From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Democracy Blooms as Palestinians Hold First Elections

Date 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 
community here. 
     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 
democratic foundation." 
     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 
be marginalized. 
     "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   Web page: 


Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home