'We're seeking equality. That isn't so controversial'

Palestinian who isn’t Israel citizen seeks court okay to run for Jerusalem mayor

Aziz Abu Sarah believes he can get 30% support from East Jerusalem Palestinians if allowed to run, says his candidacy does not represent recognition of Israel

Aziz Abu Sarah, would-be Jerusalem mayoral candidate  (YouTube screenshot)
Aziz Abu Sarah, would-be Jerusalem mayoral candidate (YouTube screenshot)

A Palestinian activist and educator from East Jerusalem is seeking to run for mayor in the city’s upcoming municipal elections, though Israeli law currently bars him from the race because he does not hold Israeli citizenship.

Aziz Abu Sarah is heading a new Arab ticket called Al-Quds Lana (Arabic for Jerusalem is Ours), but first he must petition the High Court of Justice to overturn a law stipulating that mayoral candidates hold Israeli citizenship.

“We are 180,000 people who have the right to vote, we don’t have to be on the sidelines,” Abu Sarah told Haaretz in an interview published Wednesday.

“I imagine that if that happened, [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] would come up with all kinds of laws that would stop it,” he said. “But this way, people who think that the status quo in Jerusalem can continue will understand that it cannot.”

Speaking to Army Radio on Thursday, Abu Sarah said it was clear that the state does not want eligible Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the elections — as evidenced by the mere handful of polling booths that will be placed in Arab areas of the city. (A recent report said there would be only six.) There are to be no polling stations at all, he claimed, in Arab neighborhoods such as Shuafat and Beit Hanina.

Abu Sarah — who said he runs a Jerusalem tourist company that organizes itineraries with “education, history, archaeology, a little politics” — said he was confident that his candidacy, and that of his party list, would prompt East Jerusalem Palestinians to defy their traditional boycott of Jerusalem elections, and the opposition of the Palestinian leadership, and turn out on election day. “I believe at least 30 percent will vote,” he said.

This, he said, was because he and his list of “various Palestinian men and women candidates… are running [for election] as Palestinians… I believe this will help us to convince [East Jerusalemites] to vote,” he told Army Radio. “We are not saying we accept the occupation.” Rather, his party’s stance is that “we have rights [in this city]. We have to use them. We lose a lot by not being on the city council.”

Abu Sarah, who told Army Radio he had studied conflict resolution at university in America and also done some work for National Geographic, stressed that his running for mayoral office in Jerusalem did not constitute a recognition of Israel.

When the Army Radio interviewer suggested his candidacy represented a “nightmare” for Israel, and that, if successful, an extreme scenario could see him joining forces with ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians and excluding Zionist politicians from the city’s governing coalition, Abu Sarah said mildly, “It’s democracy… and in democracy you don’t always get what you want.”

In terms of potential working relationships with other politicians, he said it was too early to talk of such matters, but “we’ll work with anyone. We’re seeking equality. That isn’t so controversial.”

Abu Sarah sees his run in the October elections as more than just shaking up the status quo in the city; it’s “part of the Palestinian national struggle,” left-wing Israeli-Jewish activist Gershon Baskin, an aide to Abu Sarah, told Haaretz.

Aziz Abu Sarah and Gershon Baskin (Courtesy of Gershon Baskin)

Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem have historically boycotted municipal elections because they see voting in them as recognition of Israeli sovereignty. In the last municipal elections in Jerusalem in 2013, fewer than one percent of East Jerusalem Palestinians voted, according to the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem suffers from extremely high poverty, a shortage of some 2,000 classrooms, a lack of permits to build homes, inadequate sanitation services and several other problems.

In this July 12, 2018 photo, garbage is strew along an embankment in a Palestinian area of east Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Abu Sarah said it was impossible to separate the dismal state of the infrastructure and services in East Jerusalem from the Palestinian identity of its residents.

“The reason for the neglect is not that the Finance Ministry is not transferring money, it’s because we are Palestinian,” Abu Sarah said to Haaretz. “Our identity as Palestinians is very important, and we are not giving it up.”

Many of the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, Abu Sarah included, are permanent residents entitled to participate in local elections but do not hold citizenship and are ineligible to vote for the Knesset.

Recent years have seen a surge in the number of East Jerusalemites seeking Israeli citizenship, but the majority of such applications have yet to be processed.

A Palestinian class at the Salem School, East Jerusalem, December 6, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

According to Terrestrial Jerusalem, even though the Palestinian 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 percent of its budget in it.

Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently claimed sovereignty there, it has formally offered residents living in that area the option to apply for Israeli citizenship. Very few have historically applied. Recent years have seen a surge in the number of East Jerusalemites seeking Israeli citizenship, but the majority of such applications have yet to be processed.

Should Abu Sarah’s bid to throw his hat in the ring be successful, Jerusalem’s municipal elections on October 30 would see him run against Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud), Deputy Mayor Moshe Lion, ex-deputy Jerusalem mayor and current Knesset member Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, political activist and councilor Ofer Berkovich, right-wing activist and Jerusalem city councilman Aryeh King, and ultra-Orthodox Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch.

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)

Last month, The Times of Israel interviewed Ramadan Dabash, 51, who is planning to lead “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” a political party made up of East Jerusalemite Palestinians, in the October municipal elections and who said he had set his sights on becoming a deputy mayor. Dabash’s stance appeared closer to the Israeli mainstream than Abu Sarah’s firmly Palestinian stance. Dabash, who briefly joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in 2014, said he hoped to influence Israel’s most powerful politicians to aid East Jerusalem.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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