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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Rocky road to Palestinian poll
Yasser Arafat:
Yasser Arafat: Serious challengers are scarce

We now know the dates. Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in mid-January 2003.

In theory, the process appears clear. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza register to vote.

Teachers will be drafted as election officials - their schools will be used as voting stations.

Palestinian officials have asked the international community to get involved.

Under curfew in Hebron
But in practice, the process may become extremely complicated.

At present, seven out of eight Palestinian towns in the West Bank are locked down and under Israeli control.

More than half a million Palestinians are currently forced to stay at home, under Israeli curfew.

Israel says it will stay in Palestinian towns so long as Palestinian suicide attacks continue.

I have just come back from the town of Ramallah - the headquarters of Yasser Arafat.

The streets are almost empty - they are used only by ambulances and by Israeli armoured personnel carriers. Tank tracks are clearly visible on all main roads.

Some people stand outside their front doors - but few go out much further. The curfew is only lifted for a few hours every few days.

Palestinian officials warn that it will be impossible to conduct free and fair elections in these conditions.

Travel curbs

Even if forces do withdraw, Palestinians still face real problems moving freely around the West Bank.

Under current Israeli rules, Palestinian civilians are not allowed to travel from one town to another within the West Bank.

Palestinians have evaded checkpoints on donkey
A series of Israeli checkpoints enforce this rule (and protect against suicide bombers - says Israel).

To get round this, Palestinians avoid checkpoints any way they can - I have been to one back road around Nablus where Palestinians avoid Israeli roadblocks by taking donkey and cart rides along hill roads into the town.

At the moment, most observers expect Yasser Arafat to stand for re-election.

If he stands, most expect him to win, despite - or perhaps because of - President Bush's call for a change of leadership.

As things stand, it does not look like Mr Arafat will face any serious challengers from within his own Authority or security forces.

Controversy beckons

For now, one man has declared that he will run against the Palestinian leader - an academic from Nablus called Abu Sitar.

But he is not expected to win anything more than a small handful of votes.

The elections will be watched closely. They will be controversial - whatever the result. But the fact that a date has now been set focuses life here.

It is all a change from a conversation I had with a Palestinian electoral official earlier this year.

I asked him when the Palestinian Authority was planning to hold new elections.

"When the apricot season comes," he replied.

"When's that ?" I asked.

"No-one knows - that's the whole point," he said.

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26 Jun 02 | Middle East
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