Palestinian Elections - The view from above

Election day is looming in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and like it or not, Palestinians are abuzz.
Rumors are floating about everywhere as to just how these elections for the next leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the first since 1996, will be run. The atmosphere in East Jerusalem, where I have been staying for the last twenty-four hours, is much different than the rest of the country. In East Jerusalem, life seems to carry on as usual, but aside from the random conversations here and there (even to a non-Arabic speaker, you hear the names Abu Mazen and Barghouti floating about), there are no signs of the election.
Perhaps it is because many Palestinian Jerusalemites, living in Israeli-annexed Jerusalem, are worried that their privileges as Israeli ID-holders will be revoked if they vote. The IDF soldiers are rumored to be spreading this around. Perhaps it is the fact that the polling stations in Jerusalem will be located in Israeli post offices which potentially can’t even accommodate the 120 000 eligible Palestinian voters in the city. Perhaps it is just that many don’t see any use in voting. Can you blame them?
Richard Gere seems to certainly want Palestinians to get out and vote. The celebrity has been visiting Israel for the past few weeks, and took time to make a televised ad encouraging voters to make their voices heard. "We're with you during this election time. It's really important. Get out and vote," he urges, with his million dollar smile.
Being in the West Bank, one can notice a severe disconnect from the people and the PA. The outskirts of Ramallah, the West Bank’s political center and home of the late Yasser Arafat, are shocking to first-time visitors from the West. Crowded, littered with garbage, and barren. Driving into downtown Ramallah, it’s a different story. The city is bustling, and there are elections posters everywhere, 90% of them cheering on Mahmoud Abbas. He is tomorrow’s favored winner. There are other funnier posters. One is for Mustafa Barghouti, who is trailing Abbas in a distant second. Barghouti was arrested not long ago outside the Damascus gate in East Jerusalem by the IDF, and the photo on his campaign poster depicts the event. With a riffle to his head, Barghouti has his hands in the air as if to say, “Vote for me!”
Our taxi driver takes us to our first stop, the office of the Central Elections Commission (CEC), run by the PA. To get there, we drive through a neighborhood you could swear was an Israeli settlement with its perfectly white and beautiful houses. Palm trees line the streets. My friend informs me that many PA officials live in this area, high atop the hill overlooking the chaotic downtown of Ramallah.
The inside of the CEC office is polished and warm. International journalists are swarming about. We wait for our official CEC press passes. Once they come, we leave to make our way to the Ramallah Cultural Palace, the official media center for the PA elections.
We get into another taxi and tell him our destination. Even though it is no more than a five minute drive away, he says in broken English that it will cost forty shekels. Funny, because our last cab ride which was twice as long only cost us ten shekels. We figure it must be that he knows we are privy to PA building access, and therefore have more money.
Upon entering the Cultural Palace, one is taken aback. How is this Palestine? The majestic glass doors, the shiny marble floors, the massive and modern press conference room. This is not what Palestine looks like, but what the PA looks like. This doesn’t seem representative at all of the rest of the West Bank. It was wealth that created this place, and the homes of other PA officials, and it is wealth that the PA sits on.
Tomorrow Palestinians will head out to the polls across Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza strip to vote in Abu Mazen as the new President of the PA. This could mean many things in 2005. Many are hoping this is a step towards peace, as Abbas is willing to separate himself from the Intifada, and sit down to make concessions with Ariel Sharon. But looking down the hill towards Ramallah, a city under occupation and suffering, one wonders just how much the PA can change from so high up.

Aaron Lakoff, January 8th, 2005
Ramallah

To view pictures from the Ramallah Cultural Palace, visit;
http://gallery.cmaq.net/album20