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Palestinians united in Israel election apathy

New Knesset boss likely to be the same as the old boss.
Last modified: 20 Jan 2013 19:03
The Israeli "separation wall" annexes swathes of Palestinian land to Israel [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – Finding consensus in Palestine's fractious politics is often difficult, but there is one thing virtually all Palestinians agree on - it doesn't matter who wins Israel's election.

"It is not about which individual [becomes prime minister]; it's about a system of control," Yacub Masri, a Palestinian student, told Al Jazeera. "I don't know about the future of the peace process, honestly."

Because daily life in the Palestinian territories is controlled by the Israeli government through a series of checkpoints, and given that a peace deal or land agreements depend on who sits in the Knesset, one might assume that Palestinians would be interested in the outcome of Tuesday's vote.

But Israel's left and right are both viewed distrust here. "I think the Israelis believe the election will matter … and for [their] social programmes, it might," Shurouq Kawarik, a university student, told Al Jazeera. "But for Palestinians it will be the same - colonialism."

Settlement anger

The proliferation of illegal settlements on Palestinian land - land wanted by the Palestinians for a future state - is one of the most worrying issues for residents of Ramallah. In December, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 new homes in settlements. Palestinians, meanwhile, have been holding an intermittent protest camp through January to try and block new settlement expansion in the E1 region east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

"The conflict really boils down to the settlements, they are destroying the very essence of the idea of 'land for peace,'" Mohammed Alatar, a Palestinian documentary-maker based in Ramallah told Al Jazeera. "If you look at the history, every single Israeli government [since the West Bank was occupied in 1967] has built settlements; actually there were more construction under left governments than under the right."

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister who is likely to retain the post after elections, has vowed not to dismantle settlements. Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home Party, which has surged in the polls and could become a partner in a new governing coalition, has promised to expand settlement construction.

"Personally, I actually prefer a hardline government in Israel," Alatar said. "At least they are clear. Henry Kissinger [the former US secretary of state] once said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy. I think Palestinians understand this well."

Tax troubles

Nasser is an employee of Ramallah's infamous Star and Bucks coffee shop (not to be confused with Starbucks even though their logos are virtually identical). He didn't want his last name used, as he wasn't authorised to speak to the media while working, but the young barista is worried about the economy.

On Saturday, the sleek café was virtually empty. Usually it's full on weekends, he said. But that changed when Israel began withholding Palestinians' tax revenue that it is supposed to transfer to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel is refusing to release funds to the Palestinians in an apparent act of punishment against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestine had its status upgraded from an "entity" to a "non-member state" at the United Nations in December, provoking Israel's ire.

"The Israeli government took it [the UN vote] as an offence and they are taking revenge," Masri said.

Israel says the Palestinians owe money to Israeli utility companies, but it has admitted that the move was linked to the successful UN bid - approved by a margin of 138-9, with most of Israel's European allies backing the Palestinian move.

'How much worse could it be?'

UN membership theoretically gives Palestinians access to the international criminal court and other UN bodies to make their case against Israeli human rights abuses.

The effects of the withholding of tax revenue is filtering through the broader economy, worrying average employees such as Nasser. "We are waiting for the Jews to give the money back to the Palestinians," he said while sweeping the floor.

Israeli politicians consistently say that they do not have a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Public debates in Israel during election season are leading Palestinians to believe the same thing about Israel.

"It worries me what Bennett means for the Israeli public," Kawarik said. Bennett's party could partner with Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud after the election, pushing an already right-wing government further towards what many see as extremism.

Still, Kawarik and other Palestinians say they are ready to face whomever may lead the Knesset.

"We survived [Ariel] Sharon," she said. "How much worse could it be?"

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter as he reports on Israel's election: @AJEchris