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For Jerusalem Arabs, municipal elections are a Jewish game

Residents of Beit Safafa show their disdain for both candidates by staying home

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A poster in Arabic calls on Beit Safafa residents to vote for Ultra-Orthodox mayoral candidate Haim Epstein (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
A poster in Arabic calls on Beit Safafa residents to vote for Ultra-Orthodox mayoral candidate Haim Epstein (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Standing outside the community center of Beit Safafa, Jerusalem councilman Meir Margalit looked grim. The time was 9:30 a.m., two and a half hours after polls opened, and only two villagers had shown up to vote.

“I came here even though I know the number of voters in Beit Safafa will be particularly low,” Margalit told The Times of Israel as he debriefed a teenager wearing a bright green T-shirt on voting procedures, handing him a pile of Meretz ballots to distribute to potential voters as samples. The teen later said he was on sick leave from work, convinced by his cousin to come and make a quick buck.

Enclosed between the Jewish neighborhoods of Gilo, Katamonim, and Malha in southern Jerusalem, the story of Beit Safafa differs from that of Jerusalem’s other Arab neighborhoods. Half the village lay within Israeli jurisdiction since 1949 and was united with the other half following the Six Day War of 1967. In stark contrast to most Palestinians living in Jerusalem who only hold residency cards, some 70 percent of the village’s residents are full Israeli citizens.

That does not make them any less bitter towards city hall, or the central government for that matter. Quiet Beit Safafa erupted in violent protests in February as work began on a new six-lane expressway severing the village in two. Eight months later, anger still keeps residents from casting their ballot.

“Unlike previous years, residents are very angry with the story of Begin Boulevard. There is some kind of call in the village to boycott the elections,” Margalit said. “If every one of the East Jerusalem residents we helped would turn out to vote, we could get 20 seats.”

Meretz council member Meir Margalit stands outside the polling center at Beit Safafa, October 22, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Meretz council member Meir Margalit stands outside the polling center at Beit Safafa, October 22, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

It was apathy rather than anger, however, which seemed to dominate the public mood in Beit Safafa. With the exception of one poster in Arabic strangely endorsing ultra-Orthodox candidate Haim Epstein, political propaganda — so prevalent in Jewish Jerusalem — was nowhere to be found in the village.

“Whether we vote or not, city hall and the government will do whatever they want,” said one local man, wearing a badge in Hebrew and Arabic stating he was an usher.

Evyatar, a Ra’anana resident, was rolling a cigarette on the community center’s balcony as he waited for locals to arrive at the voting station he was tasked to oversee.

“I’d be really glad if people turned out to vote. You know, democracy and all that,” he said. “But as an employee, [their absence] makes my life easy. I guess every situation has winners and losers.”

A few hundred yards away, at the village’s other polling center located in the local high school, Gilo resident Yaakov, secretary of poll 466, was basking in the sun and eating a tuna sandwich.

“No one showed up to my poll yet,” he said, as the clock struck ten. “Everything is ready, but the guys aren’t coming.”

Palestinians make up more than a third of Jerusalem’s 800,000 residents, but in the last municipal elections just 2 percent cast their ballots. Experts attribute this to pressure and intimidation by the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party, and to the sense of Jerusalem Palestinians that voting would legitimize Israel’s control over the eastern part of the city.

Yaakov quickly calculated that according to that statistic he should not expect more than 10 voters by the time polls close at 10 p.m.

“What a waste,” he said, referring to the five-hour training he underwent last month to learn the intricacies of overseeing the voting process. “Maybe people will come home from work later and reconsider.”

Ahmad Alayan, a local loitering outside the polling center, said he missed the days of legendary mayor Teddy Kollek.

“He used to come before elections and sit with the village elders, promising to improve housing, roads, things like that,” Alayan said. “The entire village would turn out to vote for him. People still talk about him. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to see the mayor pass by the village.”

A taxi pulled up next to Alayan, its driver shouting at the men standing outside the school.

“Why are you voting? Give them back an empty ballot box,” the driver yelled. “We were born in this country, and every mayor we voted for just made it worse for us. Any Arab who takes part in these elections has no self-respect.”

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