Breaking boycott, some East Jerusalemites vote in hope for better services

All Palestinian ‘My Town’ list draws hundreds to ballot boxes in one neighborhood, though elsewhere traditional ban on voting in local election persists

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

A Palestinian from Jerusalem prepares to cast her vote during local elections on October 30, 2018, in Shuafat, East Jerusalem. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
A Palestinian from Jerusalem prepares to cast her vote during local elections on October 30, 2018, in Shuafat, East Jerusalem. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

In the lobby of a makeshift polling station set up at a school in the middle of Jerusalem’s Sur Baher neighborhood, Ruba Dabash, wearing a colorful head covering, waited for her husband, mother, and other family members to finish casting their ballots.

Dabash, 28, had just voted for the first time in her life. She said she cast her ballot for Jerusalem, My Town, an all Palestinian list, whose members are running for seats on Jerusalem’s city council.

On Tuesday, municipal elections were held in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. In East Jerusalem, where Palestinian residents have generally boycotted the election, the emergence of the first all-Palestinian list in years, possibly ever, generated excitement, at least in Sur Baher.

“I hope it will win because I believe we need Palestinian voices in the municipality who can represent us and bring better services to our side of the city,” Dabash said, referring to the all Palestinian list. “We need better schools, sidewalks, and roads.”

Ramadan Dabash, a Palestinian resident of Sur Baher running for Jerusalem’s city council, at his second home in Beit Hanina, July 2018 (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem, My Town, is led by Sur Baher native Ramadan Dabash, who is a relative of Dabash.

Throughout the early afternoon at the polling station set up at the Ibn Rushd School in Sur Baher, several dozens of locals arrived to cast ballots.

As of 1:30 p.m., approximately 400 Palestinians had cast ballots at the school, according to a polling worker who asked to remain unnamed.

A picture taken from the Mount of Olives shows the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock shrine in the center, on December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

However, in other parts of East Jerusalem, far fewer Palestinians turned out to the polls to vote.

For example, as of 3:15 p.m. in Jerusalem’s Abu Tur neighborhood, only 25 Palestinians had voted at a polling station at the Abu Tur School for Girls, according to a polling worker, who also requested anonymity.

For decades, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have boycotted local elections in Jerusalem. In the last municipal vote in 2013, less than one percent of them cast ballots.

Activist Aziz Abu Sarah briefly became the sole Palestinian candidate for mayor of the city earlier this year, but dropped out after vociferous protests, including threats, against him and his list, as well issues over his residency status.

Jamil al-Ayyan, 49, and Osama Hamad, 49, at a polling station in Jerusalem’s Sur Baher neighborhood on October 30, 2018. Both Ayyan and Hamad voted in Tuesday’s election. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Thirteen inhabitants of Sur Baher, who cast ballots and spoke with the Times of Israel Tuesday all said they had voted for the Jerusalem, My Town list.

“I gave my vote to Ramadan’s list because we need someone who will fight for our interests and rights in the municipality,” Jamil al-Ayyan, a 49-year-old first time voter, said. “We pay taxes but don’t receive adequate services. If God wills, his list will win many seats and we will see improvements here.”

East Jerusalem suffers from high poverty, a shortage of some 2,000 classrooms, a lack of permits to build homes, inadequate sanitation services, and several other problems, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an Israeli human and civil rights group.

And even though the residents of the eastern half of Jerusalem make up 37 percent, or some 327,700, of the city’s approximately 882,700-strong population, the municipality only invests approximately 10% to 12% of its budget in it, according to Danny Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a NGO that tracks political developments in the city.

Polling station at the Ibn Rushd School in Sur Baher on October 30, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Nine of the 13 Sur Baher residents, who casted ballots and spoke to the Times of Israel, said they were first time voters.

Seven of them also said they are family members of Dabash.

Dabash, a former member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, father of 12 children and husband of four wives, has said his list is committed to improving services for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

“We are not telling anyone to become Israeli, change their religion, give up the Al-Aqsa Mosque or join the Israeli army,” Dabash, who obtained Israeli citizenship in 1995, said in an interview in July. “We are saying that we need to make sure we receive better services. We need to have a voice on the city council to fight for our rights.”

On Tuesday, 12 other Palestinians in Sur Baher, who spoke to the Times of Israel, vowed they would not vote in the elections, with some accusing Palestinians who cast ballots “traitors.”

“I absolutely will not vote because I am a Palestinian nationalist and refuse to normalize Israel’s occupation,” Abdullah, a 25-year-old sandwich shop owner in Sur Baher, said. “As far as I am concerned, those who are participating in these elections are traitors.”

A view of the Arab village of Sur Baher from one of the main streets leading out of Armon Hanatziv. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Other Sur Baher residents, who said they would not vote in the elections, contended that even if Palestinians win seats on the municipal council, they will not be able to effect change.

“Palestinians should not vote in these elections because they are an attempt to cement the occupation’s control over East Jerusalem,” said Azmi, a 27-year-old Sur Baher local. “They also should not vote in them because nothing will come out of them. Even if Ramdan’s lists wins seats, it will not be able to change anything. Israel will not allow for that to happen.”

In the past several months, Ramallah-based Palestinians officials have called on Palestinians in East Jerusalem to maintain their long-held boycott of the local vote.

Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, recently issued a call on Palestinians in East Jerusalem to refrain from voting.

“Participating in the elections will help the Israeli establishment in promoting its ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project… and play a complementary role in implementing its colonial settlement plan and ethnic cleansing operations,” Erekat said in a statement in June.

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