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EAST JERUSALEM — It’s an ugly sight when a voting station is packed with more journalists, election observers and security personnel than voters. The first Palestinian presidential election in nine years took place on Sunday, and post offices here were doubling as voting booths. But outside the post office near Herod’s Gate at the Old City it was mostly journalists talking to journalists, observers observing other observers, and security people — both Israeli and Palestinian — eyeing everyone. Final numbers on voter turnout in East Jerusalem are still being tallied, but in between the Saladin Street voting station and another one, set up at Jaffa Gate in the Old City, were a lot of people who did not vote. On Election Day, I walked from one to the other, through the Old City, to take an unscientific survey of who voted, who didn’t and why.
Within the Old City’s 39-foot-high, ancient stone walls are several long, claustrophobic, stone streets crammed on both sides with everything — living or dead — you can imagine: Gummi worms, electric heaters, shoe polish, birds, Winnie the Pooh dolls knocked off almost to the point of unrecognizability. The ratio of goods to shoppers these days is about half a million to one. Four years of conflict have crushed tourism, and many businesses in the Old City have taken a very hard hit.
A crowd gathered outside Wael Al-Iman’s handbag store as I started asking him about the election. He had voted but seemed to have no faith that it would help him, his family or his business.
"It’s a movie, that’s all — they change the hero," he said, referring to the new protagonist, Mahmoud Abbas, who won the presidential election. Al-Iman added that this movie is, in his opinion, partly an American production. "When Bush came and said, ‘I want to make peace,’ nothing changed. It’s only talking. I told you it’s a movie, that’s all."
Only 18 months ago, Abbas stood with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, for the official launch of the road-map peace plan. Abbas was, at the time, the first Palestinian prime minister. He resigned just over three months later, saying Yasir Arafat had undermined him, and Bush and Sharon had barely supported him. The road map never got off the ground.
Across from Al-Iman’s store, Ziad Zedan, a 23-year-old just back from living a couple of years in Germany with his girlfriend, had just cut his right pinkie working at his father’s gift shop. He joked about Abbas, using Abbas’ nickname, Abu Mazen.
"When I heard Abu Mazen was winning, I cut myself," he said.
He said he hadn’t voted and I asked why.
"Why should I vote?" he asked. "I live in Jerusalem, so I don’t know who I am — Israelian [this is how many Palestinians say Israeliwhen they speak English] or Palestinian. If I go to Ramallah, I have a problem because I have ID saying I am Israelian. And if I am here [in Israel], I have problem because I am Arabic. They write in my ID that I am Israelian Arabic Jordanian, so who I am?"
Palestinians in Jerusalem are in the middle of an argument that has been unresolved for almost 40 years. Elections stir up the argument all over again. Israel claims Jerusalem as its undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The U.S. considers Jerusalem an unsolved issue. The United Nations considers the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967, occupied by Israel.
The idea of voting, for a lot of Palestinians in Jerusalem, brings on an exhausting mental review of their whole confused status. Palestinians who live in the city aren’t Israeli citizens, but they have Israeli ID cards because they live in the city Israel considers its capital. But they’re not Palestinian citizens either because that would mean Israel wouldn’t allow them to live in Jerusalem. Many Palestinians in Jerusalem have Jordanian passports, but they’re not citizens of Jordan either and aren’t allowed to live in Jordan, even with the passport; the passport is basically just a travel document.
"When they tell me who I am exactly, I will go [vote]," said Zedan.
There’s more than one reason not to vote, though. Khader Kalouti, standing around his parents’ clothing store waiting for a customer, said he didn’t vote because the only real leader for Palestinians, and for all Muslims, would be a caliph, who would rule according to Islam. He said Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, is Palestine.
"All Palestine today is occupied: This land is Muslim land," he said. "And for this reason, we don’t deal with this election. The Israeli people occupied this land, and someday they will have to be tossed off this land. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but the day will come when they will be tossed off. The Crusaders were here for 130 years, and they are not here now."