Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Election Daze

Today is Palestinian Election Day. That is, Palestinians not citizens of Israel, who are in fact not citizens of any nation, and who are prohibited from traveling outside the Palestinian territories vote today. For Palestinians living in East Jerusalem this presents a rather complex dichotomy. They retain permanent resident status in Israel as inhabitants of what has become an annexed East Jerusalem. They are separated from the West Bank by the wall, communities dissected never to be reacquainted. They are allowed to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections, but prohibited from the federal polls. And so they vote in the Palestinian national elections, as non-citizens living under the jurisdiction of Israeli rule.

Palestinian East Jerusalemites endure a severely contested existence. Floating checkpoints around the city detain them on their way to work everyday as soldiers corral them in order to check their papers. Ostensibly this is to prohibit illegal migrant workers from benefiting from the Israeli economy. In reality, it is a security measure aimed at crippling the Palestinian economy, just another way to subdue the Palestinian people.

Yesterday I made the acquaintance of a young shop owner named Saleh Mobied, who I came to know during the course of purchasing an item for my parents. Saleh’s shop occupies one of the many storefronts on David street behind the walls of the old city in East Jerusalem. It exists on the fringes of the Muslim quarter, further encroached upon with each passing day by the ever expanding Jewish quarter. The building itself is owned by the Greek Orthodox church, but is being sold to Israelis for an unknown price. This sale will force Saleh and his business to move, or else close up shop.

Initially this seems like an unexceptional occurrence in the world of commercial proprietorship. Understanding the context of such transitions however, sheds a more complicated scheme. Palestinians not citizens of Israel have been prohibited from further developing East Jerusalem. This is not to say Palestinians don’t, but legally speaking the Israeli government maintains they have the right to terminate any “illegal” development projects. The issue of house demolitions frequently enters the debate over Israeli military actions against militant Palestinians, but what few of us realize in the United States is that the vast majority of house demolitions in Jerusalem are actually carried out by the municipal government. It is difficult to discern the rhyme or reason behind which houses they choose to demolish, and which they leave standing, but the demolished houses referred to here belong to Palestinian families without any militant connections. Perhaps they did something to aggravate the Israeli bureaucracy or drew too much attention to themselves. Perhaps they did nothing at all. Regardless, to destroy a family home and leave in its wake a pile of rubble is a disgusting offense to the people, to the children, to the neighborhood, and to society at large.

Even if Saleh and his fellow business owners who occupy this incredibly valuable commercial property, desired to put together a partnership to purchase the building and save their business, they are unable. The Israeli authorities have uncontested, non-competitive bidding rights to the building because they have in effect put a freeze on all Palestinian development. Democratic institutions at work.

As Palestinians stepped to the polls today, casting their ballots for democracy for the first time in 10 years, they entered the booths with a tremendous chip on their shoulders. They have no recourse. There is no entrenched political establishment that recognizes the determined right of the Palestinian people to self-govern. Whether you like their tactics or not, whether you see the PA as an autocratic “thugocracy” or not, these people have the right to express themselves, and elect whomever they see fit. Hamas is an Islamist party with a militant background which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. If they were to gain total control of the Palestinian Authority (which they won’t), Palestinian aspiration toward democracy would essentially cease to exist. However, an Israeli government which refuses to accept the legitimate outcome of a democratic election and does not take active steps to foster an autonomous Palestinian state without the occupation of settlers, is a fake democracy as well.

The atmosphere outside the main polling location in East Jerusalem was not one of jubilation. It was not a festival of democracy, it was not a parade of Arab faces thankful for the democratic occupiers that had allowed them the privilege of casting their votes. The frustration was palpable, speaking with a young Palestinian man today, Mahmoud Abu Sheineh expressed that there is a sense that no matter who wins, his people’s predicament will worsen. And he was ashamed to admit he is a holder of an Israeli passport, this is the voice of an Israeli citizen. Tension permeated the air as young men clad in Fatah regalia clamored for the end of the occupation. Boisterous chanting, jumping, agitated cheers and the waving of the Palestinian flag demarcated the day democracy came to East Jerusalem. Eat your heart out Dick Cheney, there were no smiling faces thankful for the day America liberated them from despotism.

The photo above is tragically indicative of the plight of the Palestinian people. Amidst the revelers who although agitated, remained peaceful throughout the day, appeared a man clad in army fatigues, draped in Fatah rags, his infant son similarly adorned on his shoulders hoisting a toy machine gun. Immediately, as miraculously as the pair had appeared, swarms of photojournalists surrounded the two as 50 cameras snapped thousands of images to be wired digitally all over the world instantaneously. This was the closest thing to an armed militant seen today in East Jerusalem. But this is the image that will be peppered throughout the media tomorrow, as if to prove the stubborn bullishness of the Palestinian people who give their children guns and teach them to be violent. There are all kinds of atrocities going on all over Palestine every day that get no international coverage, Arabs with guns get press. What a double standard – we glamorize exactly what we condemn.

In the midst of all the hubbub a Palestinian woman approached the man to berate him for fostering such negative publicity. She was eventually shrugged off and the charade continued, but before she left she managed to put a pencil in the boy’s other hand.

The will of the people is overwhelmingly in support of diplomacy. You don’t have to look hard, you just have to realize that Israeli peace means the continuing development of a territorially expansionist wall, and a settlement movement that de-legitimizes the right of the Palestinian people to self-rule. Turn the TV off, throw away your newspaper. Talk to the Palestinians in your community, ask after their families. Stop looking for the guns. If you want to look at young aggressive boys with guns, just walk down the streets of Jerusalem any day of the week, and take a long hard look at the Israeli army, it’s filled with them.


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