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News Analysis: is an Independent State of Palestine a Foregone Conclusion?

Shortly after the polls closed, the Palestinian leadership’s second in command rushed to announce the next national objective – Palestinian independence.

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, chairman of the central election committee, said the newly elected Palestinian Council would declare independence “within three years.”

A day later, he did not rule out the establishment of a Palestinian state even before the end of the three-year term of the new interim government.

The declaration set off a wave of discomfort among Israelis, some of whom view the prospect as an anathema.

Israel’s right-wing was still reeling from the announcement that Israel would issue visas to former terrorists who belong to the Palestinian National Council so it can convene to abrogate its covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.

Israeli officials such as Health Minister Ephraim Sneh played down the statement.

“What kind of a Palestinian state are they talking about?” he asked. “A state where we control 70 percent of the West Bank?”

Ridicule it as he may, the Palestinian state seemed to draw nearer as Israeli government spokesmen did not reject Abu Mazen’s statement out of hand.

They merely restated the official line, saying that the matter would be resolved in the negotiations on the final status of the territories, which are slated to begin in May.

Although the Labor Party sticks formally to its rejection of a Palestinian state, no one doubt that the “final status of the territories” most likely will mean an independent Palestinian state.

On the streets where voting took place, Palestinians were of a mixed mind whether the elections would lead to a Palestinian state.

Whatever their view, Palestinians took to the streets the day after their first election gave Yasser Arafat a resounding victory as president of the Palestinian Council.

Some 75 percent of roughly 1 million registered voters went to the polls for the first time in their history to choose the president of the Palestinian Council and members of the 88-seat body.

Arafat, 66, who has led the Palestinians for the past 30 years, won 88 percent of the votes. His only challenger, Samiha Khalil, an opponent of the Oslo agreement, received 12 per cent of the vote.

Perhaps it was nationalistic pride or perhaps it was the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, that made West bank towns and villages so crowded Monday. Whatever the reasons, larger than usual numbers of Palestinians were out and about, shopping in the markets and lining up at the mosques.

Many seemed excited by the elections and the prospect of self-rule. But few expressed full-fledged optimism about the future.

Even those who wholeheartedly support Arafat doubted whether he would be able to realize their dreams of an independent Palestinian state.

“I didn’t vote for Arafat,” said Nafez Abu Sharifeh, a 28-year-old computer engineer in the town of El Bireh, near Ramallah.

“I did vote for two council candidates because they are relatives. I don’t believe in the elections because the time is not right. We are still under Israeli occupation and in truth, the Palestinian Authority has no authority.”

This was echoed by Ayeh Castro, a restaurant owner in eastern Jerusalem.

“For me, the elections aren’t important, because I don’t care what [the Palestinian Authority] plans to do. This is Islamic land, but whatever Israel wants, the authority does. Arafat can’t say no.”

Castro, a 39-year-old native of Jaffa, admitted that he has a personal ax to grind with Israel.

“In 1948 my family was forced to flee Jaffa so we moved to Jerusalem. They took all our houses and land. Of 114 dunams, I have only 1 1/2 left. I have papers from the [British Mandate] period proving my ownership, not that it does any good.”

Others, like Alif Sabbagh, a 37-year-old Israeli Arab from the Galilee, say they would have voted, given the opportunity. Under the terms of the Oslo Agreement, Arab citizens of Israel were ineligible to vote in this week’s election. East Jerusalem Palestinians who voted are not Israeli citizens.

Obviously frustrated by his inability to go to the ballot box, Sabbagh, who now lives in East Jerusalem, said, “The Palestinian people are my people. I’m an Israeli citizen but I feel Palestinian. I have suffered like the rest of my people have suffered. My land has been confiscated and my brothers and I don’t know my uncle, a refugee living in Lebanon.”

Sabbagh expressed the hope that sometime in the near future Israeli Arabs “will be able to have dual citizenship, as some American Jews do. I hope we can participate in the negotiations over our future as Israeli citizens and Palestinians.”

While Mohammed Shuker, a 41-year-old restauranteur in Ramallah, would have liked to see more opposition candidates running against Arafat, he expressed satisfaction that elections took place at all.

In fluent Hebrew, he said, “Of course I’m happy that we had elections, since most people here support peace. Unfortunately, the road to democracy will be long and difficult. We need to learn and emulate other democratic countries – the United States, nations in Europe, even Israel. We have much to learn from Israel.”

The most upbeat note of the day was sounded by a young hairdresser named Taham.

“I’m not old enough to vote myself, but the rest of my family went to the polls,” she said. “It was so exciting and everyone is so happy. I can’t wait till the next elections, when it will be my turn.”

Although Arafat’s Fatah organization and its supporters were the clear winners in the vote for the council, some measure of opposition to Arafat was evident: the election of independent candidates who did not receive Arafat’s blessing in the elections.

Most prominent among them were Haidar Abdul Shafi, who served as the head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference, and later criticized Arafat for his authoritarian leadership, and Abdul Jawad Saleh, a former mayor of the West Bank town of El Bireh and critic of the current peace process.

The first Palestinian elections will not be remembered as the cleanest elections ever. By midweek, dozens of candidates who were not elected to the autonomy council complained of fraud, while candidates who could have sworn that their while villages were behind them were not elected.

Others, who were considered sure losers suddenly appeared at the top.

Hebron lawyer Hussein Shuyuhi, who complained of irregularities in the elections, was detained by Palestinian police Sunday and released only a day later, after the arrest was publicized in the Israeli media.

In the West Bank, 26 seats were won by those on official Fatah lists and in the Gaza Strip, 24 Fatah members won. Five Islamic activists were elected in Gaza, though Hamas stayed out of the elections.

Indeed, it turns out that Hamas discretely ordered its supporters to cast their ballots in favor of opponents of the peace process, some of whom were known Islamic activists as well as leftists such as Haidar Abdul Shafi.

The general elections, subject to last-minute changes, saw 50 candidates elected from the Fatah lists, 15 independents associated with Fatah, 13 independents not associated with Fatah, six Islamists, two Fida and one Communist. One seat was reserved for the Samaritans of Nablus.

Meanwhile, even the Likud moved closer to recognition of the new baby born next door.

Likud Knesset Member Meir Sheetrit appeared on television and urged that the Likud announce its support of the Oslo agreements and the peace process.

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