Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem go the polls today to elect the first president and legislative council in their history. For Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, it is a critical milestone on the road to a Palestine state.
Some of the remaining obstacles were seen yesterday at a roadblock near the West Bank town of Jenin when Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians in a car. Palestinian security services said they were members of the Islamic militant group Hamas and were shot after they opened fire, wounding an Israeli soldier.
Almost a million Palestinians go to 1,698 polling stations, where they will receive two slips, red to vote for the president, almost certain to be Mr Arafat, and white for the 88-member legislative council. A week after the election the council will meet, probably in Gaza, where it will elect an executive.
The poll will see the burial of two options the Palestinians have always feared: absorption, possibly followed by expulsion, by Israel, or a return to Jordanian rule as it was before the 1967 war. A senior member of Fatah, the main Palestinian political movement, said yesterday: "This is the end of the idea of greater Israel or greater Jordan. This is the most important result of the election."
It will also serve as a referendum on the Oslo accords. The secular opposition and, with less conviction, the political wing of Hamas, have called for a boycott. Turn-out figures will therefore be a sign of the support for deals reached by the Palestinian leadership with Israel since 1993. A 75 per cent turn-out will be good for Mr Arafat; anything below 60 per cent will be bad. Figures may be affected by the rain and sleet which has hit the West Bank in the past few days turning roads into mud.
Last-minute difficulties over voting in Jerusalem appear to have been ironed out. Israel wants to treat Palestinian voters there as if they were postal voters casting their ballots far from their homeland. The aim is not to let the election set a precedent which will damage Israel's claim to sovereignty.
The 52,000 Palestinian voters in Jerusalem feared that if they voted they would lose their papers giving them the right to live, work and receive health care in the city. On Thursday Israel's Foreign Ministry finally said Jerusalem residency would not be affected by voting. Agreement has also been reached on ballot boxes in Jerusalem post offices, which are being used as polling stations. Israel wanted the slot at the side, so they looked like post boxes and the Palestinians at the top, so they looked like regular ballot boxes. The deal is said to be that the slot should be at the corner.
Hebron, the one town from which Israeli forces have not withdrawn, may also be the scene of trouble or at least a low turn-out. Troops guarding 500 Israelis settlers during the day will keep a low profile. The settlers themselves say they will not disrupt the election though they will demonstrate in Jerusalem.
The problems of Palestinian opposition to Oslo and the elections were evident in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, yesterday. Supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine chanted "No to elections under the shadow of the bayonets of occupation" and demanded the release of 4,000 Palestinian prisoners and an end to the 135 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. They also demanded the return of Palestinian refugees who lost their land in Israel in 1948.
All Palestinians would agree with these demands but not about their practicality. Ali Zaki, a student from nearby Bir Zeit university, was watching sympathetically but sceptically. "Of course I am going to vote. The election will give us a chance to do something for ourselves. Now that the Israeli troops have left Ramallah I can go for a walk at night without being frightened of getting arrested, " he said.
The demonstrators also wanted the release of one of their leaders, Ahmed Sadat, held two days before by Mr Arafat's Preventive Security, one of his security agencies. They said they had been told he would not be freed until after the election. Such harassment is not determining the result of the election, almost certain to be won by Mr Arafat and Fatah, but it is a bad omen for the type of state the new council will rule.
In Hebron, Khalid Amayreh, an Islamic commentator, said: "There is a reign of terror among Palestinian journalists. I know one called Mahmoud who has been reduced to writing under the name of Stephanie Parker." Others see this is as an exaggeration. George Hazboun, a candidate in Bethlehem, says he doubts if it would be possible, even if Mr Arafat wanted, to set up an authoritarian state in Palestine. "From the first years of the intifada, every Palestinian has been interested in politics. We are a much more political people than the Syrians and the Iraqis. It can't be done."Reuse content