By Jennifer Thompson 750,000 Palestinians — 75% of registered voters — in the West Bank and Gaza Strip participated in the election of an 88-seat Palestinian Legislative Council and its president on January 20. The high participation rate — in spite of a call by PLO parties opposed to the Oslo accords to boycott the poll — reflected an understanding among Palestinians that the election of the council is another step toward ending Israel's colonial domination of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and realising national independence. The feeling was captured by one candidate, a veteran of 20 years in Israeli prisons, Fadel Tahboub: "The elections are the next step: providing ourselves and our leadership with political legitimacy and the democratic means to draft our own laws". From the first discussion of a Palestinian election, Israel's government tried to limit the process to undermine any linkage between the election and Palestinian aspirations for national independence. Prior to the agreement, reached at negotiations at Taba in September, Israeli negotiators insisted that the elected Palestinian council should be a small executive body of no more than 25 members. They also opposed participation by Palestinians in East Jerusalem fearing that it would strengthen Palestinian claims to the city. In the agreement, the council has 82 members and a 25-person executive, and enjoys both executive and legislative powers, with the proviso that any attempt to amend existing West Bank legislation may be subject to an Israeli veto. Palestinians from East Jerusalem were permitted to vote and, if they had an additional West Bank address, stand as candidates. The 28 Palestinian villages on the edge of Jerusalem's Israeli municipal borders were given the same status as other West Bank villages. In East Jerusalem, a scare campaign by Likud party supporters warned the Arab population not to vote on pain of losing their residency rights in the city, and with them national insurance and unemployment benefits. Several East Jerusalem candidates, including Ahmad Qrei, economic minister of the interim Palestinian National Authority (PNA), were prevented from entering the city to campaign and others were prevented from holding open air meetings. The Likud mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, also deliberately incited the Israeli right to disrupt the elections in East Jerusalem, with large demonstrations by the settler movement on the day. East Jerusalem voters were also discouraged from voting by a heavy presence of Israeli soldiers and police. Instead of protecting voters from settlers' attacks, they harassed voters and Palestinian election officials. The Israeli military presence also discouraged voters in towns such as Hebron, where the turnout was only 40%. The overall participation rate reflected the results of a survey conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in mid-January. It indicated that 68.8% (71.2% in Gaza and 67.5% in the West Bank) of Palestinians believed the presence of a Palestinian council would improve the situation. A large majority said they thought the elections were well or adequately organised, compared to only 7.8% who said they were badly managed by the PNA. The 88% vote for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat for the council presidency and the strong showing by the Fatah coalition, which won 50 of the 88 seats, showed that while aspirations for the peace process are higher than its results so far, Palestinians don't believe there is any realistic alternative. Alleged ballot rigging, intimidation of candidates and media coverage that strongly favoured Arafat and the Fatah coalition would not have been sufficient to reverse their large majorities. The election of members of Al Fida (two seats), the People's Party (one seat), the Islamic Salvation Party founder Imad Falouji — a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) until his recent expulsion — and independent candidates, including some high profile critics of the PNA, also indicate that the elections were largely free. In the important electoral districts of Jerusalem, where human rights campaigner Hanan Ashrawi and independent lawyer Jonathon Kuttab were elected; Gaza City, where veteran campaigner Haidar Abd Al-Shafi was elected, and Ramallah, where Abdul Jawad Saleh was elected, independents received more votes than the Fatah coalition. Many of the successful independents were current Fatah members not included on the Fatah coalition list. Israel's government is far from committed to a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories, let alone an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian election result can only enhance the legitimacy, particularly within Israel, and strengthen the hand of the Palestinian representatives in the final round of the negotiations to begin in May.
Election advances Palestinian independence