Dozens of European Union observers to the Palestinian parliamentary elections began deploying in Palestinian areas Monday, undeterred by a wave of kidnappings and other violence that has swept through Palestinian streets in recent weeks.
They are operating under the assumption that the balloting will be held January 25, as scheduled, despite pressure by some Palestinian officials to postpone them any violence is controlled.
Among the observers, two security experts who assess the situation hourly and have various contingency plans in place to deal with possible security threats, said Chief Observer Veronique De Keyser, a European Parliament deputy.
"There is no zero risk," De Keyser said shortly before the 36 observers piled into taxis that were to take them to their assigned towns. "(But) I shall not take a risk which is unacceptable. We will never deploy if we think that the risk is real that they could be kidnapped, injured or wounded, or even prevented from doing their work".
Despite the risks, "Gaza has not become a [lawless] region… where nobody dares to go," she said. "I must show the commitment of the European Union to Gaza… It would be a bad sign not to go to Gaza".
Strict security procedures are in place to prevent kidnapping, such as prohibiting election monitors from going out on the streets alone, she added.
The EU observers will not be armed but will be protected by Palestinian security, it hasn’t been decided whether international guards would be assigned as an added layer of protection.
Palestinian gunmen frequently took over government and election offices, demanding jobs or election concessions. Lately, disgruntled police men took over a court and an election office Monday in the Gaza town of Rafah.
On Sunday, an Italian aide to a European parliamentary delegation was kidnapped in the Gaza Strip and released hours later.
Also, a British human rights worker and her parents were kidnapped last week and held for two days. So far, no foreigners have been harmed in the abductions
Many of the observers have been on missions to far more dangerous places, such as Afghanistan, Liberia and Kosovo. Most of the monitors who deployed on Monday monitored the January 2005 elections that brought Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to power, De Keyser said.
"We already know the potential problems," said Luis Castellar Maymo, a 30-year-old lawyer from Barcelona, Spain, who has monitored elections in El Salvador, Colombia, Lebanon and Gaza. "But we have huge experience. … We are used to operating in these kinds of contexts."
"Nothing will surprise me," stated Hanna Wolasiewicz, 42, a judge who works for the Polish Ministry of Justice, and has monitored elections in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and Serbia.
By the time the mission is fully in place a few days before the balloting, about 200 observers will be on the ground, including 30 European Parliament deputies, she reported.
With the increasing lawlessness, many senior Palestinian officials have asked Abbas to postpone the elections, but he has so far refused to do so.
"Our plan is election Jan. 25," De Keyser said. "We have no other plan".
Israel threatened to prevent thousands of Palestinians in east Jerusalem from voting, for fear this would encroach on its sovereignty over the disputed area of the city it includes in its capital.
Many Palestinian officials say elections should not be held if balloting cannot take place in the occupied East Jerusalem.