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Palestinian Election

Voters Brave Obstacles to Cast Ballots of Hope

Palestinians face cold, checkpoints and long lines, with an eye toward change and peace.

January 10, 2005|Laura King and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

DAHAISHA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The early-morning chill was clinging to the cement-slab homes and sunless alleyways of this hillside community, and Souad Hajajreh shivered hard as she stood in line to vote.

Neither the wait nor the cold bothered her, she said.

"I am so proud today, as a Palestinian and as a woman," the 28-year-old schoolteacher said, eyes sparkling beneath her black head scarf. "This is something truly important for our people, and I am proud for all of us."

From the northern West Bank to the tip of the Gaza Strip on Sunday, Palestinians trekked to polling places to cast their ballots for the Palestinian Authority presidency, making their way on foot and by jam-packed communal taxis, on donkey-drawn carts and in late-model sedans.

Old men leaning heavily on their canes hobbled into classrooms and post offices where voting stations had been set up. Young women blushed as their thumbs were daubed with a brownish-purple splotch of indelible ink.

Palestinian fugitives, toting automatic weapons and glancing nervously about, came out of hiding to hastily cast votes. Mothers kept watch over each other's children as each in turn slipped behind the cardboard partition.

Every vote cast, it seemed, was a vote for change.

Naim abu Aker, a 60-year-old laborer, fingered prayer beads as he emerged from a polling place in the Dahaisha camp, on the edge of the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

"Without jobs, we can do nothing for ourselves or our families," he said. "Will this election help us find work? Will it?"

Nearby, Mohammed Abdul Nabi, 37, was musing about the iconic status of Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11, and compared it to the far more modest aura of the man Palestinians most likely were electing to be his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

"No one ever dared to speak against Arafat, but Abu Mazen will be criticized," he said, using Abbas' nickname. "That's how it works in a democracy, isn't it?"

Campaigning was supposed to have ended Friday, but in many places, that rule went by the wayside. Supporters of Abbas and his chief rival, Mustafa Barghouti, handed out playing-card-sized pictures of the candidates outside polling places. Trucks with loudspeakers roamed the streets, calling for people to vote for Abbas.

Most of the polling stations were models of calm and order, with patient voters standing in lines divided by rows of red-and-white plastic tape while registrars carefully checked lists of names.

But the scene was chaotic at the main post office on Salahadin Street in East Jerusalem, one of only a handful of polling areas for the city's 170,000 eligible Palestinian voters. Only about 5,000 Jerusalemites found their names on the voter rolls in the city; the rest had to travel to outlying areas.

Sovereignty over Jerusalem is hotly contested, and Israel, which annexed the eastern half in 1967, did not want to bolster Palestinians' claims to the city as their future capital by allowing tens of thousands of votes to be cast there. International monitors criticized the Israeli limitations, and voters fumed.

"What I'd like is to not be humiliated in order to cast my ballot," snapped Waled Salem, a 47-year-old human-rights educator who had to go to three polling stations in and around Jerusalem before he was able to find his name on a registration list.

"I just hope I'm on the list here in Jerusalem," murmured Mohammed Nusseibi, 62, who hails from one of the city's oldest and most distinguished Palestinian families.

In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, voters flocked to polling places in the casbah, an ancient maze of twisting streets and tunnels that has been the scene of repeated Israeli military raids.

House painter Wael Seraisi, 34, said he voted for Abbas. Seraisi said he thought the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against the Israelis had been a disaster, and that Abbas would end it.

"That is the best thing that anyone can do for us," he said.

Violence was also much on the mind of Umm Anwar Aljarrami, a mother of seven in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, who cast her vote at a bullet-pocked school. "I want God and this election to save us from tank shells and killing," she said.

Election observers generally credited Israel with easing passage for voters through West Bank checkpoints. But election volunteer Amjad abu Khiran, 42, said it took him an hour to pass through a roadblock near his hometown of Hebron, even though he set out at 5:30 a.m.

For some voters, a trip to the polling place was a reminder of adversity.

The West Bank village of Abu Dis, once a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem, is now cut off from the city by a 25-foot-high wall that Israel says is a defense against suicide bombers. Some of the village's polling places were literally in the barrier's shadow.

"This election will not move the wall, but maybe our difficulties will somehow be lessened," said Zakia Mohammed Jaffal, a 60-year-old woman with a weathered face. "This vote is from my heart," she added, laying her hand on her chest.

Two 20-year-old college students from Abu Dis, Mai Jameel and Ala Hashem, argued over whether it would be right for the new Palestinian Authority president to seek accommodation with Israel.

Jameel thought perhaps it was; Hashem's eyes flashed as she disagreed with her friend. "Ariel Sharon will do whatever he wants to do, whatever we do," she said, referring to the Israeli prime minister.

Then the two young women went inside to vote.

At the Dahaisha camp, Khalil Adwai, 75 and rheumy-eyed, shuffled out of the polling place, adjusting his snowy white headdress as he paused a moment to rest. He was happy to have cast a ballot, he said.

"We want to choose for ourselves," he said.

"And God willing, we are choosing wisely."

King reported from Dahaisha and Ellingwood from Ramallah, West Bank. Special correspondent Samir Masri in Nablus contributed to this report.

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