Hebron - Starting Tuesday morning, Hebron's main street, Ein Sara, was intermittently closed. The traffic jams piled up to an unbearable level. Hundreds of people congregated at the entrance of the Al-Hussein School, waiting for the turn to go in.
It was an election day. Across from the school, booths were set up in support of candidates and party lists. Trucks plastered with ads for the leading lists traveled back and forth and above the street, dozens of banners with photos of the top candidates were hung.
It was a real festival of democracy. Hard to believe that the elections were for Hebron's chamber of commerce.
Two passers-by, Nidal and Fahed al-Qawasmeh, were engrossed in a discussion of the election results. "Hebron is the Palestinian economic capital," explained Nidal. "That's why the big to-do is here. It's a city of merchants and we want an improvement in the way commerce is run, we want more jobs and of course, closer economic ties to Israel."
When asked about the candidates' political affiliation, Fatah or Hamas, they immediately corrected the error. "After 20 years, there are elections for the chamber of commerce," Fahed said, "and it has nothing to do with Hamas or Fatah. This is the first time there are elections of this kind."
Surprisingly, they claim that even clan affiliation is irrelevant here. Candidates from all the big clans can be found on all the lists.
"We want new industrial areas, a fight against unemployment. We also expect Israel to ease more restrictions and enable us to build factories."
A moment before parting, they added their candidate is an independent, "Muhi a-Din a-Sayad. A-Nimr is his nickname. He is an independent candidate who tries to obtain Israeli transit permits for merchants."
Population wise, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, with nearly half a million Palestinians in the city and its environs according to the Palestinian Authority.
Ahmed al-Qawasmeh, an independent candidate whose campaign posters are everywhere, was sitting in one of the support booths opposite the school where the ballot boxes were concentrated.
He said immediate efforts should be undertaken to overcome the high unemployment prevalent in the area.
"The unemployment rate is 35 percent. The situation here is not easy," he said. Greeting visitors with a hug and a kiss, he did not seem pleased about what happened in the city surrounding the elections.
"There was exaggeration in the campaigns," he said, calling over his campaign manager to be present during the interview. "The Palestinian economy is in retreat. When there is a freeze in the diplomatic process, the situation regresses."
He rejected the idea that the city's dire situation is the fault of Israeli settlers.
"This has no connection to the settlers," he said. "The issue here is solely of economics and trade. We want to resolve the problems involved in gaining access to ports in Israel. We want to move beyond imports that are unrestrained and bring in cheap products from the east for a low cost and of much poorer quality than what we can offer." He also expressed hope for greater ties with Israel.
"We want to cooperate with the Israelis and put an end to the Palestinian problem," he said. "The Palestinian public wants a peace process and not a third intifada. The Arab nations have evolved, learned from their experience and there are many positions and opinions. No one wants a third intifada. Israel is the one interested in escalation."
Influenced by friends and relatives
Some 2,000 merchants registered in Hebron were eligible to vote and each one of them has relatives and friends who try to influence them. The path to the polling station passes through two columns of people handing out little slips of paper listing the candidates' names.
From the list of 38 candidates, 12 will be elected to the chamber.
At a nearby booth, Hian Badr al-Qawasmeh was trying to attract the attention of passers-by.
His list, Infrastructure and Development, represents the future of the merchants, he says.
"Everyone has an academic degree and speaks foreign languages. I speak Hebrew and French, and we want to help all the merchants in the city obtain a higher education," he said. "Our businesses are linked to Israel. We export goods to Israel and I have 15 agents there. My business has three businessmen from Israel and I'm a partner of theirs. We try to find solutions for the businesses in the casbah, for the problem of traffic congestion and the shuk which is flooded with poor-quality imports."
His father, Badr, taught Hebrew to immigrants from Arab countries at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya.
A special oversight committee monitors the poll booths in the school. Above the station where the ballot envelopes are stacked there is a camera that will provide a live transmission of their opening to the rooms where the candidates are sitting and they can observe the vote-counting process.
The monitors also assist those who are illiterate. Upon leaving the school, I came across a relatively older man, in a suit and tie.
"I'm Muhi a-Din a-Sayad Ahmed," he says in fluent Hebrew. "They call me a-Nimr, the leopard. I'm the only one who won in the elections 20 years ago and I'll win again. Then I ran as an independent and today, I am as well. I'll return to the chamber of commerce to improve ties, with Israel too. I have contacts from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat. The people in Hebron asked me to run and that's what I did. Today there will be a big surprise for the world. I will win big."
The flow of customers in the casbah, not far from the polling station, dwindles the closer you get to the H2 area under Israeli control. The merchants in the casbah are more embittered and talk unhesitatingly of a third intifada.
"The economic problems could lead to that," says Issa Balua. "There is disappointment with the economic and diplomatic situation. If there was an intifada in the Arab world, then why shouldn't there be one here?"
On Wednesday morning, the chamber of commerce election results were released. The leopard, Muhi a-Din a-Sayad Ahmed, won first place. He received 786 votes. In the West Bank, contacts with Israel are not always necessarily harmful.