Palestinians debate value of boycotting Tuesday’s Jerusalem municipal elections

Some residents yearn for influence and better city services, while others fear participation would reinforce Israeli claims to city’s eastern half

Illustrative: A Palestinian man walks past Israeli police officers at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem on December 2, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Palestinian man walks past Israeli police officers at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem on December 2, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

AFP — As Jerusalem voters go to the polls Tuesday for municipal elections, Palestinians are debating not which candidate to back, but whether to cast their ballots at all.

The vast majority of the disputed city’s roughly 300,000 Palestinians are expected to boycott the polls again, despite calls by a minority to use the elections to gain influence in a city, whose eastern neighborhoods Israel has controlled for decades, since conquering the area from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently annexing it.

Rami Nasrallah, director general of East Jerusalem’s International Peace and Cooperation Center think tank, sees little to gain from voting.

“I’m not willing to recognize the political rules of the game and to recognize or legitimize the Israeli occupation,” he said.

Israel’s annexation of the city’s eastern half was not recognized by the international community. Palestinians claim it as the capital of their future state.

Palestinian voter turnout was less than one percent in the last local election in 2013, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for International affairs.

Aziz Abu Sarah, who withdrew last week from the mayoral race in Jerusalem, at the American Colony Hotel in September. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Municipalities and local councils across Israel will go to the polls on Tuesday, electing mayors and local councils for five-year terms.

In Jerusalem a small number of Palestinian candidates are running for the council, while others have dropped out after criticism, intimidation and legal issues.

One of those who withdrew was Aziz Abu Sarah, who had even announced his intention to run for mayor.

He said it was time for Palestinians to “rethink” their boycott, pointing out that 50 years after Israel’s takeover, some 200,000 Israelis now live in parts of Jerusalem lying over the Green Line.

“We are losing Jerusalem every day,” he said during his campaign.

While he received support from both Palestinians and Israelis, he also faced a series of attacks and at one event was egged.

Like most Palestinian Jerusalemites, Abu Sarah has residency status but not Israeli citizenship.

Palestinian schoolgirls play after school in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He was later told by Israeli authorities that his status as a Jerusalem resident was “being checked” due to his travel and work abroad, meaning he could be stripped of the right to stay in the city, he wrote on Facebook.

“Entrenched political interest groups on both sides hope to maintain the status quo, and will stop at nothing to prevent forward progress,” Abu Sarah said as he dropped out of the race.

Public services

Among the few Palestinians still in the race is Ramadan Dabash, who heads a list of six Arab candidates running for seats on the city council.

He has rare Israeli citizenship and is a former member of the right-wing Likud party run by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A lot of his votes could actually come from Jewish voters, rather than fellow Palestinians.

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)

Dabash said he wanted to be on the council in order to protect Palestinians, and denied it amounted to recognizing Israel’s control of the city — which Israel considers its undivided capital.

Palestinians who have residency status rather than full Israeli citizenship can’t vote in general elections for the Knesset but can for the municipality, which is responsible for most Jerusalem schools as well as garbage collection and other services.

“Palestinians pay more than 400 million shekels ($110 million) in tax to the municipality,” Dabash told AFP. “They receive less than 10% of the services.”

Dabash said his mediation had helped prevent the demolition of dozens of homes in his neighborhood of Sur Baher in East Jerusalem.

View of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, in East Jerusalem, May 27, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But Palestinian involvement in the elections has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

“Any Palestinian should refuse to be a part of them. We will not accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told AFP.

“What did the PA do for Jerusalemites?” Dabash shot back. “Did they build them hospitals?”

But in the streets of East Jerusalem there has been no sign of any election campaigning.

Trader Abu Yasser, from Jerusalem’s Old City, summed up the views of many Palestinians, saying he wouldn’t vote as the elections wouldn’t change much.

“If the Palestinians in Jerusalem knew they would achieve something from these elections they would have gone against the PA’s wishes and voted to get municipal services,” he said.

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