Battle of the ballot box On eve of election, war of words presages struggle for Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- What do you call a box into which voters put their ballots?

Call it a voting receptacle. Call it a mailbox. Just don't call it a ballot box, Israel says.


The latest battle for control of Jerusalem has begun over a myriad of small and seemingly petty symbols as Palestinains prepare to vote tomorrow in their first national election.

Symbols such as what to call the act of Palestinians casting ballots in Jerusalem.


"This is not an election in East Jerusalem," insists Maj. Gen. Oren Shahor, the Israeli coordinator of government activities. "It's something else. It's a special arrangement."

He and other Israeli officials argue that the rules of the election have been laboriously negotiated, and they feel no need to go beyond what's been agreed upon. Palestinians often quarrel with Israeli interpretations, but for the most part concede that many of the rules were set in negotiations.

Israeli officials hogtie themselves linguistically as they struggle through interviews, trying not to use the word "vote" in describing what Palestinians will cast in East Jerusalem.

Whatever it is called, it will not, General Shahor insists, be put in a ballot box. At least not in a box the size and shape of all the other ballot boxes to be used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After much wrangling, the Israelis dictated that votes in East Jerusalem will be collected in a box slightly smaller than the other ballot boxes, and with a slot on the side, not the top.

These small and symbolic squabbles are a preview of the passionate fight to come over Jerusalem, in which even making the ballot boxes for Jerusalem the same as those in the Palestinian-controlled territories would seem to be a concession.

The status of Jerusalem, claimed as a capital by Israelis and Palestinians, is to be decided in formal negotiations to begin in May and finish within three years.

About 160,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem and about 420,000 Jews live in West Jerusalem, with clear lines of segregation between them. Israel insists that it will never relinquish control of East Jerusalem and is fighting the appearance of any encroachment of Palestinian sovereignty.


Arabs in East Jerusalem may vote for the president and for candidates on the 88-member Palestinian Council that will be elected tomorrow. Campaigning officially ended yesterday, leaving a one-day break before 1 million registered Palestinians go to the polls.

In Jerusalem, Israel has tried its best to keep the campaign hidden. Human rights groups -- including Israeli organizations -- have complained about complications raised by Israel.

"Candidates in East Jerusalem are subject to differing restrictions, which hinder free and fair elections and the rights of the candidates," complained the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

The 52 candidates for the seven Palestinian Council seats in Jerusalem are required to have an official residence outside the city. When they drive through Israeli army checkpoints to campaign, soldiers force them to remove campaign signs from their cars.

Israeli police have ordered outdoor political rallies to move indoors and regularly ripped campaign posters from telephone poles and "unauthorized" locations.

Some 52,000 Palestinians have registered to vote in Jerusalem, but Israel has made provisions for only about 4,500 to cast ballots in the city. The rest must travel through checkpoints to the West Bank to vote. Israel says that was all it agreed to in negotiations with the Palestinians, a point not contradicted by Palestinian authorities.


The 4,500 who will vote in East Jerusalem will go to post offices. Israel refuses to call it voting and insists that it only is accepting "mailed votes" that will be transferred to the elections registrar.

Israel insists that those post offices will be open for regular business, even though most usually are closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Palestinians see the move as an invitation to conflict if right-wing Israelis use the open post offices as an excuse to try to disrupt voting.

"They are putting gasoline beside the fire," said Faisal Husseini, the Palestinians' chief official in Jerusalem. "We know what the Israeli right wing can do. There will be violence and more."

Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem's right-wing mayor, complains that the Israeli government already has forfeited Jerusalem by agreeing to allow voting inside the city.

"Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is one of the 16 voting districts for the [Palestinian] autonomy council," he complained. Mr. Olmert regularly rails when foreign diplomats meet Palestinians at Orient House, the East Jerusalem offices of Mr. Husseini.

The Palestinians are fighting suspicions among the voters that Mr. Olmert or right-wing bureaucrats in the Israeli government might revoke the Jerusalem residency card -- which gives such worker benefits as health insurance -- of anyone who votes in the Palestinian election.


A young Israeli activist of Mr. Olmert's Likud Party plastered East Jerusalem with posters this week threatening such consequences, despite denials by Israeli government officials of any repercussions for voting.

Palestinians, in turn, are fanning the embers of the Jerusalem issue with their campaign rhetoric. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, often makes allusions to Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, language that is incendiary to the Israelis.

And virtually all the Palestinian candidates have sworn to uphold a platform that includes regaining control over at least East Jerusalem.

"The battle over Jerusalem has started," said council candidate Hanan Ashrawi, campaigning yesterday. "We must continue the struggle until we gain our capital."