From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Democracy Blooms as Palestinians Hold First Elections
04 May 1996 20:51:52
96044 Democracy Blooms as Palestinians Hold First Elections
by Alexa Smith
JERUSALEM--While admitting that Saturday's election of a Palestinian
government was not without its flaws and tensions, numerous U.S. observers
and Palestinian Christians insist that the elections are one tangible step
toward the peace that has eluded Israelis and Palestinians.
"It was amazing to see: Fathers and mothers brought their children
[to the polls]. ... That's a day those kids will remember for the rest of
their lives -- the first time Palestinians were able to vote," said
Presbyterian Gina Benevento, a New York City native who now lives here and
who worked as an election observer at a tense East Jerusalem polling site.
"Old Palestinian women who had a hard time walking were walking up to vote.
"[They were] sure it was some kind of triumph," she said, describing
elderly women handing their identification cards over to Israeli soldier
after Israeli soldier -- determined to cast a ballot in the election.
Voters overwhelmingly elected Yasir Arafat as chairman of the
Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and assembled an
88-member Palestinian Council.
A quota system assured that in a largely Muslim Palestinian society
that is only 2 percent Christian the council would include at least six
Christians. Two each were elected from East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, one
from Ramallah and one from Gaza.
"That's a credible way of confirming the [Christian] witness within
the Palestinian Authority's system," Dr. Harry Hagopian, chair of the
Middle East Council of Churches, told the Presbyterian News Service,
stressing the need for government to reflect the pluralism within the Arab
Hagopian said 30 people from the world's ecumenical community came to
work as election monitors, working hand-in-hand with the larger team of
more than 1,500 international poll watchers, including those gathered by
The European Union and Atlanta's Carter Center. Hagopian said the
ecumenical community has maintained a longstanding commitment over the
years to Palestinian Christians, an often ignored minority.
In a press conference here Jan. 21, former President Jimmy Carter
described Saturday's election as a "first step toward democracy for
Palestinians," a hope articulated 19 years ago in the Camp David Accords
mediated by the former president.
Describing trouble at the polls in East Jerusalem and Hebron as
exceptions, Carter said nothing took place in the overall elcetion that
supressed the will of Palestinian verter, despite some irregularities. He
said the Central Election Commission was tracking down several missing
ballot boxes and looking again at disorganization in polling stations with
high turnout and at some problems ensuring secrecy of the ballots.
Carter told reporters Israeli police initially were an intimidating
presence at East Jerusalem polls -- videotaping voters and arresting at
least three Palestinian election observers. He said Israeli military
authorities remedied those problems by afternoon. He also said there were
reports of intimidation by party agents and Palestinian security officials,
particularly in parts of the Gaza Strip.
Both East Jerusalem, where most Palestinians live, and Hebron reported
low voter turnout.
"Two years after the first [Israeli-Palestinian peace] signing, [many
in Hebron] believe things have gotten worse," Cliff Kindy of North
Manchester, Ind., told the Presbyterian News Service. That despair, he
said, was reflected by a less than 50 percent voter turnout in Hebron, a
city where Kindy says the economy continues to go downhill and where many
Palestinians are skeptical about the freedoms promised to them within the
current peace agreement.
He said many in Hebron are well aware that at least 70 percent of the
West Bank will remain in Israeli hands and that the soon-to-be-unoccupied
Palestinian towns will remain isolated from each other because Israel
retains rights to the land in between those towns -- rights that perpetuate
Israeli army patrols and checkpoints.
Kindy has spent 15 weeks as a member of a Christian Peacemaker Team in
The Rev. Mark Brown of the Lutheran Office for Government Affairs in
Washington, D.C., who feels hopeful about the election process and who has
long ties to Middle East churches, describes Saturday's election as a
"preparatory step toward full realization of Palestinian rights ... and an
important step toward their national institution-building, based on a very
Reports of 90 percent voter turnout in Gaza were borne out in Brown's
experience as a poll watcher there.
The focus here in the Arab Christian community is now turning to May
talks that will determine how Jerusalem will be governed -- a question many
consider the most sensitive topic in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace
process. "We need to raise our voices in calling for a just peace for all
people of the land," the Rev. Canon Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Liberation
Theology Center in Jerusalem told reporters on the opening day of the
center's conference on "The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians and of
Christians for Jerusalem."
Though Israel touts its 3,000-year history in Jerusalem, Ateek said
Christians have ties going back 2,000 years and are often an ignored
minority in the political debate. "The Palestinian Christian community in
Palestine and in Israel is only 2 percent of the population ... a very
small number," he said. "But we have a great heritage ... and we refuse to
"We do not want our voice to be heard alone," Ateek said, calling on
Christians throughout the world to insist that governance of Jerusalem
preserve the rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Palestinian Christians complain that Israel frequently closes its
borders to Palestinians from the West Bank, Jericho and Gaza, stopping them
from going to their jobs and keeping both Muslims and Christians from
worship sites in Jerusalem's Old City.
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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