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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 January, 2005, 18:17 GMT
Surreal scenes in East Jerusalem
By Rob Winder
BBC News, East Jerusalem

Jimmy Carter [left] surrounded by bodyguards [photo by Aisha Mershani]
Former US President Carter [left] arrives to inspect the scene

Palestinians turned out to vote for a new president amid bizarre and chaotic scenes at the main post office on East Jerusalem's bustling Saladin Street.

Shortly after polls opened at 0700 local time, Palestinians were conspicuous only in their absence.

There was only a small queue outside the office, but journalists and international election observers outnumbered voters by almost three to one.

This is an election that is being watched more closely in the region than any before it.

Teams of observers working for the Palestinian Election Commission, the European Union, the Japanese government and activists from the International Solidarity Movement had flocked to the polling station to report any voting irregularities.

The European Union sent 260 observers, while former US President Jimmy Carter headed a team of 80 from the National Democratic Institute.

'Overly restrictive'

Under special voting arrangements for East Jerusalem, 6,000 Palestinians living in the city were allowed to vote in an absentee ballot at five Israeli post offices.

I'm not voting - there's no point - the Israelis and the Americans want Abbas to win - so he will win
Palestinian taxi driver
But there was confusion about who had been given permission by Israel to vote in the city and at which post office, and other residents of the city had to travel to the West Bank to vote.

Amid a group of stern-faced bodyguards in a convoy of US jeeps, Jimmy Carter himself arrived to carry out his own inspection of the site.

"Palestinians are unable to get in because there too many reporters and international observers," he announced to a bemused crowd.

He went on to describe Israeli voting regulations in East Jerusalem as "overly restrictive" and urged Palestinians to exercise their right to vote in whichever way they could.

'I don't exist'

Many of the Palestinians who were able to enter complained they were then being turned away by Israeli officials.

These elections are... a momentous move towards political reform and modern democracy
Watan, Gaza City

East Jerusalem residents who were unable to vote faced a trip of 16 km (10 miles) to West Bank to cast their ballot - impossible for those on their way to work.

UN observer Mariam Sherifjay said she witnessed five Palestinians being turned away by Israeli officials within the first hour of voting.

"It is worst for the elderly and sick," she said "as they will find it difficult to travel to the West Bank."

By midday, local Fatah officials and international monitors estimated that only 10% of the Palestinians who had arrived at the post office have been able to vote.

"Its crazy," one middle-aged man who refuses to be named said.

"According to Israel - I don't exist."

Voter cynicism

Despite the many problems facing them, many Palestinians seemed to have caught the spirit of the election.

John Kerry [right] with bodyguard outside the main post office in East Jerusalem [photo by Aisha Mershani]
Kerry's arrival was greeted warmly by those at the polling station
They congregated around the post office chatting to one another in the winter Jerusalem sunshine.

The atmosphere remained relaxed and there was a low-key Israeli police presence.

Some, however, remained cynical about the impact of the vote.

One woman demonstrated outside the polling centre with a sign saying "Israeli Democracy - Banana Republic."

Another local taxi driver said: "I'm not voting - there's no point.

"The Israelis and the Americans want Abbas to win, so he will win."

Kerry's inspection

Later, a second convoy of American trucks arrived and another slightly smaller team of identikit bodyguards leapt out.

This time, it was US Senator John Kerry, also conducting his own inspection of the polling centre.

He said he was there to find out if the elections were free and fair.

A popular figure with the assembled crowd, they cheered him loudly as pushed his way through a scrum of reporters.

By mid-afternoon, Mr Carter had returned to announce that his team had negotiated a deal with the Israelis that would allow all Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote at any Post Office for the rest of the day.

But this may have come too late for some.

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