When Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas called the Palestinian voting on Wednesday an “elections festival,” he sure wasn’t kidding.
And this was no truer than at a polling station in East Jerusalem. Israel had considered banning balloting in Jerusalem since Arabs here are residents of Israel not the PA, though citizens of neither.
It was hard to believe this was still Jerusalem. The west side of the city, the predominantly Jewish side, carried on as usual with people scurrying to work or sitting in cafes. But just across the main dividing road, Highway 1, the primarily Arab population was in the throes of democracy.
It felt like a cross between a political demonstration and a wedding celebration outside the polling station on the busy Salah Adin Street, across from the Old City walls and a couple hundred meters from Damascus Gate and the Garden Tomb. Half of the crowd of hundreds was loudly chanting candidates’ names while the other half just watched.
Colorful fliers were strewn all over the ground, men gathered in circles discussing politics, children were dressed in political garb, reporters fanned out interviewing voters.
Ammad Abu Sneini, wearing a yellow apron with his candidate’s picture emblazoned on the front, was handing out fliers and encouraging people to vote for his independent candidate, Dr. Adnan Arafi.
“It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as they put food on the table and make a better life for us,” he said. Then, pointing to the group of young Arab men chanting on the steps outside the post office, asked, “Where’s the democracy? There’s 1,000 police here checking identity cards. The area is closed off. People are scared to come out.”
Who is more intimidating to the voters - the police standing guard or the political groups, like the terrorist organization Hamas?
He laughed, but didn’t clarify. “You know what I mean,” he said. I still wasn’t sure.
In fact, several thousand Israeli police were dispatched around Jerusalem to maintain order and protect the voters. But they were nowhere near the polling stations. They kept out of sight. I myself walked up to the polls freely without being asked for ID.
The voting rate in East Jerusalem stood at about 50 percent, a much higher turnout than in the previous elections 10 years ago. Voter turnout overall reached 78 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters, according to the Elections Committee; 82 percent in Gaza and 74 percent in Judea, Samaria and east Jerusalem.
Some of those hanging around the East Jerusalem Post Office came simply to watch democracy in action. Two young men, both who live in East Jerusalem but work and study in Jewish West Jerusalem, said they were apathetic about the elections.
“We’re all about fun, that’s what we care about,” said Mohammed Abu Salameh. “I don’t care about politics, just as long as I have a better life, a better job.”