Harsh realities overshadow Palestinian poll

Pictures of “martyrs” take pride of place here over posters of the newly-elected Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in this West Bank town on the doorstep of a rapidly expanding Jewish settlement.

“It’s not worth voting when you live like animals, without the right to come and go, and being kept in a cage by the Israeli government which wants to kill us all and be the only one in the Holy Land,” shrugs Ahmed Ayad, a local taxi driver in Silwad, which lies just outside Ramallah and counts some 8 000 residents.

The hometown of Khaled Meshaal, the radical Hamas movement’s Damascus-based leader, Silwad had one of the lowest turnout figures in the entire West Bank in Sunday’s poll with scarcely 1 000 ballots cast.

Mayor Nael Hamad, who took over the position only a week ago and is a member of Hamas, which boycotted the elections, is proud of the low turnout, stressing the Palestinian people’s right to fight against the Israeli occupation “with all the means in their power”.

“I respect Abu Mazen (Abbas) as our leader and I hope he does his job the best he can, but he cannot put an end to the armed struggle,” Hamad said, referring to Abbas’ repeated pledge to end the armed intifada.

Life for the residents of Silwad changed radically at the end of the 1970s when Israel began building the Jewish settlement of Ofra just metres away from the town.

Raed Mohammed Hassem, a 26-year-old petrol station attendant, who lives at the edge of the town, was only a child when the first settlers arrived and moved in literally next door.

Since then life has become a bitter tale of gunfire crackling night and day, roads blocked off for no apparent reason and military checkpoints preventing the sick from reaching hospital.

“At the start, nothing much changed, but after that, they cut off the main road. Instead of being 10 minutes to Ramallah, it now takes us an hour, and for me to come home from work I have to do a round trip of several kilometres when in the past it would take me five minutes on foot,” Hassem explains.

Despite the difficulties, Hassem says he has never once considered packing his bags.

“I’m not the one who should move,” he insists. “They should.” For him, voting in the second-ever presidential elections on Sunday “wouldn’t help at all” because it was clear from the start that Abbas would win.

“I didn’t vote because everything was already decided.
Israel and the United States wanted Abu Mazen to be elected and that’s what happened. So what difference would one vote more or less matter?” he asked.

Abbas’ decisive victory and all his promises of change provoke little enthusiasm in the town centre, where residents point out that not one of the seven candidates bothered to visit or even take the slightest interest in their lives.

“If he (Abbas) wants to relieve our suffering, let him fight to reopen the roads which the Israelis have shut to stop us from even getting to Ramallah,” argued the mayor.

For the taxi driver Ayad, everything would be much simpler if the Israeli government would just listen to those of its citizens “who do want peace with the Palestinians”.

He can still remember hearing stories told by his grandfather, who originally came from the northern port city of Haifa, now a part of Israel, about life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

“He said Jews, Christians and Muslims would all live in the same building and get on together without problems,” he said.

“But then the Israeli governments decided to split us up and create hatred.”—Sapa-AFP

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