Palestinians fear road to democracy could be difficult

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JERUSALEM — Palestinians are voicing mixed emotions about whether their first-ever elections will produce a Palestinian state.

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. Palestinians were out and about, shopping in the markets and lining up at the mosques.

Even those who support Yasser Arafat as president of the newly elected Palestinian Council 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, who did vote for two council candidates who 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."

Ayeh Castro, a restaurant owner in eastern Jerusalem, agreed. "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 Jaffa native, said 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. 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 Accords, 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 vote, Sabbagh, who now lives in East Jerusalem, called the Palestinians "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 hopes that sometime soon 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."

Mohammed Shuker, a 41-year-old restaurateur in Ramallah, wanted to see more opposition candidates running against Arafat, but he was satisfied that elections even took place.

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 woman 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."

But the first Palestinian elections will not be remembered as the cleanest vote ever. Dozens of candidates who failed to win a council seat complained of fraud, while candidates who thought their whole villages supported them lost. Others, who were considered sure losers appeared at the top.

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

Despite some problems, even the Likud moved closer to recognizing the new Palestinian entity. Likud Knesset Member Meir Sheetrit appeared on television and urged the Likud support the peace process.