Palestine at the polls

Caroline Lucas draws inspiration from the recent Palestinian presidential election, but warns that US and Israeli policies still stand in the way of progress.
February 2005

Monitoring the Palestinian presidential election with a delegation of Euro-MPs was a lesson is both humility and optimism: optimism as I witnessed the intellectual vitality of the banter between polling centre staff and the zeal with which Palestinians exercised their hard-fought right to make their voice heard, and humility as I compared the experience with the luke-warm enthusiasm with which so many voters treat elections here in the UK.

I had never imagined that sitting up until midnight on a freezing night in Hebron would teach me so much, but as I huddled round the brazier in a classroom-turned-polling station, watching the tellers tally up the votes on the blackboard, I felt I was enjoying a lesson in enthusiasm for democracy. For a few hours I almost forgot that the election was taken place under military occupation and that just yards away 450 Israeli settlers were guarded by 2000 soldiers - almost, but the reality came back as soon as we re-crossed the checkpoint into Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.

The Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas in a truly remarkable display of commitment to democracy under the most challenging of circumstances. With some polling arrangements kept under wraps until election day and some polling stations run by occupation soldiers it's incredible that a relatively free and fair election could take place at all.

Perhaps the worst Israeli interference took place in East Jerusalem. Over a hundred thousand voters were forced to choose between voting outside the city - and risk losing their residence status in the city Palestinians dream of becoming their capital - or staying at home and not voting.

For the 6,000 residents who were allowed to vote in the city, all postal voting became a humiliating ritual designed to break their self-respect and send a clear signal that Palestinians would never control East Jerusalem. Instead of polling stations, they were forced to vote in post offices, placing their ballots in envelopes and post boxes rather than ballot boxes, all under the watchful gaze of Israeli officials. The message was clear - Palestinian electors resident in East Jerusalem were to be considered ex-pats, living in Israel but allowed to send their votes 'back' to Palestine only thanks to the generosity and administrative efficiency of the Israeli authorities.

Some candidates were denied the full freedom of movement they needed to campaign effectively in East Jerusalem during the weeks leading up to the election - the main challenger, independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti, was arrested the day before the election and released, reportedly, only after the intervention of former US president Jimmy Carter.

The official EU election monitoring mission praised the conduct of the elections, and recognised the difficult conditions imposed on Palestinian officials and voters by Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Authority had made a "genuine effort to conduct a regular electoral process despite the difficult and tense conditions", a spokesperson for the mission - at 250-strong the largest in the EU's history - said in a preliminary statement.

In spite of the obstacles, the Palestinian people clearly demonstrated their commitment to the democratic process. Turnout, at more than 50 per cent in many areas, was impressive even by Western standards, especially considering the widespread prediction that Mahmoud Abbas would win by a landslide.

Though this is, of course, to be welcomed as a positive step towards peace in the Middle East, we must remember that the real problem in the Palestinian territories is not lack of democracy- it's the illegal Israeli occupation.

Much hope has been pinned on Mahmoud Abbas's shoulders: the US, Israel and the world's media have been quick to pronounce their willingness to do business with Mahmoud Abbas in a way which they had refused to with his predecessor Yasser Arafat. Yet this optimism is already at risk of dissolving in the wake of an Israeli assassination mission and a 'retaliatory' attack by Palestinian militants.

Much has been made of Mahmoud Abbas's responsibility to rein in the Palestinian militants. Of course this is a major challenge, but the Israeli and US authorities must also take urgent stock of their own policies and responsibilities in the occupied territories if he is to stand even a chance of meeting it. In short, Israel must end the occupation and disband all illegal settlements immediately - in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip - and dismantle its so-called 'security barrier' which is dividing communities, destroying livelihoods and annexing Palestinian land throughout the occupied territories.

Only then will there be hope for a peaceful resolution to the weeping sore of conflict in the region and a better future for everyone, Israeli and Palestinian.Caroline Lucas is a Green Party MEP for South-East England and a veteran peace campaigner and Palestine-watcher. She was part of the European Parliament election observation mission in Palestine.


 

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