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Campaign Kept Under Wraps

In East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities have stifled the voices of Palestinian candidates in the parliamentary election, residents say.

January 15, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — On Saladin Street, the main commercial thoroughfare in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem, an odd election ritual takes place almost every night.

Moving swiftly and stealthily, young Palestinian men affix campaign posters to concrete walls and the metal awnings of closed shops. And the next morning, Israeli police tear them down.

The upcoming Palestinian parliamentary election, scheduled to take place Jan. 25, has become entwined in one of the oldest and bitterest disputes between Israel and the Palestinians: sovereignty over Jerusalem, the holy city both sides believe is their rightful capital. And both sides believe that political activity -- campaigning and voting alike -- constitutes a powerful symbolic claim to its narrow streets and winding alleyways.

With the vote only days away, the city's traditionally Arab sector has almost none of the trappings of what feels in the West Bank and Gaza Strip like a national campaign in full swing.

In East Jerusalem, home to an estimated 200,000 Palestinians, there are no noisy parades, no sign-waving rallies, no open-air speechifying. Candidates must meet with voters in private homes or closed halls. Their constituents, meanwhile, wonder how and even whether they will be allowed to cast their ballots.

Under mounting U.S. pressure, Israeli authorities are expected in coming days to relax the tight restrictions on campaigning in East Jerusalem, and formally lift threats that Palestinians living in the city will not be allowed to vote there.

But candidates and voters alike say they have already seen a significant stifling of what ought to be a spirited and freewheeling campaign for the first legislative elections in a decade -- and the first parliamentary vote to not take place under the auspices of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died 14 months ago.

Thirty-nine Jerusalem-based candidates are seeking seats in the 132-member parliament, and most report interference by Israeli authorities.

"I was surrounded by police before I could even open my mouth and say two words," Nasser Qous said of his attempt to talk to people on the first day of campaigning. The bulky former bodyguard for Palestinian VIPs is running as an independent, although affiliated with the ruling Fatah faction.

On Jan. 3, Qous said, he tried to put up posters and talk to onlookers milling near the Damascus Gate, the crenelated archway that divides East Jerusalem's main commercial area from the walled Old City.

"They fined me 450 shekels [about $100] for each poster I was carrying -- three of them," he said. "And told me that next time, the fine would be bigger." Other candidates report middle-of-the-night visits by agents of the Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security service, and arrests of relatives suspected of trying to engage in campaign activities on their behalf.

"They asked me: 'Do you want to go back to jail? Didn't you have enough of that?' " said Hani Issawi, an independent candidate who is affiliated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, considered a terrorist group by Israel. He spent a decade in Israeli prison in the 1970s and '80s.

Israel's public security minister, Gideon Ezra, said last week that candidates are being allowed to campaign as long as they do not belong to militant groups. But he acknowledged that candidates had to submit requests in advance to Jerusalem police if they wanted to make a campaign appearance.

Candidates and police representatives are to meet Monday to discuss guidelines for assembly within the city and specific locations where campaign posters can be hung.

Among parliamentary candidates, there is a sense that their campaigns amount to a collective challenge to Israel's grip on the eastern sector of the city, which Israel wrested from Jordanian control in the 1967 Middle East War.

"I feel that just by running, I am confronting this occupation," said Fadwa Khader, a Palestinian Christian woman who is on the ticket of the small People's Party. "I feel it's a way of saying, 'Here we are, and this is our city.' "

Conservative Israelis are infuriated by such talk.

"Allowing Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem only eats away at our position in future negotiations on Jerusalem," said Gideon Saar, a lawmaker with the rightist Likud Party. "We should let them vote, yes, but just not in Israel's sovereign territory."

Other Israeli politicians say the vote in East Jerusalem reflects the hard reality that the two sides will have to find some way to share the city, probably by Israel relinquishing its claim to areas solidly populated by Palestinians.

"At the end of the day, Israel will have to make a tough decision on how many Palestinian citizens Israel will be prepared to absorb," said Amir Peretz, head of the left-leaning Labor Party. "I think our stand should be that we absorb as few as possible, so we ensure that Jerusalem remains a city with a Jewish character."

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