East J'lemites can vote in the PA elections. But who's voting for whom, who's not bothering, and why?
By KSENIA SVETLOVA
There were not thousands, nor even hundreds of men who gathered around the entrance of Al-Aqsa mosque to greet the red-bearded man with a silk green ribbon on his neck. Sheikh Muhammad Abu-Tir, number two in the Hamas list in east Jerusalem, had completed his prayers and stepped out from the gate followed by a few supporters and assistants. Alongside supporters and gapers who came to observe the Hamas candidate in action, there were also a few policemen who, apparently, were also very anxious to meet with Abu-Tir. Within a few minutes Abu-Tir was taken to the Russian compound along with his four assistants, also members of Hamas.
On Sunday, the Israeli government decided to let east Jerusalemite Palestinians vote, and to let political candidates campaign in the city - apart from Hamas. On the very same day two offices of Hamas in east Jerusalem were closed and Abu-Tir was taken for questioning. "They can arrest him as they please, but it will not prevent Hamas from campaigning, nor from doing well in these elections," Mahmoud az-Zaatari, an old man I met at Damascus Gate shortly after Abu-Tir's arrest, told me.
Just like many other Palestinians of east Jerusalem, Mahmoud is certain that the outcome of these elections is predetermined. As a result, he is not particularly interested in the whole process. "It doesn't really matter who wins, what's important is who is considered the most trustworthy partner by Israel and the US. So, although Hamas is doing really well these days, even if they'd take 100% of the votes, the final results will be tampered with. Whether there will be an election campaign or not is not significant. Hamas do not really need it anyway," says az-Zaatari.
But Dr. Bernard Sabella, a district level Fatah candidate, believes that if anything, the decision of the Israeli government will strengthen Hamas and increase its popularity. "In fact, it's in Israel's interest that Hamas will participate in these elections. Anytime Israel takes measures against Hamas, even if it's solely on a declarative level, it inevitably enhances their popularity on the Palestinian street," Dr. Sabella told In Jerusalem.
Only 5% of Palestinians will change their minds under the influence of an election campaign anyhow, says Dr. Nabil Kokali of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. He is confident that the Israeli decision to ban Hamas from the elections in east Jerusalem will only increase the chances of the Islamists, who, in his opinion "do not really need this campaign, as they lean on hardcore, converted followers.
So is Hamas about to win in the Holy City? I ask Dr. Kokali.
"Hamas is expected to receive 24% of the votes, and for a movement that participates in the elections for the first time this is victory." Meanwhile, according to the polls conducted by various Palestinian institutions, Fatah still leads in east Jerusalem, and apart from Hamas, the ruling party is expected to battle fiercely over the voters with other parties, such as "The Third Way," which is led by Dr. Salam Fayad and Dr. Ahsrawi, and "Independent Palestine," headed by Mustafa Barghouti. Both of these parties are expected to receive at least one mandate each in east Jerusalem due to the popularity of their leaders among the residents of east Jerusalem. And yet, many think that Hamas will be the surprise winners of these elections, if their legitimacy will not be cancelled at the last moment and if the results of the elections won't be tampered with.
The irresistible Hamas
"Hamas activists are incredibly organized and convincing. They come together and speak in one voice, they are not corrupt and they care about simple people, just like me. I believe that Hamas should be allowed to campaign and participate in these elections, otherwise you cannot really call it a democracy," says Mustafa, a resident from Tzur Baher, who is planning to vote for the "Change and Reform list (Hamas). He refused to disclose his last name, fearing the reaction of Israeli authorities. Mustafa eagerly explains the benefits and superiority of this party over all others, and especially Fatah, which in his opinion has completely discredited itself over the last 12 years.
It seems that the uncorrupted nature of the movement is the major attraction to Hamas for Mustafa and also for many others who have switched from Fatah to Hamas in recent years. When asked about the military activity of Hamas, mainly the suicide bombings against innocent Israeli citizens, Mustafa seems to be a bit confused. "Personally, I'm against suicide bombings, and I know for a fact that many Hamas members are. There is also a moderate wing of Hamas, you know," he says, citing the interview of Abu-Tir to Ha'aretz, in which the candidate implied that Hamas might change its view on negotiations with Israel. (Later that day Abu-Tir told a Hamas affiliated website that his words were falsified and misunderstood.)
Anyway, continues Mustafa, "it's not like there are any other real forces on the ground except for Hamas, so that's why many Palestinians in east Jerusalem will vote for them."
Mustafa's views are not at all rare in east Jerusalem, but he was the only one who not only agreed to discuss the subject, but also revealed his personal preferences. Most of the residents of east Jerusalem prefer to avoid political discussions, answering politely that they are simply not interested in politics. Dr. Rami Nasrallah, director general of the International Peace and Cooperation Center in Jerusalem, says that Palestinians in east Jerusalem are simply afraid to vote. "First of all, it's important to understand that we are talking about 5,000-6,000 voters who live in the Old City and Salah a-Din Street area. Since the Palestinian Authority doesn't have any direct effect on their lives, they are less interested in politics than many other Palestinian citizens. And when election day comes, many stay at home since they are afraid that by voting they will lose their rights for Social Security, medical insurance and eventually their Israeli ID. Perhaps this year we will see more voters because of the Hamas participation, but in general many others might not come to vote" he says.
This is also the view of Dr. Bernard Sabella, who believes that voting in post offices does not exactly promote the idea of freedom and democracy. "These are not the elections that we want, because voters will be followed by, questioned and filmed on camera. Naturally, many voters will be deterred by this method."
Dr. Sabella says that although officially, Israel permitted candidates to campaign freely (except for Hamas), in fact they are still unable to do so in public places, such as Damascus Gate, for instance. He believes that participation in Palestinian political life is important for east Jerusalemites, because there is geographical, political and social continuity between east Jerusalem and the West Bank. "About 2/3 of the Palestinians here work in the PA, not in Israel. Jerusalem is important for us and we are important to Jerusalem, and as a Fatah candidate I can tell you that we will certainly not bargain on this matter."
Hot election season
With less then 1 week left till Palestinian parliamentary elections, many Palestinians still wonder whether these controversial elections will take place at all. "Today it's too late to cancel the elections and Abu-Mazen is obligated to hold it on time, no matter what," says Dr. Rami Nasrallah.
But a source in the Fatah party in Ramallah told In Jerusalem on terms of anonymity that "if there would be a possibility to postpone these elections - it would be postponed, but since today it's too late for that, Fatah intends to furnish its victory. Hamas will definitely try to cheat, so we will make sure that they won't get away with it."
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.