Turnout relatively high among Jerusalem Arabs

Hundreds of Arab youths and onlookers gather outside the post office on Salah-a-Din Street.

palestinian elect 298.88 (photo credit: )
palestinian elect 298.88
(photo credit: )
As Palestinians flocked to the polls in the West Bank and Gaza to take part in the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in a decade, thousands of Jerusalem Arabs broke with their longstanding tradition of remaining on the sidelines of Palestinian politics and took part in the landmark vote. Israel allowed about 6,300 Jerusalem Arabs to vote at six east Jerusalem post offices, in the same arrangement worked out in the two previous Palestinian elections, while the vast majority of roughly 120,000 eligible voters had to cast their ballot at nearby polling stations in the West Bank. The mood at city polling stations was festive on a blustery wintry day, and turnout started out low, with journalists and international elections observers easily outnumbering the small number of voters at several of the east Jerusalem polling station during the afternoon. By the evening, however, turnout had dramatically picked up in east Jerusalem, with voting extended by two hours. Hundreds of Arab youths and onlookers, some chanting songs and others carrying posters, gathered outside the main east Jerusalem post office on Salah-a-Din Street opposite Herod's Gate Wednesday morning to watch a couple hundred people entering the post office to vote in the commercial hub of east Jerusalem, as Jerusalem police and international observers looked on from a distance. But even there it was more like a place of outdoor public entertainment or a Fatah carnival -- as the crowd of onlookers repeatedly gathered around the Arab satellite TV stations broadcasting live outside the polling station -- than anything else. "This is a holiday for the Palestinians," said Ziad Halil a Fatah activist from Beit Hanina who was trying to turn out the vote among apathetic Jerusalem Arabs. Nearby, at the makeshift post office installed just inside Jaffa Gate for the voting only a couple dozen people had cast their ballot by mid-day, leaving the two international observers at the site with little to do except fight off the brisk wind. "My vote is for Fatah but I want to see Hamas in the government as well," said Dr. Raed Jubeh, 38, from Beit Hanina, who lingered outside the Jaffa Gate polling station even though he was to vote in the West Bank. Earlier in the morning, two ultranationalist Israeli lawmakers and several well known far-right activists were forcibly prevented by a large cordon of police from entering the polling station at the Jaffa Gate due to concern that their visit would spark off violence. The two parliamentarians, Effie Eitam and Arieh Eldad from the far-right National Union Party, said that the Jerusalem vote called into question Israeli sovereignty over the capital, and was a victory for Hamas. "This morning Jerusalem was divided and it became the capital of Hamastan," Eitam said. Israel had forbidden Palestinian terror organizations, such as Hamas, from campaigning in east Jerusalem, but, despite a series of arrests and police raids over the last month, the powerful Islamic group defied the ban through the very end of the voting. Jerusalem police detained two Hamas members who were campaigning with Hamas posters in northern Jerusalem, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. Police also demanded the removal of Hamas banners erected in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Bahir, a religious bastion in the city. But, in the end, on a potentially fateful day for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations most Jerusalem Arabs simply voted with their feet. Caught in the middle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the vast majority Jerusalem's 230,000 Arab residents have largely stayed away from Palestinian political activity over the years, preferring instead to focus on their jobs, and the social benefits Israel offers them as city residents, such as health care, unemployment pay, and social security. The issue of Jerusalem Arab's voting in the city is largely symbolic even though Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has emphatically made the issue a sine qua non for holding the elections. In the one previous Palestinian parliamentary elections held in 1996, only about 1,500 Jerusalem Arabs actually voted. "The vote doesn't interest me," said a Jerusalem Arab taxi driver who would only give his first name Mohammed as he whisked by a city polling station Wednesday afternoon to pick up a fare. "What is important is to earn money, and to work," he added.