Israelis obstruct voters

From Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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ISRAEL faced accusations yesterday that it deliberately obstructed voting in the first-ever Palestinian election. The historic elections are seen as a crucial step towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Five post offices in east Jerusalem where Palestinians are meant to vote were surrounded by Israeli soldiers and police. After a visit to one polling station, former US President Jimmy Carter, who is leading a team of election monitors, said: "I don't think there is any doubt that they are trying to intimidate." He noted that all voters were being filmed by the authorities.

Outside one nearly-empty polling station, a policeman was turning voters away on the grounds that "there are too many people inside".

Voters were unwilling to run the gauntlet of troops outside a small polling booth in Beit Hanina in Jerusalem. Michael Meadowcroft, the former Liberal MP, who is acting as an EU monitor, said he had seen police arrest a number of young men there without provocation. He said: "I saw them push one of them into a vehicle and beat him."

By the middle of the day the polling station, which is in a post office, contained five international observers, two journalists and a Palestinian trying to buy a calendar. An elderly Palestinian walking past said it was not surprising that few people had come to vote there. "Nobody wants trouble with the police, even though these elections are important."

Israel apparently wants to limit the number of Palestinians who vote in Jerusalem in order to reinforce its own sovereignty over the city.

Outside Jerusalem, the elections appeared to be going smoothly. In Jenin, a town in the north of the West Bank, the turnout may have been affected by the shooting of three Palestinians on Friday night. The dead men were all members of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation and were said to have been killed when they shot at an Israeli checkpoint. Hebron, a traditional troublespot because of Israeli settlers in the heart of the city, was quiet, though settlers held a protest march against the elections.