Threats strike fear into Jerusalem voters

Palestinian election: City's future becomes focus of campaign
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A warning notice in Hebrew and Arabic was posted on walls in Jerusalem yesterday telling voters that if they vote in the election for the Palestinian Council this week, they will lose their residence permits. "Please think twice before you vote," says the poster, issued by the youth wing of Israel's main right-wing party.

It is a threat Palestinians in Jerusalem take seriously. Candidates spend much of their time trying to persuade supporters it is safe to vote. The election has highlighted the conflict over Jerusalem's future, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.

Palestinians will elect seven members of their council from the Jerusalem constituency, which is much larger than the city of Jerusalem itself. But although the 167,000 Palestinian minority in Jerusalem can vote, Israel does not want this to be seen as giving them a claim to the city.

Both sides know important precedents will be set. As a result, Israel insists all the campaigning must take place indoors. Hanan Ashrawi, the best-known candidate, was manhandled by police and her car stopped when she tried to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank with posters of herself on the car window. In theory posters are confined to 35 locations, though in fact they are on every wall and shop front.

For weeks there was an angry dispute about voting in five post offices in Palestinian East Jerusalem. European Union monitors wanted them shut for normal business next Saturday when the election takes place. They feared organised opponents of the election could sabotage the ballot by buying thousands of stamps and blocking access. Right-wingers in the Knesset said the closure of post offices would concede too much to the Palestinians.

The effort to seal off Jerusalem from the West Bank makes little sense. Once the right of Palestinians in the city to vote in the election for the council was conceded by the Oslo accords, Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem was already diluted. Nevertheless Israel yesterday ordered its postal service to transfer all ballot boxes from Jerusalem to the Palestinian town of Ramallah, 20 minutes' drive to the north.

All this makes Palestinians in Jerusalem nervous. Jonathan Kuttab, a lawyer with experience in human rights organisations who is standing as a candidate, fears Palestinian East Jerusalem will wither because it is cut off from its economic hinterland. "When you isolate a city from the surrounding area you will kill it. The key issue for us is the removal of the checkpoints on the roads between the West Bank and Jerusalem," he says.

Since the first Israeli shut-down of communications between Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1991, economic activity in East Jerusalem has fallen by 40 per cent. By 8pm the commercial centres are empty and look as if they are under a curfew.

Mr Kuttab says Palestinians in the city are suffocating because Israel systematically denies them permission to build new houses. In a city partly reliant on tourism, Palestinians have not been able to build a single hotel since Israeli captured East Jerusalem in 1967.

Negotiations about the final status of Jerusalem have to start, according to the Oslo Accords, by 4 May. The elections have emphasised that Palestinians have a stake. The Taba agreement in September, which laid out the terms of Israeli withdrawal, granted autonomy to Palestinian towns such as Abu Dhis and Azzariya, which are only 10 minutes' drive from Jerusalem. It will be difficult to separate these areas, politically and economically, from Jerusalem proper.