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Palestinian Hopes Clash With Realities in 2005

In just a few weeks, on January 25, Palestinians are expected to go to the polls to vote in legislative elections. The voting will take place one year after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won an overwhelming victory in his bid to lead the Palestinian people, and less than six months after Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. VOA's Jim Teeple reports 2005 was a year of progress and disappointment for Palestinians, who rejoiced at the return of Gaza, but suffered from continued economic deprivation and a worsening security situation in their daily lives.

It is rare to find optimism anywhere in the Palestinian territories but in October as Israeli troops and settlers completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip there was such a moment. The young Palestinian singer, Hateem, sang of hope and self-determination in a song he composed especially for that moment when Palestinians took control of Gaza.

It was not to last. In the days following the Israeli withdrawal, Palestinians overwhelmed the Gaza border crossing with Egypt, forcing its closure. Violence between Palestinian factions spiraled out of control, foreigners in Gaza were kidnapped and militants took the opportunity to launch rocket attacks against Israeli territory.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israelis, says the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 underlined the need for Palestinians to rebuild their security forces.

"It is very shameful what we have seen in some quarters," he said. "We are ashamed of this. I am not proud of this, the kidnappings and so on. But we need to rebuild our security forces, and we will continue to exert maximum efforts in order to end the chaos."

Mr. Erekat says despite all the problems associated with the Gaza withdrawal, Palestinians viewed the process as an historic step towards self-determination and not as a missed opportunity to show the world Palestinians could govern their own territory effectively.

"We have witnessed the Gaza disengagement, which in my opinion was significant and the demolishing of settlements there that I believe was the event of 2005," he said. "I believe we did not miss an opportunity but we have to work as hard as possible in order to continue.

But now as Palestinians prepare to continue their progress towards self-determination by holding legislative elections on January 25, concerns with security have been surpassed by concerns over whether the elections will actually take place as scheduled.

Recently, the Islamic militant group Hamas swept West Bank municipal elections and polls show it could get as much as 30 percent of the vote in January. Israeli officials say they will not negotiate with any future Palestinian government that includes Hamas. The European Union and the U.S. Congress have also threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins a future government.

In a further complication, President Mahmoud Abba's ruling Fatah movement has split, largely along generational lines. One poll shows candidates closely allied with Mr. Abbas doing poorly and associates of the president have hinted that the vote might be postponed. Mahdi Abdul Hadi heads PASSIA, a leading Palestinian public policy institute. He says the elections are vital for Palestinian self-determination.

"The election is much needed today to legitimize the representatives of Palestine. The election is not for a hero, a warrior or a political icon or for a historical leader," he said. "The election is for representatives to serve the society, where we have water, electricity, sewage, education and health. This is not to end the occupation tomorrow; this is not to negotiate with Sharon, for a two-state solution. This is to maintain the identity and the culture and heritage and develop society towards state building "

Mahdi Abdul Hadi says Palestinians need to transform their society from one based on violent revolution to one based on the rule of law and democracy. He says that process got off to a good start one year ago with the election of Mahmoud Abbas, but now needs to be strengthened, by holding legislative elections on time, if Palestinians are to build on the gains they made in 2005.