Elections Under Siege

American and European consultants will have to advise the Palestinians on how to conduct an election campaign under conditions in which the West Bank and Gaza have been carved up into besieged enclaves.

President George Bush will be happy to know that the Palestinian pubic fully supports the demand for genuine reforms in the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be amazed if he heard that many Palestinians share his view that the game of musical chairs orchestrated by Yasser Arafat in his government is not the change they wished to see.

Bush, no doubt, would not oppose the basic political assumption of many Palestinians that only general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council and the presidency of the PA can breath life into the debate over the necessary reforms, even if they can't implement them immediately. He certainly would agree that Arafat and the PLC should not have a life-long term in office. An election campaign would sharpen the analyses that find fault not only with this or that person but also with a system in which one person - Arafat - decides and dictates all, naming to positions of power people who owe their allegiance to him, not to their constituencies or an ideology.

American and European consultants, however, will have to advise the Palestinians on how to conduct an election campaign under conditions in which the West Bank and Gaza have been carved up into besieged enclaves. Clearly, the sieges are not temporary. Israeli TV does not show how the IDF enforces the siege and the requirement to get passes for movement inside the territories. But this is a daily experience for thousands of people delayed for hours at dozens of checkpoints in the territories, and when their numbers begin to appear threatening to the soldiers, the troops open fire, first with tear gas and stun grenades often immediately followed by gunfire.

It's not only Palestinian movement from one enclave to the other that is paralyzed by the dictates of the siege. Movement from city to village has become an impossible mission, undertaken at great risk and with high anxiety. Assume the Palestinians are ultimately forced to obey the Israeli orders and start going to the Civil Administration (since the early 1980s, the main bureaucratic arm of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians) to get their travel passes.

What will happen if during an election campaign this or that candidate's pass is delayed, and he does not reach an election rally, while his opponent gets his pass immediately. The delays, as years of experience have show, will be usually be explained by security needs, or a broken fax machine, or overburdened lines, or a clerk on maternity leave. Won't that immediately harm the chances of the opponent, who will be suspected of being connected in some way to the Israeli authorities?

And when the candidates do make it to their election rallies, how will they discuss domestic Palestinian issues, which interest the public, without reference to the sieges. For example, how will a candidate promise that his voters' children will be able to get through the checkpoints to get to school on time in Hebron for a test without their eyes being reddened by tear gas and their knees shaking after taking cover from flying bullets? How will they speak about improving the school systems, raising teaching standards, increasing the number of classrooms? And what will they say to a 70-year-old woman with only one leg from the besieged, cut-off village of Dir Abzia, seven kilometers from Ramallah, whose son has to carry her on his back, climbing hills and evading the armored personnel carriers posted on each one, to get her to hospital in the city?

What will the candidates say to a taxi driver, who complains he has to pay taxes as if he continued to ply the Jenin-Ramallah route, when in fact he can't leave Jenin any more and his daily income is barely enough to cover the tax bill? How will they respond to people who have lost their jobs time and again because the tightening siege shuts down places of employment? How will they convince hopeless youths that they should not think about joining the army of suicide bombers?

Anyone demanding reforms in Palestinian government should not dismiss the importance of the electoral process. But the process will be obstructed from the start, and practically impossible to monitor, because of the siege policy. Aside from that, it won't be the Bush administration that sets the agenda for the elections, but Israel's policies. Palestinian political activists cannot and do not intend to give them the standard Israeli response, that the sieges and cantonization are only the result of Palestinian terror attacks. Like their constituents, Palestinian politicians are convinced that the sieges are meant to protect the Israeli occupation of the territories, and their purpose is to bring the Palestinian people to such a degree of poverty and internal breakdown, that its leadership will be forced to surrender to any solution offered, a temporary, transitional state on a cantonized 42 percent of the territories.