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Palestinians Register Their Hopes, Doubts

Authorities begin recording voters' names ahead of a general election that's been delayed four years. No date has been set.

September 05, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A voter registration drive is something of a novelty in a place where there hasn't been a general election in nearly a decade.

So some Palestinians responded with skepticism -- and others with touchingly eager hopes -- as authorities in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on Saturday began recording the names of those wanting to cast their ballots in an election across the territories that probably will take place next spring.

Municipal balloting, long delayed as well, is supposed to be held late this year.

The general election was to have taken place nearly four years ago. Palestinians blame the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for the delay. Israel says its takeover of most West Bank cities and towns was a necessary response to the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that broke out in late September 2000.

Privately, Israeli officials express doubts about the prevalence of genuine Palestinian democratic inclinations, and question whether any vote would have taken place by now, if there had been no conflict.

On Saturday, though, the Palestinians had symbolism on their side. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, pale and tottering slightly, was among the first to register -- at a station set up inside his war-damaged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which he has not been allowed to leave in more than two years.

For some years, Arafat told assembled reporters, Israel "has not enabled us to carry out our municipal, legislative or presidential elections."

The Palestinian Authority has already announced its intent to hold elections for more than three dozen municipal councils in November -- though such plans have been repeatedly postponed in the past -- followed some time next year by the general election.

Palestinian officials sought to downplay skepticism about the potential balloting.

"I hope the international community, particularly the United States, will do what it needs to do to help create the backdrop for free and fair elections," said Saeb Erekat, a Cabinet minister and former senior Palestinian negotiator.

In the interim, however, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza. Although Arafat still enjoys widespread support in the West Bank, militant groups such as Hamas have made serious inroads into his support in the more impoverished and radical Gaza.

Palestinian elections officials said they had opened more than 1,000 registration sites in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem beginning Saturday. About 1.8 million of the estimated 3.3 million Palestinians are eligible to vote.

"I haven't decided whether to register," said Ramallah businessman Said Shulih. "I want us to have elected representatives, but I don't know whether whatever happens in the next few months is a meaningful exercise, really."

In 1996, Palestinians overwhelmingly elected Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority and installed a legislature, which has little real influence over policy matters.

Arafat, 75, has been under considerable internal pressure to institute reforms. This summer, some of his political opponents helped orchestrate an outbreak of disorder that was centered in Gaza but spilled into the West Bank.

Opponents of the Palestinian leader insist he has been using the current uprising as an excuse to evade a democratic vote. Many Palestinians have expressed disillusionment with Arafat's government, viewing it as a kleptocracy that has vastly enriched his inner circle while leaving ordinary Palestinians mired in desperate poverty.

Still, some mainstream Palestinians chose to place their hopes in a vote.

"We need to work out the details, but I do believe the political will is there," said former Cabinet minister Hanan Ashrawi.

The voter registration drive is to last five weeks, but can be extended to seven. After that, there is a three-month waiting period mandated by law before the general elections can be held.

As is the case in virtually all matters Palestinian, it is Arafat who has the authority to set the final voting date.

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