“Vote Abu Mazen, vote Abu Mazen,” cried the young man who was distributing fliers in front of the Eat Jerusalem post office. The fliers had Abu Mazen’s picture together with Arafat and the slogan said: “Abu Mazen to Presidency.” The young man talked to me in English — I guess he knew that I did not have the right to vote, but for him it was important to show his pride in the fact that Palestinian presidential elections were being held in the heart of Occupied East Jerusalem, against all the odds.
The morning of January 9, 2005 was not an ordinary day. On that morning I was on my way to Salah E-din Street, the main street in East Jerusalem. I had volunteered to serve as a temporary observer for the elections, not with the international force that came from Europe and the U.S., but with the Palestinian central committee of elections. It was especially important to have international volunteers in Jerusalem, to make sure that the process went smoothly.
Right at the entrance of the street I was welcomed by three nervous Israeli policemen who simply prevented me from parking my car near the post office and ordered me to evacuate the place immediately. It was obvious that they were not happy with the fact that elections were being held in East Jerusalem.
As I walked to the post office, I saw hundreds of people gathering in the street with dozens of journalists and TV cameras all over the place.
“The carnival has started,” I thought to myself. In the post office things were surprisingly calm. Although more than 130,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have the right to vote, only 5400 were registered in the national elections registrar! I witnessed many cases where Palestinians wishing to participate in the electoral process were turned back based on the claim that their name does not appear in the registrar.
Israel was very reluctant to allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to vote. It was not easy for the Likud government and for Sharon to eventually agree to the pressure exerted from the international community. The Israeli approval for the elections was conditional: no official representatives from the Palestinian Authority or the national election committee was allowed in Jerusalem, only observers with no mandate but to monitor and later report on incidents. The Palestinians agreed to these conditions and the elections were held, just like in 1996 when the first Palestinian elections were held.
As the day passed, more people came to vote, but still the number was below all the expectations.
“How can we hold elections under occupation?” explained an old man who stood outside the post office watching journalists “fish” voters for interviews. In a way he was right, the Palestinians do not have sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and also the Palestinians living in the Diaspora were not allowed to participate. But on the other hand, this practice of democratic elections – a practice that is extremely rare in the Middle East – is much better than dictatorship. It shows that the Palestinians –despite all the challenges and obstacles they face — are determined to move on and to choose a leadership capable of ending this bloody conflict.
I was very touched to see voters going out of the post office looking very proud, they all had one obvious mark, a stain of blue ink on their right thumb. It was an obvious stain yet people refused to wash it out, even 3 days after the elections I could see my fellow Palestinian collogues still wearing this blue stain, proud of what they did in Jerusalem.
Even the fast food chain “Goddies” announced that whoever has the blue ink on the thumb will get 30% discount for any meal and for a period of three days! For the first time I felt discriminated against, but had no problem with that.
It was an historical day, though the result was not surprising. It was clear that Abu Mazen was going to win, but he did not get 99.9999% nor did he reach power through a coup d’etat. More than 800,000 Palestinians woke up and voted on that sunny Sunday morning, Abu Mazen got 66%, and this is enough to declare him as a legitimate president of the PA.
Unfortunately the number of voters in Jerusalem was not high. People were hesitant to vote, for fear of future Israeli sanctions against them. Fear is the most obvious product of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem that has been going on for nearly 40 years. But even the fact that 5000 Palestinians were able to practice their right, on their land in their own city, to vote for their own president — against all the odds — clearly shows that the fate of occupation is to end.
East Jerusalem, is an Arab Palestinian city! On January 9, I felt that, and the nervous Israeli police knew it. Even the Israeli government know very well that they cannot control it anymore. The Walls that the Israelis are building around Jerusalem are there to show the obvious separation between the two parts of the Holy city, not to protect a unified Jerusalem.
On my way back home at night, the results of the polls were announced, Mahmoud Abbas is the elected president of Palestine. Mustafa Barghuthi, his major opponent took 20% of the votes a good result that shows diversity in the Palestinian community. People were happy, youngsters were parading in their cars with Palestinian flags and black Kafia singing national slogans and distributing sweets.
“To Ramallah” they shouted, “To Ramallah! We are going to celebrate the victory!”