Palestinians peacefully choose Arafat Huge turnout confirms its leader as president in first election

All Palestine smiles'

Intimidation alleged in East Jerusalem'

January 21, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Contributing writer Joshua Brillant provided information for this article.

GAZA -- Palestinians crowned their torturous struggle to be recognized as a people with their first elections yesterday, confirming Yasser Arafat as president and choosing a legislative council.

Voters came on donkey carts and in Mercedes automobiles, from shepherds' fields and bankers' offices, in tribal robes and modern suits, to solemnly mark their ballots in makeshift booths.

The election faltered only in East Jerusalem, where an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the registered voters went to polling places but found them ringed by Israeli soldiers and police taking photographs. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestine Central Election Commission said, the turnout among the 1 million registered voters was between 70 percent and 90 percent.

Former President Jimmy Carter and other international elections observers accused Israel of intimidating Palestinians from voting Jerusalem, a city passionately claimed by both the Palestinians and Israelis. Israel said its forces were there to protect the voters. Balloting in the city was extended by three hours because of the controversy.

Palestinians were voting to elect a government that will preside over Palestinian affairs in the pockets of "autonomous areas" from which Israel has withdrawn.

Palestinians hope their new government, still rough-hewn and its powers limited by Israel, will be a democracy that eventually will become a state.

"I am not ashamed to tell you, sir, that after I voted I went back to my home and cried in happiness," said a stately old tailor, Abed Kareem Sayed Daban, in Gaza. "Palestine was not on the map before. Today, it is on the map."

Complete returns to determine who among nearly 700 candidates won the 88 seats on the Palestinian Council are not expected until today. But elections officials said last night that a preliminary count of the separate balloting for president gave Mr. Arafat about 90 percent of the vote.

Mr. Arafat, who embodied the Palestinian struggle for three decades and turned from terrorism to diplomacy, had only one opponent, Samiha Khalil, 72.

'This is a new era'

"This is a new era," Mr. Arafat said after voting in Gaza. "This is the foundation of our Palestinian state."

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called the election a demonstration of the Palestinians' support for the peace process.

Mr. Peres announced that all 450 members of the Palestinian National Council -- the parliament in exile whose members were once considered outlaws by Israel -- will be allowed back to the West Bank and Gaza. About 250 member still had been barred.

And he said the Palestinians must fulfill their pledge to repeal the provisions of the charter calling for Israel's destruction.

The Oslo agreement, a pledge of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, was signed in 1993 and provided for the elections.

Islamic groups who oppose the agreement mostly snubbed the elections and have vowed to continue attacks on Israel. The vote has been seen by world leaders as a means of strengthening Mr. Arafat's hand against the opposition.

Elections officials reported some confusion but few major problems despite hasty arrangements for the voting.

"Mostly technical problems -- missing names, missing registration cards -- things like that," said Awni Khatib, head of the elections commission in Hebron. "Despite all the adverse circumstances, Palestinians are coming out."

The exception was East Jerusalem. Israel, jealously guarding its claim to sovereignty over the entire city, had negotiated an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that allowed only a small percentage of voters to cast their ballots within the municipality.

The others were to travel through several checkpoints to cast their ballots in the West Bank. Most did not bother, and buses organized by the Palestinians were mostly empty.

The five post offices designated as voting stations in East Jerusalem were surrounded by Israeli police and soldiers.

"I think it's a case of overkill," said Edward Abington, U.S. consul general for Jerusalem. "When you have a tiny post office room and you put 70 police and border guards around it, the voter feels he has to run a gantlet to get there."

Mr. Carter, observing the arrangements in East Jerusalem, protested the size of the police contingent. He also confronted a policeman filming the Palestinian voters and demanded he stop.

"There's some obvious intimidating actions being taken," he said.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli coordinator for the elections, said the security contingent was reduced and the filming stopped after the complaints.

He contended that the security force had been welcomed by Palestinian officials because of threats by right-wing Jewish groups.

"The policemen weren't there to stop the Palestinians. They let the Palestinians through. The police were there to protect them," he said.

But Palestinians said they had to negotiate a series of roadblocks and police cordons.

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