By Hind Khoury, Palestinian Authority’s minister of state for Jerusalem Affairs (THE GUARDIAN, 26/01/06):
Yesterday just over 6% of the Palestinian electorate in occupied East Jerusalem were granted the opportunity to vote in their city in the second Palestinian parliamentary elections – a total of 6,300 out of a population of nearly a quarter of a million (including children). Yet even the lucky 6,300 – the number permitted by Israel to vote is entirely arbitrary – faced a campaign of intimidation to discourage voting.
Israel tried to score points internationally by allowing elections in East Jerusalem, while trying to choke the life out of them. As well as severely restricting the number of Palestinians allowed to vote, Israel photocopied registration lists. A refusal to give a previously issued letter of assurances that voting would not affect residency and other rights added to the atmosphere of fear.
International discussion about these elections has been almost exclusively about Hamas, a welcome distraction for Israel from the suppression of the democratic rights of the Palestinians of Jerusalem. In the past two years, Israel has surrounded its settlements in East Jerusalem with an 8m-high concrete wall, cutting off the Palestinian city from its hinterland in the West Bank. Ramallah and Bethlehem – once suburbs of East Jerusalem – are now as remote as foreign countries on the other side of international-border-style crossings.
The 94% of Palestinian Jerusalemites barred from voting in their city have to travel to the other side of Israel’s wall to vote, passing barbed-wire fences and the nervous teenagers armed to the teeth at Israeli checkpoints. Israel knew few Palestinian Jerusalemites would choose to spend an entire day on this arduous journey, and was thereby trying to deprive almost the entire Jerusalem electorate of its democratic right to vote.
In order to create the fiction that Jerusalemites were participating in elections from “abroad”, those Palestinians permitted to cast their votes in their own city had to do so in post offices. Last year, Palestinian negotiators tried to open talks on expanding the Jerusalem voting arrangements to include the entire electorate. Israel ignored their requests until the last minute, despite its obligation under the Road Map to facilitate “free, fair and open” Palestinian elections. Under international pressure, the two parties sat down to discuss arrangements a week into the three-week campaigning period. In few democratic societies would election experts and lawyers be negotiating the right to campaign with secret policemen and soldiers. Such is the absurdity of building Palestinian democracy under the boot of Israeli occupation.
So arrangements fell into place at the last moment after many Palestinians had been arrested for crimes such as putting up an election poster or attending a rally. The west tells us we must reform and build democracy – what has taken place is the best possible campaign material for those opposed to a negotiated solution.
Occupied East Jerusalem has the same legal status as Jenin, in the West Bank. East Jerusalem is not “disputed territory”, it is illegally controlled and occupied by an Israeli state that claims the Palestinian half of the city as Israeli.
Israel wins nothing from its tactics of intimidation and obstructionism. By 3pm yesterday, 100 Palestinians had voted at Jaffa Gate: nearly six times more than in presidential elections last year, when Israel mixed up voter lists. Yet if only one had voted, that individual would alone have represented the fact that East Jerusalem remains Palestinian.
Nor will Israel’s scorn for Palestinian democracy serve its interest in peace and security. There is only one way to end the conflict and that is to negotiate a just solution based on international law.