By Abdel-Raouf Arnaut
JERUSALEM (AA) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced plans to hold legislative elections on May 22 and presidential polls on July 31, for the first time in 15 years.
Concerns, however, have been rising that Israel might hinder the vote in the occupied East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
Around 340,000 Palestinians are estimated to be living in the occupied city, according to unofficial Palestinian estimates.
Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and rejects any sign of Palestinian sovereignty in the city, has yet to clarify its position regarding the polls.
On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh said his government will formally request Israel not to obstruct the elections in East Jerusalem.
Israel has not officially commented on Shtayyeh’s remarks.
Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem took part in previous Palestinian elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006 by casting their votes in six Israeli postal centers in the city. The votes were then sent by mail to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission.
The commission says the capacity of these offices does not exceed a total of 6,300 voters on a single polling day, while the rest of Jerusalemites must vote at polling stations set up in the city’s suburbs.
In the 2006 polls, 14 polling stations were set up in the suburbs of Jerusalem, according to the commission.
Palestinians are worried that Israel might block this year’s polls in East Jerusalem after the US recognition of the city as Israel’s capital in 2017 and amid preparations for the Israeli elections on March 22.
Abbas has repeatedly said that the Palestinian elections will not be held without Jerusalem.
In his recent decree for holding the polls, Abbas wrote: “The Palestinian people in Jerusalem and all governorates of the homeland are called to cast ballot in free and direct elections."
Jerusalem "is an integral part of the Palestinian territories, and elections will take place in the city as stipulated in the presidential decree”, Fadi al-Hadami, the Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, told Anadolu Agency.
"The elections took place in the past in Jerusalem and they will be held in the coming polls,” al-Hadami confirmed.
It is not clear how the Palestinian Authority (PA) will react if Israel bars the elections in East Jerusalem.
A Palestinian official, who spoke to on condition of anonymity, expressed optimism that a number of European and Arab countries will pressure Israel not to disrupt or block the polls in the city.
– ‘Jerusalem is alone’
Many Palestinians in the city, however, doubt that the PA will be able to improve their situation.
Salah al-Shawish, who owns a restaurant in Jerusalem’s Old City, expressed frustration that neither the PA nor Israel recognizes Palestinian residents there.
“Jerusalem is alone," al-Shawish told Anadolu Agency. "I do not think that the elections will achieve anything. Faces change and Jerusalem will remain targeted by Israel and the United States of America.”
The Palestinian resident said that the Jerusalemites are left alone to confront Israeli violations in the city.
Al-Shawish said he will not participate in the polls because “whether the elections are held or not Jerusalemites will remain alone and helpless”.
A Palestinian woman, who introduced herself as Umm Shadi al-Muhtaseb, criticized the PA for only appearing in Jerusalem during elections time.
"I do not think that the elections will present anything to the people of Jerusalem," she told Anadolu Agency.
“I will not participate [in the elections], why would I participate? When they present us with something, we will participate," she said.
Umm Shadi said voter turn-out during past elections has been low due to Israeli measures hindering the process “both technically and morally". She called for “better and more dignified ways and methods for voting in Holy Jerusalem."
According to the electoral commission, more than 18,000 eligible voters in East Jerusalem participated in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.
Following the 2006 polls, Israel arrested the lawmakers elected in East Jerusalem on charges of being members of the Hamas movement. The elected representatives were later banished to the West Bank after a decision was made to cancel their residency in the city.
In 1980, Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem declaring both East and West Jerusalem as "Israel's united capital". However, Palestinians there are not seen as Israeli citizens and cannot exercise their civil rights despite having permanent residence permits under "Jerusalem Identity Cards" given by Israeli authorities.
*Ibrahim Mukhtar contributed to this report from Ankara