Palestinians Vote to 'Punish Fatah'

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Voter sentiment was the same from the crowded cities of the Gaza strip to hillside towns in the West Bank: It's time to teach the ruling Fatah party a lesson. As Palestinians lined up to vote Wednesday in their first legislative elections in ten years, many said that their government needed a shakeup. Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat and led today by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, is widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent. According to polls, around a third of all Palestinian voters now support Hamas, a radical Islamist group committed to destroying Israel but also widely viewed among Palestinians as a vehicle for clean and competent government. "I came here today to vote for Hamas," Mustaffa, 46, told Time outside a polling station in Hebron. "Perhaps my vote will contribute to getting rid of PA corruption." Hamas supporter Zahra was eager to talk up her party. "We have to prove to the whole world that Hamas is concerned about the future of the Palestinians," she said soon after voting. Asked what sort of future that would be, she walked on without replying.

In East Jerusalem, controlled by Israel but claimed by Palestinians as the capital of their future state, the sentiment was the same. "I hope Hamas does well," said Haytham Rajabi, 22, handing out leaflets for an independent candidate outside a voting station. "I get paid to give these out but my heart is with Hamas. They're a very good movement: clean and strong. They can be tough with the Israeli occupiers."

In the Old City of Jerusalem, holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, voter turnout Wednesday morning was low. Election observers and Palestinian party officials said that many voters were intimidated by the presence of Israeli security forces, and feared that by voting in Palestinian elections they may be forced to give up the right to live in Jerusalem — an idea Israel says is unfounded. Two hours after the start of polling just 17 people had voted at the small Jaffa Gate post office. The most exciting action came when Israeli settlers and right-wing politicians turned up to protest the fact that Palestinians were allowed to vote in Jerusalem at all. "This is the same as allowing Iraqi voters to vote for Al Qaeda and Zarqawi in a polling station in the Iraqi embassy in Washington D.C." far right-wing Knesset member Effi Eitam, part of one small protest, told Time. "If any single American can accept this then I'd like to know his name. This is a comedy of democracy. We are allowing murderers to be elected in the Holy City of Jerusalem."

Twenty feet away Fatah member Sumren Mohamed was handing out leaflets urging people to back the ruling party. "We will not make the same mistakes of the past," he said, when I mention that many Palestinians seem tired of corruption. "We are the party that will raise the flag of Palestine in this place again." Was he happy that Hamas activists were staying away from some East Jerusalem polling stations to avoid trouble with Israeli security forces? "Every organization should be here of course," he said quickly. "We are a democratic people. I don't think in your country that the government would want the opposition to be scared to campaign. Democracy is the right to vote, even if that means you lose power." In the next day or so, Palestinians will discover whether their democracy has gone that far.