On 7 October 2004–”the scheduled deadline for voter registration in the Occupied Palestinian Territories–”60,000 Palestinians rushed to the 1,000 voter registration centers across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their registration brings the total of registered voters in Palestine (excluding East Jerusalem) to 985,000. This unprecedented single-day turnout prompted Palestinian election officials to extend the registration process, which began on 4 September 2004, for an additional six days. Palestinian voter registration will now close on 13 October 2004.
The Palestinian Central Elections Committee(CEC) expects that 70% of Palestinians will have registered by the new deadline. A 23-26 September 2004 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that if given enough time, 80% of Palestinians will register to vote. According to CEC officials, 1.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (excluding East Jerusalem) are eligible to vote.
Registered voters, men and women over the age of 17, will be eligible to vote in the planned local municipal elections and the national presidential and legislative elections. While no date has been set for national elections, municipal elections will be held in four stages, the first stage of which is slated for 9 December 2004 in 36 minor localities. Palestinian political analyst Ziad Abu Amr said first phase localities are regions of heavy support for incumbents.
The last municipal elections in the Occupied Territories were held in 1974, after which the nationalist mayors were either assassinated or narrowly escaped Israeli assassination shortly after their election. On his return to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, President Yasser Arafat appointed interim mayors until local elections were organized, however the Palestinian Authority (PA) continuously postponed the process. Political opponents accused the PA of delaying municipal elections out of fear that the Islamic groups would win. Palestinian presidential and legislative elections were held in 1996, for what was expected to be a four-year term. New elections were to be held after Israeli troops withdrew from the Palestinian areas as stipulated in the Oslo peace agreements, which was to take place by May 199. Israel has yet to withdraw.
The Internal Political Impact
Ten political parties have registered to vote. Both Muslim and secular groups have urged their members to register, including the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the former communist party, the Palestinian People’s Party, whose political opposition to the Oslo Agreements with Israel led to their boycott of the 1996 general elections. New parties like the Palestinian National Initiative, one of the main advocates for political reform in the PA also joined the registration campaign. Returning parties include the PLO’s main party Fateh and the DFLP splinter group Fida, among others.
Abu Amr said the registration of groups like Hamas, the DFLP, PLFP and others does not necessarily mean that they will take part in the presidential and legislative elections. Although the groups have energetically called on their members to register and have declared they will take part in the municipal elections, Abu Amr believes it is simply a matter of “keeping their options open.” Abu Amr said that if the Islamist groups decide to take part in the general elections, the incumbents–”Arafat and other PA officials–”will face serious competition.
According to a 23-26 September 2004 PCPSR poll, if local elections took place in the near future and if they were fair, 25% of those surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza (compared to 34% in June) say they believe that Arafat’s Fateh party candidates would win; 27% say Hamas and Islamic Jihad candidates would win. Twenty-two percent said they would vote for Hamas and Islamic Jihad candidates while 21% said they would vote for Fateh, 16% for independents, and 14% for family candidates. In Gaza, 30% said they would vote for Hamas and Islamic Jihad candidates, 18% for Fateh, 14% for independents and 10% for family candidates. While PCPSR found that only 56% believed that the PA is serious about holding national elections in the near future, 72% said that they will participate.
Another poll released on 20 September 2004 conducted by BirZiet University Development Studies Programme found that Arafat would receive 58% of the vote if he were to be challenged by Hamas’ Mahmoud Zahhar and independent Haidar Abdel Shafi.
Abu Amr said skepticism over whether the PA would hold national elections was reflected in the low turnout at the start of the registration process. People were also skeptical about the feasibility of conducting elections under continued Israeli occupation.
Abu Amr explained that should presidential and legislative elections be held, Israel and the United States, who have demanded that Palestinians elect new leaders, will have to deal with the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. He added that Palestinians have been calling for elections and reform in the PA long before the Bush administration and Israel. Palestinians have been unsatisfied with the PA’s performance both regarding internal matters and in negotiations with Israel.
The Registration Process, Israel and East Jerusalem
The CEC recruited 2,500 volunteers for a wide-scale voter education campaign. Volunteers distributed materials door-to-door and booked dozens of radio and TV spots.
The CEC has accredited 6,500 election observers. Three international organizations, including the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), will serve as observers, along with 82 Palestinian institutions, 3,000 local observers, and 3,500 party agents.
CEC Chief Public Relations Officer Baha Bakri said the registration process has constantly been disrupted by Israeli closures, incursions and harassment of volunteers. Israeli checkpoints have made the distribution of material to registration centers difficult and at times impossible. The process has been disrupted the most in the Gaza Strip. Centers were forced to close due to Israeli military attacks and prolonged area closures. Bakri said that despite the difficulties, the high registration turnout proves that Palestinians are eager to exercise their democratic rights.
In East Jerusalem, Israel closed six voter registration centers one week after they were open. Israeli police confiscated electoral material and registration forms. Israel police detained and interrogated election volunteers and intimidated voters. Israel said that the registration centers were PA representative offices and are not allowed to operate within the borders of Israel.
The very essence of self-determination within civil society is the right to vote. Israel’s closure order violates this guarantee recognized under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to both of which Israel is a State signatory.
The Palestinians of occupied East Jerusalem have the same legal status as Palestinians in the rest of the Occupied Territories. Israel’s annexation or changing of the legal status of East Jerusalem or its residents has no legal validity according to the international community and international law.
Elections were part of the 100-day plan endorsed by the Palestinian government in mid-2002.