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
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 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 Israeli
when 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],”
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.”
On the way out of the Old City, I stopped at Moses Art Restaurant.
The owner, Mousa Alqaq, sat outside smoking cigarettes. He was within 50 yards
of a voting station but hadn’t bothered to enter. “Business has been killed
here for years, my friend,” he said. “So it’s kind of making a joke
to vote. For whom? For people making millions of dollars in their pockets, to
have 10 Mercedes? So what do we need them for?”