When it was reported yesterday, at around 5 P.M., that the Palestinian Central Elections Committee would keep the polls open another two hours, until 9 P.M., people in the Jabalya refugee camp knew the official reason given (Israeli delays of voting in Jerusalem) is not the main one.
Neighbors of the camp's girls' school, where polling stations opened for those who hadn't registered in September on the voter rolls, couldn't help noticing in the course of the day that voter traffic was extremely light. Taxis and pick-up trucks - mostly belonging to Fatah people, a handful to other candidates - that drove voters, mostly female, from home to the school, didn't do much to improve matters.
At 7 P.M., a worker at this voting station conceded, only 10 percent of the precinct's registered voters had turned out. This should have been no surprise: the Central Elections Committee also didn't expect all of the people who failed to register in September to take advantage of the newly granted opportunity to vote based only on their identity card and its matching the population registry.
But the problem was at the stations where voting took place according to the voter rolls - that is, people who registered in September but didn't come to vote yesterday. With disappointment mounting, political activists and observers from Palestinian NGOs concluded that voter turnout was lower than expected.
At the Kamal Adwan school in the Tel Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, for example, fewer than 50 percent of voters had turned out by 2 P.M. - 702 out of 1,586. The number of women who voted was especially low: around 240. Until the afternoon everything had gone smoothly. There were occasional reports of certain hitches - the ink blot used to mark the voter's thumb comes off easily instead of after a day or two as promised; arguments between supporters of Mahmoud Abbas and Mustafa Barghoutti; names not found in the population registry - but for the most part, polls functioned and a festive atmosphere prevailed.
However, away from political activists, people seemed to be doubting the election's
necessity. Abbas would be elected in any event, a customer and salesman in a Gaza City toy store said, so why bother? "I'll vote for whoever lets me go home," smirked a black-clad woman holding a baby. That was around 1 P.M. on the sand slope separating the Khan Yunis refugee camp and the ruins the IDF left on its outskirts and the agricultural region to the west - the Mouassi - where the Gush Katif settlements were built. For four years the residents' mobility has been greatly restricted.
Yesterday, hundreds of the 8,000 Mouassi residents clustered there from 5 A.M. In recent weeks the IDF barred entry to Mouassi to male residents under the age of 50. Non-resident Palestinians, even if they have land there, are never allowed entry. The entry of female residents was limited so that many found themselves away from home for days. Some slept at relatives' homes, others at the Red Crescent center.
Still, others dared not leave the area. Yesterday a report spread that the hundreds trapped outside would be allowed to return and could vote at the station in their precinct. But the pace of bringing them home, through IDF checks, was extremely slow. At 7 P.M., dozens still waited their turn. Three were not allowed through, and males under 25 were interrogated at length by the Shin Bet. Neither Abbas nor any other candidate can change this situation, muttered several waiting residents, summing up another reason for voter apathy: Israel is the supreme ruler. For the same reason, one young man who was persuaded to vote cast his ballot for Abbas. "I voted for the one close to the Jews."
"We voted for Abu Mazen because we want change," said two smiling young men in the Shabura refugee camp in Rafah. "What does change mean? Nothing will move with Sharon so long as he's prime minister. But we hope Abu Mazen will at least minimize poverty in society. That he'll send to Kuweit, for work, a hundred thousand university graduates."
Their neighbor voted for Barghoutti. In front of everyone she says, "My son, who is in Hamas, told me not to vote. So I went to vote for whoever isn't Abu Mazen, who I don't like."
"Whoever didn't vote will wind up being thought a supporter of Hamas, which called for a boycott of the elections," a feminist activist commented nervously.
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