Palestinians vote in municipal elections

1st local vote in 3 decades boasts a heavy turnout

militant groups take part

December 24, 2004|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

EIZARIYA, West Bank - Standing in line to vote for the first time, Nihal Faroun flashed a broad smile.

"It's a great feeling," she said. "For the first time we can choose someone we want for our town."

Faroun, 21, a science teacher, was voting yesterday in municipal elections held in 26 Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, a prelude to presidential elections set for Jan. 9.

It was the first Palestinian local election in nearly 30 years, and the first in which the militant Islamic group Hamas competed at the polls against Fatah, the dominant political party.

The turnout across the West Bank was heavy, and in Eizariya, a suburb of Jerusalem, long lines quickly formed at polling stations.

After more than four years of violent conflict that has left them cut off from Jerusalem by an Israeli wall built to keep out suicide bombers, people in Eizariya seemed hopeful yesterday that their vote could make a difference and improve day-to-day life.

"We feel we have a voice," said Haya Hamdan, 25, a kindergarten teacher and a first-time voter.

At the polling places, posters informed people how to vote and instructed them not to smoke or carry guns inside. "Voting is a right, and that right is yours," the posters read.

Outside, campaign workers handed out literature as vans plastered with pictures of candidates ferried people to the polls. Palestinian police officers, posted at the polling places under an agreement with the Israeli authorities, kept order.

Thursday's vote was the first in a three-phase process that is expected to extend to about 600 Palestinian cities, towns and villages by the end of next year. In the past three decades, Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been run by appointed mayors, first chosen by the Israeli army and later by the Palestinian Authority.

There were no elections in any major cities yesterday. Unofficial results were expected early today, and official results tomorrow.

Hamas fielded candidates in the local vote, its first electoral challenge to Fatah.

In 1996 Hamas boycotted elections for the president and legislative council of the Palestinian Authority because it opposed the accords with Israel that created the institutions of self-rule. Hamas is also boycotting next month's presidential elections.

But local elections were different, said Musa Faroun, a prominent Hamas candidate in Eizariya. "Presidential elections are political; local elections are to serve the people," he said.

Faroun ticked off a list of local projects his group has promised to pursue: repairing Eizariya's shabby roads and putting in a sewage system, repairing schools, building a maternity hospital to replace hospitals in Jerusalem now beyond the wall, opening a library and creating a public park for residents feeling hemmed in by the Israeli barrier.

"We're going to make Eizariya beautiful," said Suzanne Imteir, a Hamas candidate.

Issa Abu Ahmad, a Fatah candidate, said he welcomed the competition from Hamas.

"We want them to participate because we want to prove that we are stronger," he said. "This vote will measure opinion on the street before the presidential election, and the results will be the same. Eizariya is Fatah territory."

Abu Ahmad was surrounded by Fatah supporters, some wearing checkered scarves with the colors of the Palestinian flag and a likeness of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died last month.

Hamas campaigners wore green, the traditional color of Islam, and gave out cards listing the group's candidates. "Islam is the solution," the cards read.

Candidates in Eizariya were contesting 13 seats on the local council, replacing council members appointed by the Palestinian Authority. The last time council members were elected was in 1976, when local elections were held under an Israeli military administration.

This time, however, the elections were being run by the Palestinians, and for many voters that had special significance.

"I feel like any Palestinian," said Reeman al-Baw, 31, as she waited to vote. "This is a national duty."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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