"I want the whole of Palestine, from the river to the sea"

Palestinians elect Mahmoud Abbas as their new leader, but some refuse to take part, fearing he will give everything away.

Published January 10, 2005 3:35PM (EST)

The Mugrabi family, who have paid dearly for the Palestinian uprising, reflect the divisions in Palestinian society over Sunday's presidential election. Mohammed, the only one of five sons neither dead nor in jail, voted but his father, Yusuf, refused to take part.

The family lives in a quiet spot in the crowded Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, looking out toward the Jericho hills. Their home has been demolished twice by the Israeli army since the uprising began in 2000. One of the sons was shot dead by the army that same year as he prepared to attack a Jewish settlement, and three others are in jail, one serving life sentences and the other two awaiting sentence for attacks on Israeli targets.

Yusuf Mugrabi, 54, who was in the Fatah organization that backs presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas, said he was not voting because he was not convinced it would make any difference. "I am afraid that Abu Mazen [as Abbas is known] will give everything away."

Mohammed, a former fruit seller who was Sunday helping to clear the rubble from the remains of the family's house, said he had chosen not to follow the violent path of his brothers. He went early Sunday to the school in the camp being used as a polling station: "I voted today for Abu Mazen. Maybe he will release the prisoners."

Mohammed was one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who turned up at the 1,077 polling stations in the West Bank and Gaza to vote in the first presidential election since Yasser Arafat was elected virtually unopposed in 1996. Many others joined Yusuf in staying at home. Expectations were generally low that Abbas will herald a significant change in relations with Israel.

Sayafa, a community of about 500 people in the north of Gaza, is normally closed except between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday, to help the Palestinians elect a successor to Arafat, the Israelis allowed the residents freedom to come and go between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

"It's like a festival. I cannot remember the last time I could leave the village without worrying about rushing back before the gates shut," said Adham Ghoul, 31, a farmer. The Israeli army, for the most part, honored its pledge to ease movement for Palestinians on polling day. Some checkpoints were removed while others were only loosely policed, and most of the normal queues disappeared. "I voted for Abu Mazen because I hope that it can become always like this. This is like being released from prison," said Ghoul.

His neighbor, Said Ghudeinah, 37, also a farmer, said he had walked for an hour to vote for Abu Mazen Sunday. "I wish he will bring us peace and end our problems so that we can live like anyone else in the world." However, like many Gazans, he felt that he had no choice but to opt for Abu Mazen. "The world has chosen him, so what can we do? Only God can tell if he will be a good leader. I was a member of Fatah, so whatever the movement says I will follow," he said.

In spite of the relaxation, the Palestinians and international election observers complained of restrictions. Roadblocks were still in place round Nablus, where an Israeli soldier was killed on Friday. The worst abuses were in east Jerusalem, which Israel claims is part of Israel, even though the bulk of the population is Palestinian. Allowing the Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem would be tantamount to acceptance that they have a claim on Jerusalem's sovereignty.

The Israeli authorities opened counters in only half a dozen post offices for Palestinians to vote in, not enough for the tens of thousands entitled to vote. Many Palestinians in east Jerusalem said they did not want to vote in case Israel used it as an excuse to remove their residency rights.

Among those turning up to cast a ballot at the post office in Saladin Street, under the walls of the Old City, and being unable to vote was Bader Salah, 31, a driver. He said he had registered to vote but the post office disputed it. He was taken instead by a minibus on a 20-minute drive to Zaim, which Israel classifies as part of the West Bank rather than Jerusalem.

The buses ferrying disappointed voters from Jerusalem to the outskirts were run by Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction. But Salah said no pressure was put on him to vote for any particular candidate. He refused to say who he had voted for but added: "I am pessimistic about Abu Mazen being able to deliver. Peace with these people [Israelis] is not possible."

Abdullah al-Jaferi, 22, a student, shared this sentiment. He voted at Dheisheh but said many others would not because they saw Abbas as the chosen candidate of Israel and the U.S. He voted for Abbas because he "is the only person who can provide us with security and a better life," though he said that in the end the Israelis would claim that Abbas was an obstacle to peace, just as they had with Arafat.

Mustapha Ehkmyis, 78, a refugee since 1948, was outside the polling station but refused to vote. "I support democracy but do not like any of the candidates. I will not vote for Abu Mazen because he accepts the idea of just the West Bank and Gaza. I want the whole of Palestine, from the river to the sea," he said.

The various factions taking part held noisy debates outside the polling stations, those in the black and white scarves of Fatah jostling with those in the red headbands of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But there was little violence.

By Ewen MacAskill

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