There seemed to have been two elections in Palestine on Sunday: the one conducted in the West Bank and Gaza, and the one in Jerusalem.
Voting day in the West Bank and Gaza was marked in many places by a mood of ebullience and celebration. There was singing, dancing, the firing of guns into the air, families strolling together to the polling stations. Palestinian women’s organizations had spent weeks encouraging women to vote, and many women did show up for their first election, especially in urban centers. While not all checkpoints were eased and not all Palestinians wanted to vote under an occupation regime, the overall climate was one of hope and a new beginning.
Voting day in Jerusalem, on the other hand, was marked by a flawed process. The Israeli government could not prevent Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents from participating in the elections, but it wanted to avoid the appearance of Jerusalem being part of the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, the authorities designed a voting system that was a pearl of Talmudical caginess, allowing for the vote, but giving it the appearance of an absentee ballot being cast in Jerusalem for sending to a Palestinian state that was “somewhere else”. Therefore, voting was carried out only in post offices, where marked ballots were handed to postal clerks who inserted them into special mailboxes, presumably to be “mailed” to Palestine. Special attention was given to the location of the slot. The Israeli authorities felt strongly that a slot on the top of the box would give the appearance of a real ballot box. Therefore, these mailboxes had slots on the side. Here’s a photo (left) I took of a man at one of these red mail-ballot-boxes, behind a glass pane and inaccessible to the voter. Note also the lack of privacy, with the clerk looking on as he leans on the counter marking his ballot, and the next voter edging closer. Worst of all, only 6,000 Jerusalemites out of 125,000 were allowed to vote in town, with the rest dispatched to voting stations out of town, to which access through checkpoints was eased, but still not easy.
Under these conditions, many Palestinians in Jerusalem refused to vote. And many were afraid to vote, in fear that Israel would regard that as grounds for canceling their Jerusalem residency rights. It’s no wonder that a Palestinian woman carrying a bunch of bananas stood outside the main post office on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, handing out flyers that called Israel a “banana republic democracy”.
I too wanted to see the excitement on the other side of town, so I answered the call of Bat Shalom, a women’s peace organization, to help keep the extremist Israeli right from carrying out their threat to disrupt the proceedings. As six of us walked together toward the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, an Israeli police officer stopped us, said he knew of our plan, and that our presence would “provoke counter-demonstrations”. We argued for a while, and then he announced we were under arrest, to prevent us from ‘disturbing the peace’. We were shocked, but a moment later he was distracted by a phone call, so we simply slipped away and melted into the side streets, splitting up so we would be less obvious if he sent a posse. One would think the police had better villains to worry about.
Despite the many difficulties and Israel’s grudging cooperation, the vote did take place, leaving many Palestinians and even Israelis with a sense of elation. A real election was held – with real competition and no mud slinging – and the candidate who consistently called for an end to the violence and negotiation of a real peace was swept into power with 62% of the vote. Now the proverbial ball is in Israel’s court, and the excuse for not negotiating is long dead and buried.
Other good news
24 hours later and on the Jewish side of town, the new Israeli government – comprising Likud, Labor, and United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party – was sworn in, thanks to Sharon’s wily brinkmanship with the extremists from his own party who oppose the disengagement from Gaza. The government will now have the parliamentary strength it needs to get out of Gaza, and Shimon Peres is back in power, defying age, wisdom, and public incredulity.
And the anti-evacuation settlers are digging their own graves. Once considered the last of the idealists, support for the settler movement has plummeted among Israelis in the wake of recurring violent clashes with Israeli soldiers evacuating settler outposts. Today, the settlers are regarded as the anti-democratic, lunatic fringe. In truth, the vast majority of settlers are far more moderate, and would leave the territories in a heartbeat for the price of their property, but the fanatics are now setting the tone and image.
By the way, in a small meeting this evening where former US President Jimmy Carter, chief election observer in the Middle East, spoke to the participants of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program (which I was lucky to have attended), this honorable man berated people for using the term “fence”. Said Jimmy, “Israel has successfully convinced the United States that this is an innocuous fence, as if it were a fence around a cow pasture, but this is really a dividing wall and we should refer to it as such…This wall is one of the most vivid vulnerabilities of Prime Minister Sharon’s policies.” Bravo, Mr. Carter, for more plain talk.
Monday was also a red letter day for supporters of human rights, as Israel’s High Court ruled that lesbian couples may now officially adopt each other’s children. We are all grateful to Tal and Avital Yaros-Hakak, who sacrificed their privacy to establish this important precedent.
Finally, the tragedy in the Indian Ocean, and it takes a religious extremist to have figured it out: A Muslim cleric announced that the Zionists caused the Tsunami. This was practically confirmed by a rabbi in Israel, who announced that God doesn’t like non-Jews, and that’s why he dropped all this water on them. Jewish-Muslim consensus, at last, helping us understand the mystery of God’s ways.
Gila Svirsky is a peace and human rights activist in Jerusalem.
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