Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian activist and business owner, had hoped to make history by becoming the first Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem.
In early September, Abu Sarah, 38, and a resident of Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood, decided to challenge a long-standing Palestinian boycott of elections in the city and announced he would be running for the top job in the municipality on a new Palestinian ticket called Al-Quds Lana (Arabic for Jerusalem is Ours).
“Our goal is to take our rights,” he had told The Times of Israel in an interview at the American Colony Hotel days after announcing his run for mayor, referring to East Jerusalem Palestinians. “We need to preserve our Palestinian identity, find solutions to classroom shortages in schools, stop home demolitions, make building permits available and deal with many other issues. We pay taxes like the people in West Jerusalem, but we do not receive what they do in return.”
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.
Last week, Abu Sarah abruptly pulled out of the October 30 elections amid pressure and threats, and the 10 other Palestinians running on the Al-Quds Lana’s list for seats on the city council also withdrew from the race.
Not only has his always improbable dream of becoming the city’s first Palestinian mayor died, but his ability to continue living in the city has now also been placed under a shadow.
‘Center of life’ issues
Abu Sarah, who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English, grew up in al-Azariya, a small Palestinian town adjacent to the Maale Adumim settlement city, with four brothers and two sisters. He was an active member of the Fatah youth movement in high school, frequently writing pamphlets for mass publication and organizing protests. After high school, however, he stopped participating in Fatah activities and started to study Hebrew in West Jerusalem, where he developed his first friendships with Jewish Israelis.
In the following years, Abu Sarah, whose brother died after spending a year in an Israeli prison, started working at the Bereaved Parents Circle, a NGO that brings together Israelis and Palestinian who have lost loved ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While working at the organization, he often spoke to Israeli students about his life story and the conflict.
Today, Abu Sarah co-runs Mejdi Tours, a tourism company that offers trips in Israel, the West Bank and several other parts of the world and provides tourists with an opportunity to meet and connect with locals.
At a cafe near the Central Bus Station in West Jerusalem, Abu Sarah told The Times of Israel this week that he not only recently learned he would be unable to participate in the local elections, but that he may lose his ability to reside in Jerusalem altogether.
“I went to the Interior Ministry at the airport to renew my travel document,” he said two days after withdrawing from the elections, referring to the red booklet that Israel grants Palestinians in East Jerusalem without Israeli citizenship in place of a passport. “The worker there said his computer would not allow him to renew the document because I have a problem with my residency. He said it was ‘being checked because of an issue with my center of life,’ and offered me a visa.”(Abu Sarah said he visited the Interior Ministry at Ben Gurion International Airport before he pulled out of the elections.)
Abu Sarah’s lawyer, he said, then told him he was no longer able to run for mayor and could face the possibility of losing his residency.
“My lawyer said what happened is pretty bad. He said if they don’t see you as a resident, your first problem is you cannot run for office, but your bigger problem is you may not be able to stay here,” he said.
His lawyer declined to comment before receiving an official response from the Interior Ministry about the status of Abu Sarah’s residency.
Israel applies the 1952 “Entry into Israel Law” on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. This law, which was not legislated with Palestinians in East Jerusalem in mind, gives the Interior Ministry the right to revoke the residency status of anyone who has been out of the country for seven years, has received the status of a permanent resident in a foreign country, and/or became a citizen of a foreign country.
In 1995, the Interior Ministry began demanding that Palestinians in East Jerusalem prove the city constitutes their “center of life,” according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Retroactively, thousands of families were legally liable to have their residency statuses revoked — and that’s what happened, with revocations in many subsequent years reaching numbers beyond anything Palestinians in East Jerusalem had previously experienced.
While Abu Sarah said he has gained American citizenship, he was adamant he has never left Jerusalem for more than seven years and that he maintains his “center of life” in the city.
“I travel several times a year and I believe I have traveled abroad eight or nine times since the start of this year, but Jerusalem is my home and where I spend the most of my time,” he said.
When asked if Abu Sarah’s residency was being investigated, Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said, “We do not know. It appears that there was a note in the system that he needs to go to the ministry regarding [his] center of life… We have not informed anyone that his status is being checked.”
Haddad did not respond to several follow-up requests for clarifications about Abu Sarah’s residency status.
‘Withdraw or else’
Abu Sarah said he met with the rest of the Al-Quds Lana list last Monday and Tuesday after consulting with his lawyer, and they collectively decided to drop out of the elections.
“It was clear I would not legally be able to run, and the rest of the list did not want to do it on their own,” he said.
However, Abu Sarah said other factors, including threats Palestinians made against him and the rest of the Al-Quds Lana list, also contributed to his and the list’s decision to withdraw from the race.
“Many of us faced threats,” he said. “My brother, my brother’s son-in-law, nephew and other family members received phone calls from anti-normalization activists, threatening to harm me if I do not withdraw from the elections. In the phone call my brother got, he was told to tell me that I ‘should withdraw my candidacy or else.’”
Abu Sarah and his fellow candidates also bore the brunt of violent threats on Facebook and other social media platforms, reflecting the strength of the Palestinian boycott of the city’s local elections.
“I hope you will be shot by live bullets you vile man. This is the minimum of what must be done to traitors like you,” Nahi Mahmoud Abou-Hantach, a Palestinian based in Europe, wrote on a Facebook post about Abu Sarah.
“You must also be hit with shoes,” Fadi Arouri, a Palestinian photojournalist for Xinhua, a state-run Chinese outlet, wrote on the same Facebook post.
At a press conference in early September, a small group of young Palestinians also threw eggs at Abu Sarah and two other members of the Al-Quds Lana list.
Commenting on the incident, a Palestinian who resides in East Jerusalem expressed his hope that Abu Sarah and the two other members of the Al-Quds Lana list would be hit by bullets instead of eggs.
“They were hit by eggs. I wish the eggs would turn into bullets,” Osama Risheq, a legal adviser at the Al-Quds Human Rights Clinic, wrote on Facebook.
Abu Sarah and the Al-Quds Lana list also dealt with overwhelming neglect by the Palestinian press of their campaign. Very few Palestinian outlets interviewed Abu Sarah and other members of the Al-Quds Lana list.
None of the major Palestinian newspapers, including al-Quds, al-Ayyam and al-Hayat al-Jadida and al-Risala, interviewed Abu Sarah or other members of Al-Quds Lana.
Abu Sarah said Palestine TV, the official PA television station, invited him to an interview on September 6, but canceled it at the last minute.
“I was told by Palestine TV that they had to postpone the interview, but they never called me back. It’s clear that someone made a decision to prevent it from happening,” Abu Sarah said.
Ahmad Assaf, the PA official responsible for overseeing Palestine TV, did not respond to a request for comment.
Staying away on election day
Most Palestinian in East Jerusalem have long maintained a boycott of municipal elections. In the last municipal elections in Jerusalem in 2013, for instance, fewer than one percent of Palestinians in the city voted.
Many Palestinians in East Jerusalem stay away because they see voting in municipal elections as recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over their neighborhoods, according to Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.
Nonetheless, a recent poll suggested more Palestinians in East Jerusalem intend to vote in the upcoming municipal elections.
Twenty-two percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem 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.
The numbers of those participating, while low, signify an upward trend compared to another poll that the PCPSR carried out in July 2010, in which only 8% of East Jerusalemites — some of whom have Israeli citizenship — said they had previously participated in municipal or Knesset elections.
Khalil Shikaki, the director of the PCPSR, said the seeming shift largely has to do with the socio-economic consequences of the security barrier built around the West Bank during and after the suicide bombing terror onslaught of the second intifada in the mid-2000s.
The barrier puts most of East Jerusalem on the Israeli side, though several neighborhoods are on the West Bank side.
“Before the wall, Palestinians in Jerusalem looked eastward for jobs and economic opportunities,” Shikaki said in an interview earlier this year. “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.
On the main thoroughfare that cuts through the middle of Wadi Joz, an overwhelming majority of 15 Palestinians who spoke to the Times of Israel said they did not intend to vote in the elections. Five of those non-voters said they did not know they even had the right to vote.
“I’m not going to vote because it won’t do anything for my neighborhood,” said a man named Anas, 25. “Both Jewish and Palestinian politicians always talk but don’t do anything to actually improve the situation here. It’s really not worth my time.”
Adel Daasan, 58, one of three who said they do plan to vote, said he believed a Palestinian representative in the municipality could bring better services to East Jerusalem.
“We have trash all over our neighborhoods and we do not have properly paved roads or streets lights,” he said, pointing at a huge pile of putrid garbage collecting on the side of street near his home. “We need a Palestinian in the municipality who can fight for our rights.”
Still running for election
While Abu Sarah and the Al-Quds Lana list have pulled out, Ramadan Dabash, a 51-year-old resident of the southeastern neighborhood of Sur Baher, still plans to lead the all-Palestinian ticket Al-Quds Baladi in the elections.
The name is Arabic for Jerusalem, My Town. the party was previously called Jerusalem for Jerusalemites.
Dabash, an engineer, community leader and former member of Israel’s ruling Likud party, has centered his campaign on bringing better services to 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 told the Times of Israel 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.”
Dabash recently filed a petition with an Israeli district court, demanding the Interior Ministry increase the number of polling stations that would be accessible in Palestinian neighborhoods on election day from the planned 6 to 39.
A few days after Dabash filed the petition, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced a total of 21 polling stations would be accessible in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
“I wanted more polling stations to be opened, but I believe the increase the minister gave us is sufficient,” Dabash said in a telephone interview. “I do not plan to move forward with my legal action.”
When asked if he endorses Dabash and the rest of the Al-Quds Baladi list’s election bid, Abu Sarah said: “I support a Palestinian presence in the municipality. Even though I had some differences with Dabash, I would be happy to see Al-Quds Baladi succeed.”
Abu Sarah said that while both he and Dabash agree East Jerusalem needs greater services, they differ in terms of how they deal with the question of Palestinian identity.
“I highlighted Palestinian identity and plight in my campaign. He has mainly focused on services,” Abu Sarah said.
Even though he has pulled out of the race, Abu Sarah said he still has his mind set on serving Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
“In the coming days, I will be meeting with Palestinians to talk about how we can serve our city outside the municipality,” he said.
Dov Lieber contributed to this article.