'We pay taxes to the municipality. We need a voice there'

Taboo-breaking Palestinian candidate says East Jerusalem deserves better

Hoping to be deputy mayor, Ramadan Dabash campaigns for city elections, defying PLO and aiming to mobilize electorate that stays away: ‘We’re not telling anyone to become Israeli’

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

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)
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)

Ramadan Dabash, a resident of East Jerusalem’s Sur Baher neighborhood, appears to have little fear of breaking taboos in Palestinian society.

Dabash briefly joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in 2014, the same faction that many Palestinian officials describe as “extremist.” He said he hoped to influence Israel’s most powerful politicians to aid East Jerusalem.

For several years, he has also frequently lectured officers in the Israeli army about problems facing East Jerusalem, even though Palestinian society generally holds the military in contempt. He argued that his talks with the officers have sensitized them to important issues in Palestinian neighborhoods in the city.

Dabash, 51, is now breaking another taboo. He is planning to lead “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” a newly formed political party made up of East Jerusalemite Palestinians, in the city’s upcoming municipal elections in October.

Ramadan Dabash, a candidate in Jerusalem’s city council elections, looks out a window at his second home in Beit Hanina (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

In recent years, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have overwhelmingly boycotted municipal elections. In the last municipal elections in Jerusalem in 2013, for instance, fewer than one percent of East Jerusalem Palestinians voted, according to Danny Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an NGO that tracks political developments in the city.

Many Palestinians in East Jerusalem have historically boycotted municipal elections because they see voting in them as recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over their neighborhoods, said Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. 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.

Dabash, however, said in an interview that Palestinians should end their boycott and vote, in order to elect councilors to push for improved city services 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 from his second home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood. (His first home is located in Sur Baher, on the city’s southeastern outskirts.)“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.”

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, 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 percent of its budget in it, Seidemann said.

“We are paying taxes to the municipality, but we do not receive enough services. Our roads are not sufficiently paved, our garbage often is not collected, our homes are frequently demolished and our school infrastructure is inadequate,” Dabash said. “We need to change this reality and the only way to accomplish that is through gaining influence in the municipality.”

Dabash grew up in Sur Baher in a relatively poor household with 13 brothers and sisters. He attended local schools in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and went on to earn degrees in engineering and related topics in Haifa, Russia and Moldova. For most of his professional life, he has worked as a civil engineer on projects in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya, but since 2000, he has operated his own construction company, which currently employs six people.

He also said he spends much of his time working on a book he is authoring about Arab citizens of Israel and lecturing about engineering in various Israeli colleges.

In 2014, he joined the Likud, but left when he decided to run for city council. He said he withdrew from Israel’s ruling party because he thought Palestinians would likely feel uncomfortable voting for someone affiliated with it.

Dabash and his wife Buthaina, who works as a nurse in a children’s health clinic in East Jerusalem, have six sons and six daughters, who also hold Israeli citizenship and whose ages range from one to 26. Some of his children are studying in public schools in Sur Baher, others are learning in Israeli colleges and universities, and one is working for his construction company.

In the past few years, he has served as the head of the Sur Baher Community Center, where he has worked with the municipality to improve the neighborhood’s infrastructure. He said one of his major accomplishments was working out an arrangement with the municipality to rent homes for school use in order to make up for a classroom shortage in the neighborhood.

A view of Sur Baher from one of the main streets leading out of a nearby neighborhood (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Dabash said he hopes to become a deputy mayor or receive the construction and education portfolios in the municipality.

His party has now launched its election campaign, for which he said he has personally taken out a loan of NIS 200,000 ($55,000). The focus to date has not been on public events, said Dabash, but rather on visits to individual families. He said the party plans shortly to intensify its presence on social media.

Ramallah barely helps

A major obstacle to Dabash’s prospects, however, is the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, which has long supported the boycott of municipal elections in Jerusalem.

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.

But Dabash said he thinks Erekat and other Palestinian leaders are out of line in demanding an election boycott.

“Erekat and my other brothers in Ramallah are saying that we should deny ourselves services and a better standard of living for their definition of nationalism,” he said. “The irony is that they barely help and provide for us. They have given almost nothing to most of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem.”

The Palestinian Authority, which Israel often prevents from operating in East Jerusalem, does have some investments in Palestinian neighborhoods in the city, but the vast majority of its budget is allocated to projects and services in cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Jerusalem skyline has been changing over the last decade, as seen in this photo from 2008 (Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

Dabash’s party is currently the only Palestinian faction expected to run in October.

Iyad Bibouh, a Palestinian educator residing on the Mount of Olives, who announced last year that he would run, has since decided to withdraw. He said in a phone call that he decided not to run for work- and family-related reasons, but that he supports the Jerusalem for Jerusalemites party and the idea of Palestinians serving on the city council.

Aziz Abu Sarah, an activist from East Jerusalem, and Gershon Baskin, a writer and community leader from West Jerusalem, announced in April that they intended to form a Jewish-Palestinian election list. However, Abu Sarah and other members on his slate recently decided to start negotiating with Jerusalem for Jerusalemites about integrating members from their list into Dabash’s party’s list, Baskin said.

According to Dabash and Baskin, only the Palestinian members on Abu Sarah and Baskin’s list will be potentially included.

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

Dabash explained that his party wants to incentivize the greatest number of Palestinians to vote, and does not want some Palestinians to feel they should not cast a ballot because there are Jewish people on his faction’s list.

He also said that if his party wins seats on the council, it would sit in any possible coalition because it wants to have the greatest influence on decision-making on matters related to East Jerusalem.

What the surveys say

While many experts remain skeptical about the possibility of a significant turnout, a recent poll is more encouraging for Dabash.

Twenty-two percent of East Jerusalemites intend to cast votes in the elections, 73% do not plan to do so and 5% do not know what they will do, according to the survey, conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June.

Compared to another poll that the PCPSR carried out in July 2010, the results appear to show a significant change in Palestinian attitudes.

When asked in 2010 if they had previously participated in municipal or Knesset elections, only 8% of East Jerusalemites — some of whom have Israeli citizenship —  said yes.

Khalil Shikaki, the director of the PCPSR, said the seeming shift largely has to do with the socioeconomic consequences of the security barrier wall built in and around East Jerusalem amid and after the suicide bombing terror onslaught of the second intifada in the mid-2000s.

Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, at his office in Ramallah, June 14, 2011 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Before the wall, Palestinians in Jerusalem looked eastward for jobs and economic opportunities,” Shikaki said. “But since the construction of the wall, they have been looking westward into West Jerusalem and Israel for employment. This change has meant that they have become gradually more interested in what’s happening in terms of access to work and services that the municipality provides in their neighborhoods.”

Israel says that the barrier has both staved off violent attacks and prevented West Bank Palestinians from entering Israel without permits.

The findings of an EU-funded poll conducted by the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University also seem to reflect a shift in East Jerusalemite Palestinian perspectives on municipal elections.

Fifty-eight percent of East Jerusalemites said they agreed with the idea that they should elect members to the city council to promote their interests, 14% said they objected to the proposition, and 28% were neither in favor or against it, according to the survey.

Dan Miodownik, the director of the Davis Institute who conducted the poll, said that while the results reflect that Palestinians in East Jerusalem see benefit to participating in municipal elections, that does not necessarily mean they will actually vote in October.

“The poll shows that Palestinians in East Jerusalem understand they can receive better services from gaining representation in the municipality,” he said. “But I expect fewer than 58 percent of them will participate in them because there are still strong calls for a boycott.”

Dabash said he could imagine 70,000 East Jerusalemites coming to the ballot box to support his party, but would still be pleased if 10,000 or 20,000 people turn out to do so.

If there is a similar turnout in this year’s elections compared to those in 2013, which saw 35.9% of the city cast ballots, 70,000 votes would give Dabash’s party 9 places on the 31-member council, whereas 10,000 or 20,000 votes would respectively grant his faction 1 or 2 seats.

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