As many as 1000 registration booths have been set up in schools and community centres, manned by some 3000 trained operatives.
No fixed date for the elections has been designated, ostensibly because of fear that the Israeli occupation army, which maintains a conspicuous presence in most Palestinian population centres, will not allow the elections to take place.
However, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is expected to finally announce a date for the elections later this year, pending “guarantees” from the international community.
The voter registration will last for eight weeks, extendable by another two weeks.
So far, turnout has been meagre despite an intensive publicity campaign by the Central Election Committee (CEC).
Possible reasons for that include acute economic hardship, lack of confidence in the PA and, more importantly, scepticism about the credibility of holding elections and practising democracy under a foreign military occupation.
“If you [the US] are serious about democracy in the Arab world, start with us here in Palestine and enable us to conduct a fair and orderly election”
Ali Jirbawi, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bir-Zeit University, is head of the CEC. He readily recognises the “many blemishes, flaws, snags and even non-starters facing the election process”.
He told Aljazeera.net that the Palestinians had no choice but to go ahead with organising the elections “because, after all, this is what our people want and what the world wants, probably except Israel and the United States”.
“Look if we wait for Israel to allow us to hold the elections, we will have to wait ages and ages. Israel is not interested in an election that will empower our people and reflect their collective will.
“Israel wants the sort of political reforms that would produce quislings and collaborators, not genuine representatives of the Palestinian people,” Jirbawi said.
He said Israel, possibly with the US, may eventually decide to prevent the elections from taking place.
“Then the world will see for itself who is serious about democracy in the Middle East and who is not,” Jirbawi said.
This theme is repeated by Abdullah Abdullah, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy foreign minister.
In an interview with Aljazeera.net, he lashed out at the international community for not pressuring Israel to allow fair, transparent and orderly elections to take place in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
“We will do all what we can to organise the elections sooner than later. But If Israeli tanks and Apache helicopter gunships prevent us from reaching the polling stations, then the world would have to shut up and stop its hypocritical calls for fostering democracy in the Middle East.”
He accused Israel of seeking to gut any Palestinian election of its democratic content.
“The Israelis have falsified history, and now they are trying to predetermine the outcome of our election,” he charged.
Palestinian leaders say they want
He also reserved some of his strongest criticism for the Bush administration which he said was at Israel’s beck and call.
“This administration is subservient to Sharon and his Likud party. I know it, you know it and the Americans known it. It is an administration that flies in the face of all American ideals from the First Amendment to the Wilsonian principles of liberty and democracy.
“I tell America which lectures us day and night about democracy: ‘If you are serious about democracy in the Arab world, start with us here in Palestine and enable us to conduct a fair and orderly election’.”
During the Oslo years (1995-2000), the PA resisted popular demands for local and municipal elections for fear that the anti-Oslo Islamic factions might win at the expense of the Oslo camp at whose helm stood PA chairman Yasir Arafat.
However, the virtual destruction of the PA security apparatus as a result of the Israeli reoccupation of the enclaves, coupled with a deepening political crisis continually hounding Arafat, has made the elections the only hope for a breakthrough from the current crisis.
This is the view of Hani al-Masri, a prominent political expert and regular columnist.
“You see there is no breakthrough in the peace process, the Israeli campaign of killing and home demolitions is continuing unabated, along with the land grab and settlement expansion.
“On the other hand, there is a near implosion within our society, the legislative council’s term has long expired, the very legitimacy of the PA is being increasingly questioned and chaos and lawlessness are rampant.
“So the elections is the solution.”
Masri predicts that should the elections proceed unhindered, the outcome would be utterly undesirable for Israel and the US, and perhaps for Arafat as well.
Results may limit Arafat’s power
“It is very likely that that most winners would include Islamists and true nationalists who would be truly faithful to Palestinian national aspirations for freedom and independence,” he said.
Such an outcome would be undesirable for Arafat and his “too moderate leadership” as it is perceived by many Palestinians.
“Such an outcome would greatly limit Arafat’s ability to compromise with Israel as he would have to deal with a new breed of lawmakers who would dare tell him, ‘no sir’, not ‘yes, sir, Yasir’.”
Hamas and other opposition groups have already voiced their willingness to participate in the elections, especially the local and municipal elections.
Duty to vote
Indeed, Islamic activists have been using mosque pulpits to urge citizens to register for the elections, saying it is “a religious duty” to do so.
Earlier this week, a Hamas leaflet rebuked the masses for their passivity and indifference.
“You want change, then work for it. Change will not fall from the sky, you make it by going to the registration booths now,” it said.
However, the people’s passivity and indifference are not really without reason.
Many ordinary Palestinians are convinced of the futility of holding elections “in the shadow of the barrels of Israeli tanks”, as Hebron taxi driver Muhammed Naji puts it.
“I think we are deceiving ourselves. By holding elections, we are telling the world that we have at least a semblance of sovereignty and independence when we actually don’t have a state.
“You want change, then work for it. Change will not fall from the sky, you make it by going to the registration booths now”
“Maybe we can speak of a prisoners’ election … that would be a more accurate description.”
So far, Israel has refrained from taking a clear stance on the elections, with Israeli officials refusing to say whether the army would allow the polls to take place.
But Ra’anan Geisen, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has accused the PA of using the elections as a “deceptive facade” to avoid “genuine political reforms”.
PA’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah’s response to this: “Elections are at the heart of any political reforms. The Palestinian people, not Israel, will choose their representative. Israel and its subservient friend [the US] must understand this.”
Palestinian leaders will be hoping the people believe this and choose to vote in droves while ordinary Palestinians will be hoping their leaders will use the election to bring about true reform.