Amid low turnout and allegations of vote fraud and voter abuse, Mahmoud Abbas, longtime associate of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, appeared to have won yesterday's vote to succeed Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Exit polls placed his electoral majority at between 66% and 70% of the vote.
Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was Arafat's deputy for four decades when Arafat, who died November 11, was chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and was Arafat's successor as head of the PLO's ruling party, Fatah.
Polling throughout the day at the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem went off without major incident.
At Ramallah, however, five Fatah terrorists stormed a polling station, shooting their rifles into the air and saying their relatives were denied a vote. They were quickly ushered out of the polling station by an election official. At Jerusalem, Israeli police arrested two Arabs for distributing literature at a polling station calling on people to boycott the elections.
Moreover, when the polls closed at 9 p.m., an independent candidate, Mustafa Barghouti, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip alleged massive fraud. The independent human rights group petitioned the Palestinian courts to cancel the election results.
It cited the decision of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission to extend voting for two additional hours at the end of the day. The 2,000 polling stations had been scheduled to close at 7 p.m., but the Fatah-dominated commission was alarmed by the markedly low voter turnout and decided at 5 p.m. to keep the polls open until 9. At the same time, the commission announced that it was loosening voting requirements. While throughout the day voters were allowed to cast their ballots only if their names appeared on the voter rolls at their assigned polling stations, those who arrived between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. were allowed to vote simply by presenting an identification card to polling judges. Mr. Barghouti and the Palestinian Human Rights Center allege that thousands of people voted for a second time during those two hours.
Senator Joesph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, who led a group of American elections observers, told reporters that, by and large, the Palestinian Arab election reminded him of American elections. Those sentiments were shared by former president Jimmy Carter, who led the overall delegation of thousands of election observers from America and Europe.
Palestinian Arabs who cast their votes were stamped on their finger with indelible ink as a means of preventing double voting. Elections monitors noted, however, that the same practice was followed in last October's elections in Afghanistan, and it was then discovered that the ink can be washed off after an hour or two.
Palestinian Arab sources in the West Bank claimed that Fatah Party activists were rounded up to vote in the afternoon and revote in the evening. One Ramallah resident, who asked to be referred to only as Ahmed, said: "Abu Mazen's people went into the party offices and hangouts and told everyone to go out and vote again in order to ensure a great mandate for Abu Mazen."
This alleged fraud was exacerbated by a recent controversial decision by the Palestinian Legislative Council, also dominated by Fatah, to add 650,000 new names to the voter rolls that had been prepared by the Elections Commission and approved by international elections observers in September.
The original voter rolls included some 1.1 million voters. The legislators argued that they wished to have more voters to enhance the legitimacy of the election. Both local and foreign opponents of the move said thousands of names on the supplementary list belonged to individuals who are deceased, and thousands more belong to people who live outside the region.
In response to the criticism, it was decided that the people whose names appeared on the supplementary lists would vote only in 70 special polling locations throughout the areas. And yet, when the voting hours were extended yesterday, that requirement was also dropped, and individuals whose names appeared on the supplementary list were allowed to vote wherever they wished.
As was the case in 1996, when Arafat was elected, the overwhelming majority of Arab residents of Jerusalem did not vote. In 1996, only 10% of Jerusalem's 230,000 Arab residents exercised their right to vote. In yesterday's election, observers and journalists often outnumbered the voters at the six polling stations that were set up at post offices in Arab neighborhoods within the city.
Jerusalem Arabs are eligible for Israeli citizenship, although only 10,000 have exercised that right. All, however, are eligible for social benefits, and most are unenthusiastic about the prospect of living under Palestinian Arab sovereignty, as the result of a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Arab leadership.
Palestinian Arabs at the West Bank, questioned during the day about their views of the elections, gave mixed responses. Some said they believe that Mr. Abbas, who has the support of the Bush administration and of the Israeli government, will be able to improve the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority. Others argued that the elections were "a joke" since the winner was a foregone conclusion. Mohammed, a Palestinian Arab resident of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, told reporters that as far as he was concerned: "These elections are ridiculous. Abbas will just continue with the same corruption we've seen all along."
Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, insisted yesterday that Mr. Abbas, whose campaign featured public embraces with wanted terrorists and who referred last week to Israel as "the Zionist enemy," must move immediately to end incitement against Israel and to dissolve the terrorist organizations in the territory of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Arab spokesmen interviewed by the Israeli press throughout the day said Mr. Abbas would enter into negotiations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad to reach a "cease-fire."
The Associated Press reported last night that aides to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said he expects to meet with Mr. Abbas soon. Israeli officials also said that in a gesture to Mr. Abbas, Israel plans to release some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, provided that Arafat's successor stops terrorists from firing rockets at Israeli towns.
As Fatah supporters shot their rifles in the air in celebration of the outcome of the seven-candidate race, Mr. Abbas gave his first victory speech last night. Calling the election results "a victory for Yasser Arafat and the en tire Palestinian people," Mr. Abbas proclaimed: "The small jihad is over and the big jihad has begun. We are facing tough missions – how to build a state of security where people live a dignified life."
President Bush applauded the election results. In an announcement released by the White House, he said: "I am heartened by today's strong turnout in the Palestinian elections. Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers described as largely free and fair. This is a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East."
While the American president urged Mr. Abbas to take measures to end terrorism, Election Day was marked by intermittent rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli communities at the Gaza Strip and southern Israel. The terrorist group Hezbollah entered the fray, too, attacking an Israeli patrol in northern Israel, killing an officer and wounding four soldiers.
In his victory speech, Mr. Abbas pledged to work for the release of all Palestinian Arab fighters in Israeli jails and to protect Pa
lestinian Arabs who are wanted by Israel for their suspected role in terror attacks.
Originally published in The New York Sun.