Palestine’s First Vote Is Largely An Exercise In Joy Yasser Arafat Is The Big Winner As Turnout Is High In Gaza And West Bank
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians turned out to vote Saturday in a festive first election, solidly endorsing Yasser Arafat and his peace policies.
Undeterred by an Islamic militant boycott, voter turnout was projected at 90 percent in the Gaza Strip and 85 percent in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian election commission.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, I was so excited,” said Abu Hamda, an 18-year-old student who was first in line to vote at a school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Saturday, the first sunny day in a week of stormy weather.
More than 1 million Palestinians were registered to vote in the elections for a president and 88-seat legislative council.
Initial returns showed Arafat overwhelmingly defeating his only challenger for the presidency, 72-year-old social worker Samiha Khalil. Israel’s Army Radio said Prime Minister Shimon Peres called Arafat to congratulate him on the victory.
Arafat had his kaffiyeh headdress knocked askew as he made his way through the crowd at a packed polling station in Gaza City.
“This is the first legislative election for Palestinians, and this is a foundation for a Palestinian state,” Arafat said as he voted at the Anas Ibn Malik high school.
Turnout was far lower in Jerusalem, where Palestinian leaders and international monitors complained that voters were scared off by 4,000 Israeli police called out to enforce security. As of mid-afternoon, only 30 percent of Jerusalem voters had gone to the polls.
“I don’t think there is any doubt they are doing everything they can to intimidate the voters,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, head of a team of election observers.
Leaders of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which boycotted the elections, had said they would claim victory if turnout was below 50 percent.
Under Arafat’s leadership, most Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza gained autonomy over the past two years, ending more than a quarter-century of Israeli occupation.
On Saturday, red, white, black and green Palestinian flags fluttered in central squares in the West Bank and Gaza. There was a holiday mood at polling places, where each voter dropped two ballots - red for president and white for the council - into cardboard boxes.
“The era of Israel is gone - the era of occupation is gone,” exulted Hanineh Kehwani, a 60-year-old blind woman casting her vote in Abu Dis, a village outside Jerusalem. “We are starting a new era of democracy.”
The final borders and status of the Palestinian entity - as well as such explosive issues as the future of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees - are supposed to be decided in talks with Israel starting in May.
Peres said the high turnout showed that the vast majority of Palestinians supported the peace agreements with Israel.
Several thousand Israelis opposed to the Israel-PLO peace process held a prayer vigil and rally Saturday in Jerusalem.
In Hebron, the only West Bank city where Israeli troops remain, a Jewish settler was stabbed. Israel responded by closing down central Hebron, forcing voters to get escorts from among international observers.
Despite the boycott by Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups, many of their followers were seen lined up at polling stations. At several polling places in Gaza, Hamas supporters handed out lists of pro-Hamas candidates.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, polling stations were deserted Saturday morning as thousands attended the funerals of three Hamas members who were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers Friday night after they fired on an army roadblock. But election officials said voting picked up later in the day.
There were numerous accusations of irregularities - both against the Palestinians and the Israelis - throughout the day. Voters, especially in Jerusalem, complained of confusion about where they were supposed to vote, and rumors spread that Israeli police were confiscating the identification cards of Palestinian voters.