On the eve of the first local elections in three decades Khaled Amayreh tours Palestinian towns
Like most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Mohamed Qaisiya, a 45- year-old taxi driver, is happy that municipal elections will finally take place on Thursday, 23 December. The last local elections in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories took place in 1976, when most Palestinians who will vote today were not yet born or too young to vote.
PLO supporters then won the mayoral elections, prompting the Israeli government to freeze the democratic process indefinitely and adopt a policy based on "appointment" rather than "election". The appointed mayors were answerable, first and foremost, to the local Israeli military governor, and detested by the bulk of the masses who viewed them as collaborators and quislings serving the interests of their masters.
The policy of appointment persisted even after the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, mainly because the Palestinian leadership, along with Israel and the US, feared that supporters of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas would sweep the board in free elections.
"Israel, and later the PA, robbed us of our right to elect representatives, even at the local level. We are glad that we have been able to reclaim that right," said Qaisiya.
Nonetheless he, like many other Palestinians, warns against any over- expectation.
He believes Palestinians must remind themselves, and others, that the elections are being held in the shadow of Israeli tanks and that the ability of any elected body, whether local or national, to fulfil its mandate will be determined by the Israeli occupier, not the Palestinian voter.
Like most major Palestinian population centres the run-up to the elections in Dahiriya, where Qaisiya lives, is dominated by the Islamic bloc for Change, supported by both Hamas and Fatah.
Earlier this month the Israeli army arrested four Islamic candidates in Dahiriya, apparently in order to undermine their list's chances of wining the elections.
Rakad Abu Allan, an Islamic candidate, predicts that the midnight arrest, which he labelled "political terrorism", would boomerang and make more people vote for the Islamic bloc. "I think many people are viewing the arrests as a certificate of good conduct for us. I am sure more people will give us their votes on the election day," he says.
Abdul-Halim Atta, a leading Fatah candidate in Dahiriya, concedes that the elections will be "a close race" between Fatah and Hamas. He points out that the platforms of Fatah and the Islamists are "strikingly similar" and that factors such as character, social status, tribal weight and religiosity will probably determine the outcome.
The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, along with more mundane concerns about local services, explain the widespread preoccupation with the elections.
"The outcome of the presidential election seems to be a forgone conclusion," said Atta, suggesting that Fatah's candidate Mahmoud Abbas will be elected president of the PA. Not so with municipal elections, where the race is still open.
Mohamed Halayka is a local election observer at the village of Shoyokh, north east of Hebron. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the local and legislative elections will be more reflective of the "people's political mood" than the presidential election. He predicts that "the turnout in the presidential election will be much lower than in the upcoming municipal elections."
Halayka, a journalist, voiced anxiety about the possibility that the election would be rigged, or at least partially falsified, in his small town of 8000. He pointed out that a Palestinian intelligence officer had been appointed to head the local election committee which, he argued, is a clear example of a conflict of interests.
One Fatah activist in Dahiriya argued during a press conference that a Hamas victory in the mayoral elections would prompt Europe and other international donors to stop aid to Palestinian towns, decimated by four years of Israeli repression and economic devastation. It is a line that is increasingly being used though an older Fatah official intervened promptly, telling his colleague that "saying such a thing would be a public relations disaster for us".