigning, as just being treated by the Israelis as normal Palestinians, while Abu Mazen got special treatment. On the other hand, the candidates Tayseer Khalid and Bassam El-Salhi were stopped and harassed by rather obvious Shin Beit agents while they were going to and coming from debates and meetings in East Jerusalem and other places in the West Bank, so make of that what you will.

For Palestinians in general, the Occupation makes everyday life hard – so elections are no exception to this. There was one report that young Palestinians had had campaign materials and flags confiscated by soldiers at Huwara checkpoint outside Nablus. A far more grave event happened the week before the election when a seventeen year-old boy, Riziq Musleh, was shot by an Israeli sniper in Rafah (in the Gaza strip) while attempting to hang a campaign poster.

During the run up to the elections, one of the most memorable statements made to me was by the campaign manager for Bassam El-Salhi (the Palestinian People’s Party candidate) when I introduced myself: “the British have a moral obligation to work here in Palestine”. Later on another PPP supporter pointed out to me that their problems started with the British occupation of Palestine. To both I replied that I happened to agree.

The deserted streets of the Old City, Hebron (click for larger image) On the day of the Palestinian Presidential elections, ISM volunteers, including myself came to Hebron from Jerusalem to join the small ISM presence already there. Hearing reports of settler violence against Palestinians, we though it important that we boost the ISM presence there for election day, in case of any Israeli obstruction, either by settlers or the IOF. In any event, ISM is trying to build a more permanent presence in Hebron because of the huge problems there, especially in the old city, and general H-1 area (as designated by the 1997 Hebron accord). The general situation in Hebron really is something else, even within the context of the West Bank. The military occupation there is severe. Palestinians are afraid to walk their streets at night – mainly because of the extremist Zionist settlers in the area, but we also heard many horror stories of violence by the IOF Soldiers and Border Police. They were certainly an imposing presence in the Old City – their stated mission being to protect the settlers – who are not stopped at checkpoints, are allowed to roam freely and are often armed with M16s, submachine guns and the like. Houses are confiscated for use by the army. The settlers are in the process of ethnically cleansing the town, while the soldiers “only follow their orders” to protect them as citizens of Israel. The Old City is a ghost town during the day. Huge concrete blocks systematically placed around the main roads to the Old City mean that transport can not reach what was once the heart of the city. Most shops are closed and often deserted because of threats, harassment and violence from the settlers. Racist graffiti in Hebrew and the Star of David are found sprayed on Palestinian shops and houses all over the Old City. The only form of resistance left for some is simply to continue opening their shops – even if it means selling nothing for weeks or months.

It was in this context of military occupation and colonialism that Palestinian elections took place in Hebron. Along with what seems like the entire western media, we initially though the election turnout throughout the occupied territories was high at 70%, on closer analysis it seems like the figure was more like 46% of eligible voters. The figure for Hebron was even lower at 40%. We were not there to monitor the Palestinian’s election process as there was already many observers around to do that, but from what we saw we were very impressed with the professionalism and independence of the Central Election Commission.

The everyday grind of the occupation in Hebron (click for larger image) We did not come across or hear of any systematic harassment specifically of voters in Hebron on election day. In fact, those of us who had been in Hebron for some time up until then noticed a more low-key military presence on the day – as well as a much larger presence of various international observers and journalists. In context, this still meant the usual ID checks for almost all Palestinian men who looked to be over 18 or so going through the check point that we observed most of the day and seemingly random hold ups of up to 2 hours for some. It also still meant that Zionist settlers and anyone who looked Western were allowed through the checkpoint with few or no questions, while Palestinians are stopped and harassed – often with a smile from the “enlightened” Israeli soldiers.

It was obvious that overall, Hebron was going to vote for Abu Mazen, especially in the Old City – even non-Arabic speakers could hear his name everywhere. People we spoke to tended to vary between the opinion that politicians are all crooks and collaborators, so they wouldn’t vote and voting for Mazen because they just wanted a peaceful life and for the Israelis to leave them alone. There was also a touch of the usual general cynicism with electoral politics that we are used to – “Abu Mazen is going to win anyway”. Perhaps because Hebron seemed pretty sure to vote for Israel’s preferred candidate and because of a boost in the presence of internationals during the election period, Israel decided to slightly ease off on the occupation for a short while.

Despite this, the occupation and ethnic cleansing continues in Hebron.

The obvious lesson is that free elections are not possible under military occupation. The occupying power can not possibly allow a full democratic process, as that would run the danger of a clash with its own interests. This much is a truism. This lesson would be worth reflecting on when thinking about the upcoming demonstration elections in Iraq.

The Hebron sections of this report were first used for an ISM report about election day in Hebron.

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