January 20, 1996
Web posted at: 6:15 a.m. EST (1115 GMT)
From Correspondent Walter Rodgers and wire reports
WEST BANK (CNN) -- Polls opened in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem early Saturday, giving Palestinians their first chance to do something they have never done before: vote. Election officials say the early turnout to choose a president and legislative council is heavy.
"The biggest problem is that the ballot boxes which were designed to international standards filled up at 11 o'clock (0900 GMT), four hours after the polls opened," said Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian election commission.
To many Palestinians, voting means the chance to recover hope; others see it as a meaningless gesture. Abed Abu Diab says this election is about dreams. Not only is it the first time he's run for elected office -- a seat on the Palestinian Council -- it is the first time he will be allowed to vote.
For Diab and a million other Palestinians who have lived most of their lives under Israeli rule, these elections are the stuff dreams are made of.
"For 28 years, we were under occupation, and occupation means you lose your control of your destiny. By casting your vote you are regaining the control of your destiny. It is the meaning of voting," said Palestinian political analyst Ali Jirbawi.
Just over a million Palestinians registered to vote. Of the 90 percent eligible, more than a third of a million are in Gaza, over half a million are on the West Bank and more than 76,000 are in east Jerusalem.
Some say that the democratic process is being sold as a remedy for all that has befallen Palestinians.
"This will reverse the whole attitude of victimization. This will activate the people's participation. Voters will start creating systems rather than individuals. It is the beginning of the exercise of sovereignty," said Palestinian Council Candidate Hanan Ashrawi.
Until now, one individual, Yasser Arafat, has been the prime embodiment of the Palestinian cause, and few think the election will change that.
Arafat, expected to win the presidency by an overwhelming margin, has been criticized for conducting the election the way he ran the revolutionary Palestinian Liberation Organization: autocratically, arbitrarily, secretively, and without accountability.
"This is only rumors, false rumors, nothing else," Arafat said. "We are used to having some criticism in Gaza. It is part of our democracy, and we are proud of it."
Arafat's police have jailed journalists and human rights activists and have intimidated Palestinian newspapers. Winners of primary elections have been pushed aside and elections results ignored so Arafat's people could get on the ballot.
"He and others are finding difficulty adjusting to a new situation. There were lots of violations of the election law," said parliamentary candidate Moustafa Barghoutti.
The only alternative to Arafat's presidency is 73-year-old social activist Samirha Khalil. As many as 25 percent of Palestinians were expected to cast protest votes for her.
There seems to be a reservoir of anti-Arafat anger among voters. Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas in Gaza are boycotting the election because they believe Arafat has surrendered Palestinian interests to the Israelis.
If Arafat fails to improve the lives of the Palestinian poor, some of those angry young men could become the political beneficiaries.
And it is not just Islamic fundamentalists sitting out the elections. "I have three children in prison; my house was destroyed; may God curse Arafat's father," one woman said.
There is widespread discontentment over Israel's refusal to release the nearly 4,000 Palestinian prisoners it still holds.
Many poor people are boycotting the election, believing that only the affluent will realize any real benefits.
Intifada activist Mahmoud Najjar said he is refusing to vote out of disillusionment. "This deal is not what we fought for," Najjar said.
Najjar was badly wounded during the Intifada, the Palestinian revolt against Israel. Like many who battled in the streets to end the Israeli occupation, he accuses Arafat of favoring his PLO political loyalists.
Yet despite a backlog of doubt and disillusionment, most Palestinians want to give democracy a chance. They have lived next door to Israel and seen Israeli democracy and prosperity work for them. And they seem to be pinning their hopes as much on the new Palestinian council as on a Palestinian president.
The new Palestinian council will have 88 members elected from 677 candidates, most of them political unknowns. Yet the council is a big mystery. Can it override President Arafat? What is its legislative mandate? Can the president bypass or ignore the council? Where will it meet and how often? There simply has not been time to organize or write a constitution.
Despite the criticism and concern, something exciting is happening. Palestinian women are lobbying candidates for social security and health care. A disabled veteran of the Intifada pleads for national health insurance, not from an autocratic prince, but from a political candidate.
And the man for whom many thought this election would be a mere coronation at least pretends that he's running scared when asked what margin of victory he expects. Asked if he would consider himself in trouble if the percentage were lower than 75, Arafat responded, "I prefer 51," and laughed.
Best of all, Palestinians seem to be having fun. At an election forum skit, Palestinian candidate henchmen pay off some thugs to guarantee his election. They said their portrayal is not unlike politics in more mature democracies.
Just a few hours before polls opened, three Muslim militants were killed after attempting to disrupt the elections.
In the West Bank village of Jalameh, three members of Hamas fired on Israeli troops at an army roadblock. Troops returned fire and killed the assailants.
In response, thousands of angry Hamas activists marched through nearby Jenin and tore campaign posters from walls.
Palestinian police met with Hamas leaders to urge them to delay funerals for the Hamas members until after elections.
In the West Bank village of Idna, a Palestinian was shot dead when rival candidate's supporters each accused one another of collaborating with the Israelis.
In Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestinian police broke up a protest rally of some 100 opposition activists, shoving protesters and breaking two news photographers' cameras.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was in the West Bank along with an international team of observers. The group met with Palestinian human rights activists Friday, concerned about reports that journalists and campaign activists were arrested by Arafat's security forces. "Criticism of the central authority has not been permitted," Carter said.
Copyright © 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.