Historic Vote Catapults Palestinians Closer to Peace and Nationhood

IN a historic vote Saturday for their first elected government, Palestinians put a stamp of approval on peace with Israel, with a decisive 75 percent voter turnout.

"People can now start taking decisions by themselves," says Munir Issa, a young Palestinian from Bethlehem voting for the first time.

Yasser Arafat, the former guerrilla leader who negotiated peace with Israel, became president with 85 percent of the vote. He now has a mandate to deal more effectively with both his Israeli counterparts and Islamic opposition leaders.

"I think you could say that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank ... have accepted that peace will come in stages," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.

Islamic militant groups that oppose peace with Israel, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, did not disrupt the vote although they did not participate. Their passive resistance also appears to bolster Arafat's position as leader.

But the election was not violence-free. On the eve of the poll, three Palestinians were killed at an Israeli road block in Jenin; and on voting day, one election official was shot dead by a Palestinian policeman after the official ordered the policeman to leave.

In the election for an 88-seat Palestinian Council, independent candidates - many of whom favor peace with Israel but oppose Arafat's methods - appeared to have fared well, raising the prospect of building a governing body that does not serve as a rubber stamp for Arafat.

Front runners include former Palestine Liberation Organization negotiators Hanan Ashrawi, who won a seat from Jerusalem; and Haider Abdel-Shafi, who won a Council seat from Gaza.

For the first time, Arafat, who has a reputation for ruling in an autocratic way, will have to listen to the advice of an elected Council made up of members of his ruling Fatah faction and independents who are critical of his style. And this Council will have the power to choose his successor.

"We are being liberated piece by piece," says Bir Zeit University's Ali Jarbawi. "The question is whether all the pieces will come together."

Turnout was lower in areas Israel still occupies. Only 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in East Jerusalem, where Israel had 4,000 policemen deployed.

International observers protested the "intimidation" voters were subjected to by Israeli policemen, the lack of privacy for voters, and the harassment of voters at Israeli security checkpoints.

"I don't think there is any doubt they [the police] are doing everything they can to intimidate the voters," said former President Jimmy Carter, who is leading a team of international observers.

The election also opened a potentially new era for Palestinian women by putting women's issues on the political agenda in a society where women are relegated to second-class citizens. Twenty-seven of the 672 candidates were women.

In a departure from Muslim tradition, many Palestinian women arrived at the polls unaccompanied by men.

"I think this election will achieve a better position for women," says Afaf al-Batsch, a Hebron woman wearing the traditional Arab scarf to cover her head.

The Israeli government, which has had a central role in forging the shape of Palestinian self-rule institutions and logistical arrangements for the elections, expressed satisfaction with the voter turnout.

"The vote also effectively confirmed that a majority of the Palestinians back the agreements [between Israel and the PLO]," said Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres after the polls closed on Saturday.

Mr. Peres also said that members of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO's parliament in exile, would be allowed to return soon for talks on changing the PLO charter, which still calls for the destruction of Israel.

Arafat has promised Peres that within two months of the poll, he will try to persuade the PNC to amend the charter. But senior PLO officials have warned that Israel will first have to release all Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to begin "final status" negotiations in May, which will include the final disposition of the Palestinian entity, the future status of Jerusalem, the position of some 130,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and the future of about 3 million Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab states.

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