A member of Jerusalem’s municipal council has filed a judicial appeal on behalf of Jerusalem’s Arab residents, asking that they be allowed to vote in west Jerusalem so as to avoid Palestinian pressure to boycott the electoral process.

Meir Margalit, a member of the left-wing Meretz faction who also holds the East Jerusalem portfolio in city hall, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview that the petition was sent to Supreme Justice Salim Jubran, head of Israel’s Central Election Committee, last month.

Municipal elections are scheduled to take place across Israel on October 22. Most of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents — who account for some 40 percent of the city’s total population of 800,000 — boycott the municipal elections in protest against the extension of Israeli law to its eastern section since 1967. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

“Many activists in East Jerusalem have requested that they be able to vote in ballot boxes in the west so as not to have to face the heavy pressure placed on them [not to vote] from hostile elements,” Margalit said.

“We have been hearing this request for years,” he added. “East Jerusalem residents do not have representatives in the city council, so we (Meretz) have effectively become their representatives.”

A spokesman for the Jerusalem Municipality told The Times of Israel that he was aware of the pressure placed on Arab residents not to vote, but said that beyond placing Border Patrol soldiers on guard outside polling stations in East Jerusalem, there was little that city hall could do to tackle the phenomenon.

“It is similar to the pressure placed on the ultra-Orthodox community by certain rabbis to vote for a certain candidate. There, too, there is nothing we can do.”

Jerusalem Municipal Council member Meir Margalit (photo credit: Facebook)

Jerusalem Municipal Council member Meir Margalit (photo credit: Facebook)

The biggest issue irking Jerusalem’s Arab residents is their inability to build legally due to the absence of a master plan for East Jerusalem. That is not an oversight, Margalit argued, but part of a longstanding government policy to “make their lives so miserable that they prefer to leave Jerusalem of their own volition and move to the Palestinian Authority.”

Margalit would not specify who exactly was pressuring residents not to vote in October, but said he maintains ongoing contact with local leadership, members of the Palestinian Authority, and even the Jordanians, in a bid to convince Jerusalem’s Arab residents to cast their ballot in the upcoming elections.

“When I speak to Palestinians I tell them that the decision to boycott the elections is a political and historic mistake. If they would turn out massively, all these phenomena of discrimination, the Israelization of East Jerusalem, and the rampage of settlers [there] would stop.”

Margalit added that for Palestinians, voting in the upcoming municipal elections is “almost a matter of life and death.”

“If they wait another five years until the next elections, they will have nothing left to save. Most of the land in East Jerusalem will be in settlers’ hands.”

Shaher Shabaneh, a resident of East Jerusalem, said that he joined Meretz in recognition of Margalit’s activities in East Jerusalem.

“I predict 10,000 people will vote for Meretz in East Jerusalem,” Shabaneh told The Times of Israel, adding that any resident who received help from Margalit in canceling a demolition order or a fine had an obligation to vote for his party.

It is, however, illegal for Arab Jerusalemites who are not Israeli citizens (the vast majority) to join Meretz as members. 

Shababneh said he could understand the widespread boycott of the elections, though, attributing it to the feeling that East Jerusalem receives no municipal services for the taxes it pays.

“We don’t feel wanted,” he said.

In particular, house demolitions right before the elections cause East Jerusalem residents to stay home and boycott them, Shabaneh noted, expressing the wish that no such actions take place this time.

Margalit’s criticism is not reserved for city hall, however. He argued that Palestinians could do much more to improve their own living conditions.

“They should learn from the activity of the Jewish Agency abroad,” he said in his South American-accented Hebrew. “There is no reason why they can’t improve their educational system, make sure that every child has a seat [in school] and prevent student dropout.”