A Political Abstention

The Palestinian public is not suffering from the illusion about who really rules over its life. It is not Abu Mazen, or Fatah, but the Israeli government and its emissary, the army. At no point on election day was it possible to forget that.

"Until five, six in the afternoon I felt proud and happy, and then everything changed," attorney Raji Sourani told the Palestinian Appeals Court judges, describing what thousands of people felt on the Palestinian election day.

The initial impression of a strong turnout and diligent obedience of the rules and regulations was impressive. But in the afternoon, the festive feelings were replaced by concern. The turnout was lower than expected. The announcement by the election commission that it was extending voting hours was not surprising. "It was definitely possible to interpret it as concern for all, because of the checkpoints, the Israeli delays, the fears," Sourani said as he continued to describe the events to the three judges whose panel was formed especially for election affairs.

There were other lawyers at the hearing, colleagues of Sourani from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which he runs, researchers from the center, and three international observers. Most, including Sourani, had spent election day in the field. Suddenly, at several locations around 5:30 P.M. that day, and at several other locations an hour later, confusion erupted. Shortly before the time balloting was originally to be concluded and two hours before the newly scheduled time, masses of people began to arrive. Most were transported in pickup trucks and taxis, and none bothered to hide the fact that the hurried drivers were Fatah activists.

Here and there, mysteriously, the lights went out in some of the voting stations and registration was done by candlelight. Outside one or two voting stations, shots were heard. To the amazement of the observers, including many who were trained by the PCHR for three months, the registration rolls of the population registrar, the supposed authoritative list of eligible voters who were not included in the voter registration list, were shelved. Verbal, unwritten orders reached voter station officials to allow anyone who had an ID card to vote.

It was difficult to hide the fact that the election commission was operating under pressure from Fatah and that the ruling party had reasons to feel pressured. Its main rival, Hamas, which had called for an election boycott, would be able to make political hay out of a low turnout, claiming that those who did not vote were obeying its orders, that it has a large following in the public and that Fatah's policies under Abu Mazen do not represent the majority. But the way that was chosen - to circumvent and violate the rules as laid down by the Palestinian Legislative Council in the law - harmed Fatah, stained the election commission and strengthened Hamas' old claims that its political opponent would never allow fair elections that accurately reflect the public's loyalties.

Absurdly, the ruckus of the last two hours did not dramatically increase the number of voters. The PCHR appealed to the court to determine that the election commission decision was illegal. It did not demand that the results at some voting stations be canceled, but rather that a message be sent to the public that nobody is above the law and that the judiciary would not allow political bodies and others to obstruct legal processes so that voters in the truly important PLC elections set for July won't doubt the outcome's credibility. The petition was rejected, on formalistic grounds. The PCHR felt somewhat disappointed, but as Sourani told the judges, democracy is an ongoing process, a learning process. And the petition was part of it.

What's left is to examine the reasons for the low turnout: 45 percent of the eligible voters. Palestinian society is supremely political. So the abstention was also very political. It proves that the Palestinian public is not suffering from the illusion about who really rules over its life. It is not Abu Mazen, or Fatah, but the Israeli government and its emissary, the army. At no point on election day was it possible to forget that. At the Jabalya election station, a school that had been hit in the past by missiles; at Beit Lahia, the farming town in Gaza whose greenhouses and orchards have been erased by order of the army; at the voting station in Khan Yunis, which could only be reached through the rubble left behind by the army as it defended the settlements of Gush Katif; in Tel Sultan in Rafah, where the roads crushed by IDF tanks have not been repaired yet.

No wonder that a large proportion, perhaps the majority, of the PCHR's activities have focused for years on Israeli control over the Palestinians. Risking their lives, the center's researchers document IDF attacks in Gaza, the destruction and killing that the army leaves behind on a daily basis, the fertile fields that have been laid to waste, and the draconian limits on freedom of movement. Despite the very slim chances for any real response, they file various complaints with the army and occasional petitions to the Israeli High Court of Justice. In that sense, they function as teachers in a lesson about the non-democratic essence of an occupying society. The pupils, however, aren't interested in taking the lessons.