Jubilant Arafat wins legitimacy

Elections in Palestine: A people so long mired in conflict give the peace accord with Israel an overwhelming vote of approval
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The Independent Online


The victory of Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement in the first Palestinian election for president and a legislative council shows that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support the peace accords agreed with Israel. The election and the high turn-out also give legitimacy to the Palestinian leadership and to Palestinian self-determination, for which they have fought for so long.

Mr Arafat won 88.1 per cent of the vote. His only opponent, Samiha Khalil, a social worker who won 9.3 per cent, was little known. Fatah is likely to dominate the 88-member Palestinian Council, but many well-known independents, such as Hanan Ashrawi, were also elected. In Gaza, which Mr Arafat has ruled since 1994, officials estimated that the turn-out was 90 per cent

The decision of a large majority of Palestinians to vote is a blow to the secular and Islamic opposition, which had called for a boycott of the poll. On the West Bank, only in Hebron, south of Jerusalem, was there a poor turn-out, because Israeli troops are still in the city to protect settlers, who marched and demonstrated on election day.

The turn-out in east Jerusalem was only about 30 per cent, a figure explained by lines of Israeli soldiers and police ringing the five post offices where Palestinians were meant to vote. Outside the largely empty post office in Salahudin Street on Saturday morning, two policemen were telling voters that there were ''too many people inside'' and to return later.

Jimmy Carter, the former US president who was leading a team of election monitors, objected to the arrest of Palestinian observers and the use of video cameras by police to identify voters. ''I don't think there is any doubt that they are trying to intimidate,'' he said.

Israel appears to have tried to deter Palestinians in east Jerusalem from casting their vote in order to say that the Palestinians approved of Israeli rule in the city. This tactic may be counter-productive and make the future of Jerusalem an international issue before its final status comes up for negotiation in May.

If the atmosphere in Jerusalem and Hebron was menacing, the feeling in villages like Jifna, in the centre of the West Bank, was closer to that of a village fete. The polling station was in rooms belonging to a Christian women's society. Inside, villagers cast red ballots for the president and white ones for the council. As darkness fell, a man said "about 70 per cent have voted in this district''.

In the twisting, muddy lanes of the Jalazoun refugee camp two miles from Jifna, the issue of the election was more contentious. ''My family are refugees from 1948 and I don't think these elections can do anything for us,'' said Qassem Najjab, 27, a student. ''They won't give us the ability to return to our land. Everyone remembers us during the election campaign. But then they will take their seats in the Council and do nothing for us.''

Outside the polling station in a YMCA centre, Ziad Hamdan, an engineer, was handing out cards urging people to vote for Abed Jawad Saleh, a former mayor of el-Bireh who had been deported by Israel. He stressed that Mr Saleh had tried to improve the dreadful roads in the refugee camp and to do something for the labourers who populate it. When votes were counted, local people such as Mr Saleh, who has no money and scarcely campaigned, were doing better than expected against Fatah leaders from abroad.

A reason for the high turn-out may be that more women than expected voted. In Jalazoun an official said that ''two-thirds of voters came by 4pm - more women than men, because women are more concerned about these things''. This participation by women may also reflect the waning influence of Hamas, which has discouraged women from becoming openly involved in politics since the mid-1990s.

About 68 per cent of people in the West Bank live in villages, but few work in agriculture. Most have been labourers in Israel and are badly affected by the periodic closure of the Israeli border since 1993. The economic future of the West Bank, therefore, will remain dependent on Israeli decisions and not on the those of the newly elected President and Council.

The withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank towns last month and the elections are seen by Palestinian officials as ending the threat that Israel would annex the West Bank as part of greater Israel.

A rally by about 10,000 settlers and right-wingers in Zion Square in west Jerusalem on Saturday night primarily emphasised the threat to Jerusalem. The main slogan above the platform read: ''All hands to the defence of Jerusalem''. The theme seemed implicitly to accept that the battle for greater Israel was over.