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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Early troubles for Palestinian voter registration

By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

This month the Palestinians began a registration drive to prepare for municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections.

An Israeli military closure order is posted to the door of an empty office in a community centre that sits astride the dusty streets of the Shufat Palestinian refugee camp in Israeli occupied East Jerusalem.

The office didn't belong to a political party inciting violence, or to a militant Islamic group.

Palestinians register to vote in Ramallah.
The elections are the first to be held by Palestinians since 1996
It was a centre to register voters for planned Palestinian elections, and the Israelis have shut it down along with five others in the city.

This month the Palestinian Authority started a registration drive to prepare for municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections it hopes to hold within the next six months.

It's a step towards meeting Palestinian, Israeli and international demands for democratic reforms within the PA, which is beset by charges of corruption and autocratic rule. 

Israeli action has "complicated the situation technically, legally, and politically", says Palestinian Election Official Ammar Dwaik.

"We were surprised that the Israelis would take such a blatant anti-democratic move to block the elections process in Jerusalem because the Israelis understand that elections won't take place without Jerusalem."

'Israeli territory'

About 1,000 voter registration centres have been set up in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It's true that not many Palestinians are rushing to sign up. They're disillusioned with their leaders, frustrated with Israeli military closures, and skeptical their vote will change anything.

An election poster goes on display in Gaza City.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has begun campaigning
But still the offices are functioning. So why did Israel shut down only those centres in Palestinian East Jerusalem?

Because Jerusalem is sovereign Israeli territory, says Spokesman Raanan Gissin.

"Jerusalem has a totally different status, the municipal boundaries have been determined by the 1981 law, approved by the Knesset.

"It's not occupied territory and as any other country would not permit political activity of a foreign country, particularly voting, so Israel has the same right to prevent that kind of political activity within Jerusalem itself."

International law is clear about East Jerusalem. It's occupied Palestinian territory, with the same status as the West Bank and Gaza.

"We don't accept that", says Mr Gissin,

"No one has the right to tell us what would be the status of Jerusalem, when Jerusalem has been, was and will be forever the capital of the Jewish people."

Silence

Most countries don't recognise Israel's sovereignty there, including the United States and the Europeans.

American and EU officials have indicated they don't support the closure of the Palestinian registration offices, but so far have not publicly reprimanded Israel.

Palestinians say Israel's action violates their democratic rights. They say it also underlines the hypocrisy of Israeli and international demands for reform.

"Disturbing the elections is disturbing the revival of the Palestinian society," says Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Hasan Abu Libdeh.

"It's a very serious disturbance to the realization of George W Bush's vision for a two state solution. It's a serious blow to all those who are advocating a renewal of the Palestinian leadership."

And the response from the international community has been disappointing, he says: "We are not necessarily into the dancing mood now concerning the kind of response and the quality of response."

Two years ago the US President George W Bush famously called on the Palestinians to elect a new and different leadership.

It was part of his vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says there won't be movement in the peace process without a reformed Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians have responded by beginning to organise their first national elections in seven years.

But when it comes to Palestinian democracy in occupied East Jerusalem, Israel is obstructing them, and the Americans have little to say. 


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