Elections under fire
A week ago Ariel Sharon promised the world that Israel will "make possible a free, fair and effective Palestinian election". So much for that, writes Graham Usher in Jerusalem
Bobbing on the shoulders of Zakaria Zubeidi, Palestinian Authority president-in-waiting, Mahmoud Abbas, kicked off his campaign amid a packed, sceptical, armed and dangerous Jenin refugee camp. The irony was thick as the gunfire that greeted them.
Abbas's signature contribution to the Palestinian Intifada has been to denounce its "militarisation", not least in places like Jenin where militias have long replaced police forces as the embodiment of his "one authority, one weapon" injunction: Zubeidi's has been to emerge as one of the most prominent leaders of Fatah's West Bank Al-Aqsa militia, having survived four failed Israeli assassination attempts and the killing of his mother, brother and other comrades in arms in a score of more "successful" ones.
But times and the men change. Zubeidi and his men have become a vital political cog for Abbas as all wheel gingerly into the post-Yasser Arafat era. In return the young fighters seek amnesty from the Israelis and (in the not so distant future) "a role in the next Palestinian leadership, where I will continue to fight for the Palestinians", hopes Zubeidi. But they also represent one of the many ties that will bind Abbas's leadership.
"Let us be clear," said Zubeidi in Jenin. "I do not support the political path of Abu Mazen (Abbas). I support him, because I support the Fatah candidate. But if Abu Mazen starts to mess with our unalterable positions -- with Jerusalem, the right of return, a Palestinian state, the release of prisoners -- we will not recognise his leadership."
There seems little chance of that, at least on the campaign trail. In every public utterance Abbas has sworn fealty to the legacy of the "eternal leader" Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian political consensus he embodied. In other words: no peace without Israel's full withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories, Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to "return home".
Prodded by the recent challenge of his leader in waiting, Marwan Barghouti, Abbas has also vowed to "protect" fighters like Zubeidi and sign no peace agreement unless accompanied by the release of the 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners, 50 per cent of whom are Fatah activists.
On these -- and other issues such as reform and opposition to Israel's settlement, wall and outposts drives -- Abbas is at one with the six other presidential candidates. But there are differences. One is the unprecedented freedom of movement the Israeli occupation has granted Abbas, enabling him to move from Ramallah to Jenin to Gaza with barely a pause at a checkpoint.
It stands in contrast to the treatment the army has meted out to the other contenders, chief among them the independent Mustafa Barghouti, now running a distant but respectable second to Abbas in the polls. Since campaigning began last month, Barghouti has been arrested on three occasions (including in occupied East Jerusalem and Hebron), roughed up twice and (he alleges) had one of his campaign workers shot dead by army snipers in Gaza.
Lesser but similar harassment has fallen on the Palestine People's (formerly Communist) Party candidate, Bassam Salhi and the Democratic Front's Taysir Khaled, usually when they canvas in East Jerusalem. As for the two Gaza based candidates -- Abdul-Kareem Shubeir and Sayed Baraka -- these have yet to receive permission to take their campaign to the West Bank. The other challenger, Haleem Ashqar, is under house arrest in the US, allegedly for his ties to Islamist groups. "If these violations continue, it would be a joke to talk about democratic and fair elections," railed Salhi at a press conference in Ramallah on 3 January.
Abuses are also collective amongst the Palestinians. According to the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, up to three per cent of the Gaza electorate may be denied their vote on 9 January for having been on the other side of Egyptian border on 12 December, when the army closed Gaza's sole Palestinian civilian crossing point as punishment for an ambush that left five Israeli soldiers dead.
Nor will the prisoners be allowed to vote, despite no Israeli or Palestinian law barring them this right. The reason -- says Israel's public security minister, Gideon Ezra -- is that Israel has already "done enough" for Palestinian democracy by allowing the 100,000 plus Palestinian electorate in East Jerusalem the right to vote.
In fact Israel is allowing 5,376 Palestinians to vote in five post offices in their occupied capital. The rest will have to travel outside the municipal borders to West Bank booths, amid fears that they may be penalised by the Israeli authorities should they have the temerity to do so. Unsurprisingly Palestinian voter registration in East Jerusalem remains "low and slow", says a PA election official.
Abbas's immunity derives not only from his stature as being the preferred Israeli, American, European and Egyptian choice as PA president but also from his message. Addressing a rally in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp on 2 January, Abbas decried Palestinians firing of homemade mortars as a "useless" weapon against the occupation that earned only "very grave Israeli escalation".
He was speaking during a spike in violence in Gaza during which mortars have been fired on settlements within the Strip and at Israeli towns beyond it, causing a handful of Israeli injuries. In ruthless and excessive punishment, Israeli tank and other fire has killed 24 Palestinians since Christmas, including seven unarmed youths (three of them brothers) aged between 10-17 tending their fields in northern Gaza on 4 January.
For Abbas the disproportionate carnage was proof of his judgement, though even he felt compelled to pay homage to "the souls of [the seven] martyrs who fell today to the shells of the Zionist enemy". For Hamas -- and the other Palestinian militias behind the mortar fire -- the judgement was proof of the poverty of "negotiations alone" strategy.
"The Palestinian leadership reflects an astonishing contradiction: at a time when it admits negotiations are conducted based on an imbalance of powers and American bias, it insists on taking away from the Palestinians their only means of self- defence," lashed Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahhar. It was "the resistance that forced Likud to declare its escape from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank", he added.
Polls showed Palestinians evenly split on the debate, with 49 per cent in support of Abbas's farewell to arms and 49 per cent against. But this debate -- as with many others -- will not be decided by the poll on 9 January. It will have to await the parliamentary elections tentatively booked for May and whether the Islamists will contest them. Then -- so the vast majority of Palestinians hope -- there may emerge not only a genuinely united leadership but also a genuinely (because democratically decided) national policy to which all leaders, factions and militias will be party and all must be bound.