Reporter's notebook

A young Arab woman seeks to make history by being voted into Jerusalem city council

In sit-down with Jewish voters, Sondos Alhoot speaks of her efforts to break a decades-long election boycott by the city’s Arab population and bring the two communities closer

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Sondos Alhoot, head of the Kol Toshaveha list, running for Jerusalem city council in the 2024 municipal elections, in a meeting with voters, February 19, 2024 (Ittay Flescher, courtesy)
Sondos Alhoot, head of the Kol Toshaveha list, running for Jerusalem city council in the 2024 municipal elections, in a meeting with voters, February 19, 2024 (Ittay Flescher, courtesy)

A week before local elections, a crowd of about 70 people crammed the living room of a Jerusalem home for a meeting with Sondos Alhoot, head of an Arab-Jewish slate for Jerusalem municipal council.

Since her first appearance on the Jerusalem political scene a few months ago, the 33-year-old Nazareth native has stirred interest not only among the city’s Palestinian residents but possibly even more among progressive Jewish voters.

“Alhoot in Arabic means ‘the whale,’ one that will swallow the right-wingers in Jerusalem,” she joked as she introduced herself to a mostly middle-aged audience, with a very significant Anglo presence.

Alhoot is the latest in a handful of aspiring Arab politicians who have run for election to the capital’s city council — all, so far, unsuccessfully — since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.

Palestinians make up 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population but, defying Israeli rule, boycotts have been their preferred political approach. East Jerusalemites’ participation in municipal elections has been near nil in every race since 1967. Their lack of political clout has contributed to the municipality’s severe neglect of Arab neighborhoods, with a visible shortage of investment in infrastructure and services.

Nevertheless, Alhoot is sanguine that in the upcoming municipal elections, to be held nationwide on February 27, things will be different.

Sondos Alhoot, head of the ‘Kol Toshaveha’ list, running for Jerusalem city council in the 2024 municipal elections, in a meeting with voters, February 19, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)

The language teacher, who was featured in a Times of Israel interview in September discussing her participation in the Kaplan protests against the judicial overhaul, made her first foray into the Jerusalem political scene a few months ago, as head of a ticket comprising exclusively Arab names. The slate was associated with mayoral candidate Waleed Abu Tayeh, the first Arab to run for the city’s highest office since the 1967 unification of East and West Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, the 31 members of the city council and the mayor are chosen separately, with voters casting two distinct ballots on election day.

Abu Tayeh, also a transplant from Nazareth, eventually stepped out of the mayoral race and took second place behind Alhoot in the city council slate, called Kol Toshaveha (All Its Residents).

“It was too long a shot for an Arab candidate to leapfrog to mayor,” Alhoot explained to her audience on Monday. “We should first focus on getting Arab representatives into the city council.”

Some of the slots on the original Arab-only slate became vacant after a number of withdrawals. Alhoot managed to replace them with Jewish candidates, thanks to the intercession of former Jerusalem deputy mayor Yosef “Pepe” Alalu, a veteran champion of Jerusalem’s secular population who has now transitioned into her unofficial campaign adviser. Her list today counts seven Arabs and nine Jews.

Sondos Alhoot (left), head of the electoral list ‘Kol Toshaveha’ in the 2024 Jerusalem municipal elections, sitting next to former Jerusalem mayoral candidate Waleed Abu Tayeh, Jerusalem, August 17, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Overcoming a seemingly unbridgeable divide

For someone campaigning to get a say in the management of a highly sensitive city perennially in the world’s limelight, where seemingly minor decisions can have international repercussions, Alhoot does not come across as terribly detail-oriented. She gave an unrealistic figure in response to a question from the audience about the total amount paid in taxes by Palestinian Jerusalemites and was wrong about a neighborhood she claimed to be within the municipal boundaries but is actually under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

However, the aspirant council member brings a vision, an energy and a message of unity and cooperation that one could argue are sorely needed in a conflict-riven city united only on paper.

Her background as a language teacher of Arabic to Jews and Hebrew to Palestinians has placed her in a privileged position to bridge between the city’s two halves, and instilled in her an awareness of the deep rift between Jewish and Arab residents, starting from the language gap.

While Arab Israeli citizens such as herself are mostly fluent in Hebrew, large swaths of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem have no mastery of the language and struggle in their day-to-day interactions with Israelis, for instance in communication with the authorities. Alhoot decried the mutual distrust existing between the two communities, with people afraid to venture into adjoining neighborhoods where they don’t understand the language.

“In East Jerusalem, some schools employ PE teachers to teach Hebrew. When that is the case, how do you expect kids to take the subject seriously?” she said.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya, on February 19, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

A Jerusalem resident since 2010, Alhoot recounted to her audience her multiple relocations over the years between Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, overpopulated and underserved, and Jewish neighborhoods in the West, neat and tended to but often beyond her means.

The contrast between the two halves of the same city struck her as intolerably unfair. Even when she resided in the upscale Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, which she described sarcastically as the “Las Vegas of East Jerusalem” because it has proper sidewalks, a rarity in the city’s east, she said it still did not compare with Jewish areas such as French Hill, where residents have parking spaces, bike lanes, and playgrounds at their disposal.

An end in sight to the election boycott?

Alhoot spoke of her attempts to break the longstanding boycott of city politics by East Jerusalemites, a major obstacle in her race.

In conversations with Palestinian residents, including some of the city’s entrenched clans, she said she has faced widespread opposition to “collaborating with the Israeli occupier,” all the more so during the ongoing war in Gaza, sparked by the brutal Hamas onslaught on October 7 that saw 1,200 murdered and 253 taken hostage to Gaza.

She said she has often been called a traitor by East Jerusalemites, who reject her message of coexistence with Jews at a time when Palestinians are being killed by the IDF in Gaza.

In response, Alhoot has strived to steer away from regional politics and center her campaign on solving citizens’ practical concerns.

“You call me a collaborator? You are already collaborating with Israeli authorities, you pay property taxes to the municipality. I’m not the traitor here. At least you should get something in return for your taxes,” she said she has replied to some of her critics.

Despite the accusations of “collaboration,” Alhoot claimed that interest in having a champion for Jerusalem’s Palestinians in the city’s control room is growing.

Arab neighborhoods suffer from chronic underfunding and institutional neglect, being granted almost zero building permits for new construction to meet the demographic growth while Jewish neighborhoods are in constant expansion.

In a recent visit to Kafr Aqab, a neighborhood wedged between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Alhoot recounted that local community leaders took her on a tour of the densely populated area, entirely forsaken by municipal authorities.

The neighborhood is formally located inside the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, but it lies outside the security barrier that encircles the city and is past a checkpoint. Jerusalem municipal workers do not venture inside Kafr Aqab, including the city’s police forces or garbage collectors.

Consequently, the area has turned into a squalid no man’s land, with no street lights, unmaintained roads and sewage, intermittent access to running water, and hourlong traffic jams on the main road leading to the checkpoint.

Palestinians try to remove a car submerged in a flooded street during heavy rains on a stormy day, in the village of Kafr Aqab, northern Jerusalem on March 12, 2014. (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)

Local community leaders, who reportedly declined to be photographed with Alhoot, conveyed to her their desire to have a voice in the city’s decision-making, she said, especially in light of the fact that many of them do not speak Hebrew.

On Thursday, Alhoot submitted a petition to the municipality to set up a polling station for the residents of Kafr Aqab, so that they will not be forced to spend hours in line at the checkpoint to reach the nearest location to cast their ballot.

Alhoot insisted that a sea change is still possible on February 27, and maintained that cracks are appearing in East Jerusalem’s long-term opposition to political participation, particularly after October 7.

While her joint ticket with mayoral candidate Abu Tayeh was formally denounced months ago in a fatwa by the imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, under pressure from the Palestinian Authority, Alhoot said that East Jerusalemites’ trust in Ramallah’s ability to provide for their needs has eroded. For instance, the PA has not come out to support the high number of people who lost their jobs as a consequence of the war, she noted.

Sondos Alhoot speaking in Hebrew and Arabic at a protest against the judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, July 1, 2023 (Facebook screenshot, courtesy)

The PA considers East Jerusalem to be the capital of the future State of Palestine. It maintains a governor in the city, has control over much of its education system, and is still very influential among the local population. But it is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, with nearly 60% of West Bankers demanding its dissolution and 90% wishing for the resignation of its long-term leader Mahmoud Abbas, according to a recent poll.

In Alhoot’s words, the aftermath of October 7 has prompted among East Jerusalemites a “sudden realization of the PA’s inefficiency and corruption.”

“The PA cannot stop talking about Al-Aqsa, but what have they really ever done for East Jerusalem?” she said.

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