The perils of polling in East Jerusalem

Do Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem prefer to be Israeli or Palestinian? That’s the question that some recent polls purport to have answered, including a recent blockbuster report that claims to prove that most Palestinians in East Jerusalem prefer Israel. This is a bombshell finding — seeming to prove both that Israel has treated the ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Do Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem prefer to be Israeli or Palestinian? That's the question that some recent polls purport to have answered, including a recent blockbuster report that claims to prove that most Palestinians in East Jerusalem prefer Israel. This is a bombshell finding -- seeming to prove both that Israel has treated the Palestinians of East Jerusalem better than people think, and that the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem isn't supported by the very Palestinians who live there.

Do Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem prefer to be Israeli or Palestinian? That’s the question that some recent polls purport to have answered, including a recent blockbuster report that claims to prove that most Palestinians in East Jerusalem prefer Israel. This is a bombshell finding — seeming to prove both that Israel has treated the Palestinians of East Jerusalem better than people think, and that the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem isn’t supported by the very Palestinians who live there.

It is also a finding that, at least as a product of current polling, doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny.

A tenuous existence in East Jerusalem

In 1967, Israel expanded and annexed East Jerusalem and its 69,000 Palestinian residents. Israel didn’t make these Palestinians Israeli citizens, but instead labeled them "permanent residents." As such, they may vote in municipal, but not national, elections. They can’t run for mayor. They can’t be appointed as judges. They don’t have Israeli passports. Their status as residents of the city is governed by the laws of entry to Israel, as though they were foreign supplicants who are in Jerusalem by the good graces of Israel, rather than a native born society with inalienable rights. Consequently, their "right" to live in Jerusalem often hangs by a thread and under numerous circumstances — protracted studies abroad, receiving a work permit in an EU country, or moving down the road to Bethlehem — the residency rights of a Palestinian whose family has resided in Jerusalem for centuries can be revoked by a routine, bureaucratic stroke of the pen.

In 1967, Israeli didn’t ask the Palestinian population what they wanted, and this approach persists through the present day. Jerusalem has never had Palestinian mid-level or senior public civil servants. Zoning and construction decisions that affect Palestinians are determined by boards on which no Palestinian has ever served. The city’s education department tracks every single Israeli student, so that when an Israeli child fails to turn up to class, parents are contacted and a truant officer is dispatched. But that same department has no idea if a Palestinian student goes truant or missing, since there are today tens of thousands of Palestinian students in East Jerusalem that simply don’t appear in any of the municipality’s records.

Well over 50 percent of the homes of East Jerusalem Palestinians have been built without building permits, and many have pirate hookups to the electric grid and the water supply; meaning that many Palestinians in East Jerusalem live in constant fear of having their homes demolished. Tens of thousands of Palestinians reside in the city "illegally", since they are unable to obtain an Israeli-issued identity card or entry permit; meaning they live in constant fear of being incarcerated or expelled. Due to the lack of sufficient housing in East Jerusalem, where it is almost impossible to obtain a building permit, tens of thousands of Jerusalemite Palestinians have moved to homes just beyond the city’s borders; meaning that they live in constant fear of the Israeli authorities discovering this fact and decreeing that their "center of life" is outside of Jerusalem, and thus taking away their Jerusalem identity card and with it the ability to access or live in the city.

Virtually all Palestinian political activity is forbidden in Jerusalem, customarily shut down by order of the Police Commissioner. Orient House, historically the political seat of East Jerusalem Palestinians, was shut down by Israel in 2001, along with the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce; contrary to Israel’s 2003 Roadmap commitments, neither has been re-opened.

Over the past year, Israel has launched a campaign against Palestinian grassroots leaders who organize non-violent protests against Israeli policies, like settlement efforts in Silwan/City of David, where hundreds of children have been arrested. And in recent months, when a public meeting was called at an East Jerusalem hotel to discuss censorship of Palestinian textbooks by Israeli authorities, the owner of the hotel was warned that he would be arrested if the meeting took place.

Palestinians of East Jerusalem are for all intents and purposes a society of the doubly-disenfranchised. They have the right to participate in Jerusalem municipal elections, but almost universally reject doing so. They have the right to participate in Palestinian elections, but for a combination of reasons only a very small number did so. This is in part attributable to the fears of retribution from Israeli authorities and in part to the difficulties entailed in exercising the right to vote in Palestinian elections — there are only six small polling places for the hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, and many thousands need travel for miles and across checkpoints in order to vote. But more significantly, this low level of participation in both Jerusalem and Palestinian elections reflects a deeper political reality: voting in Palestinian elections has no practical significance in the lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, since the Palestinian Authority is not permitted to function in any manner in East Jerusalem. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are thus a society adrift. On the one hand, they may marginally participate in the Israeli political process, but with neither Israel nor the Palestinian residents displaying a genuine desire or ability for Israel to govern them. Alternatively, they may futilely participate in elections for Palestinian officials who lack all authority in East Jerusalem, and who are immediately detained if they attempt to undertake activities in the city. They are caught in a political limbo.

The Challenge of Asking Questions in East Jerusalem

What does all of this mean for polling among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem?

It means that the anomalous status of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem — where the "wrong" answer to a given question can have devastating effects — like detention, loss of entitlements, or revocation of the right to live in the city — makes it difficult to ask questions at all, and makes it especially difficult to conduct polling. When a pollster turns up in East Jerusalem, the unspoken — and generally well-justified — response is invariably: "I know that nobody actually cares what I think, so if you are here and asking questions, it in the service of your own agenda." Given this virtually universal mindset, the spoken response is generally predictable: a refusal to cooperate, evasion, making things up or, quite often — an effort to placate the questioner and get rid of him or her as quickly as possible, by giving the "right" answer — that is, the answer that will satisfy the pollster and not get the interviewee in trouble.

As an attorney who has represented Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem in more than 25 cases filed to Israel’s Supreme Court — many of them "class actions" — it is a phenomenon I am familiar with. I ask my clients, "What is it that you really want? What may I say on your behalf?" And even as someone who enjoys their confidence, the initial reaction is usually apprehension, followed by a painfully cautious response — one that I can only hesitantly rely on. These finely-honed survival instincts that have emerged from decades of living under the successive thumbs of the British, the Jordanians, and the Israelis have taught the Palestinians of East Jerusalem: trust no one, divulge nothing.

This is by no means merely a personal observation. For years, the most credible bodies who deal with polling and statistics relating to the residents of East Jerusalem — the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) and the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies (JIIS) — have attached caveats to their data regarding East Jerusalem, to the effect that given serious methodological problems, the findings are not necessarily reliable. Indeed, in the 1990’s, the late Palestinian leader, Faisal Husseini, who encountered similar difficulties in obtaining data about East Jerusalem, actually explored the possibility of conducting joint polling with the ICBS in order to arrive at more credible findings.

But the situation today has moved beyond mere caveats. The recent edition of the JIIS Statistical Yearbook — the Bible for those who follow contemporary Jerusalem seriously — no longer contains data on the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem at all. Why not? In the run-up to ICBS’s 2008, "once-in-a-decade" census, they concluded that their blanket polling in East Jerusalem was so flawed that the results were unreliable. Consequently, they began working on a new model, based on data from existing administrative databases (both governmental and private), and on sample in-depth polling. Now, three years after later, the ICBS remains unsatisfied with the reliability of their new model, and no data has been released.

When Good Polling Goes Bad

There is no reason to doubt that polling in East Jerusalem has been conducted in accordance with international standards. However, what we have here are pollsters rushing in where the ICBS and JIIS — bodies with far more experience in polling in East Jerusalem, far greater familiarity with the unique challenges Jerusalem poses, and with far greater resources — are reluctant to tread, and for good reason. This raises the question: are "international standards" adequate in assuring credible polling results in East Jerusalem? The clear answer is: no.

To understand why, it’s worth looking at a couple of the things that pollsters are asking in East Jerusalem these days. For example, the question of whether, hypothetically speaking, Palestinians in East Jerusalem prefer Israeli or Palestinian citizenship — a seemingly uncomplicated, fair question to ask in a poll. And if most Palestinians respond that they would prefer Israeli citizenship over Palestinian citizenship, then the pollster has a blockbuster result — one that seemingly undermines Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, contradicts complaints about Israeli ill-treatment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and challenges the Palestinian Authority’s insistence on establishing a future capital there.

But while this may seem like a straightforward polling question, with a straightforward answer, the reality is much more complicated, and the finding described above would say less about Palestinian preferences than it would about the delicate dynamics that govern the lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

To understand this, let’s start with a key fact: the question of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem becoming Israeli citizens is not actually a hypothetical one. They can already apply for Israeli citizenship with impunity, and most that do so are successful. And according to Israeli official statistics, in the 44 years since Israel annexed East Jerusalem, only around 13,000 individuals (approximately 4.5 percent of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem) have applied for Israeli citizenship. To get a sense of the recent trends, between 2006 and 2010, a five-year period during which the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem grew by around 40,000, only 3,014 Palestinian Jerusalemites applied for Israeli citizenship (of which 2,013 received it). So notwithstanding whatever Palestinian in East Jerusalem might tell pollsters, the empirical data shows that, in practice, very few are interested in becoming Israel citizens — indeed, the vast majority have demonstrated, by choosing not to exercise their right to apply for Israeli citizenship, that they prefer living in legal limbo as "permanent residents," with all the fears that accompany that status.

In light of this reality, one has to ask: why would Palestinians in East Jerusalem lie to pollsters on this question? The answer is two-fold. First, the question of preferring Palestinian citizenship to Israeli citizenship is purely hypothetical, since in the absence of Palestinian statehood there is no Palestinian citizenship that can be obtained. And second, it is a hypothetical question that Palestinians in East Jerusalem have every reason to worry could, if answered "incorrectly", have grave consequences for themselves and their families. Israel has made clear to Palestinians in East Jerusalem that their residency in the city is a right that hangs by a thread — a thread that can be broken by moving to a home even an inch outside the city’s border, or studying abroad, or, as it happens, accepting any foreign citizenship (this is in contrast to Israeli citizens who may, and in many cases do, maintain dual citizenship). In this context, anyone doing polling in East Jerusalem should assume from the start that Palestinians will treat such a question with great caution, and that their answers will reflect their fears far more than their actual preferences.

Similarly, it might seem like a straightforward matter to poll Palestinians in East Jerusalem on their opinions about Israeli officials — for example, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. And it is conceivable that such polling might find that a relatively high percentage of those polled would say they approve of Barkat. Such a finding would be another blockbuster, seeming to contradict complaints about Barkat’s treatment of East Jerusalem (including his support for settlement schemes in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods and his support for Palestinian home demolitions) and again seeming to demonstrate that Palestinians in East Jerusalem are relatively content under Israeli rule. But once again, such a finding is nonsensical when compared to the empirical data.

Here the data comes to us first by way of a sophisticated tool used in many countries, including Israel, to measure the public’s views of elected officials. This tool is called an election. And in the last Jerusalem election (2008) Barkat received 372 votes from East Jerusalem Palestinians. Total. That number accounted for 16 percent of all the votes cast by East Jerusalem Palestinians (2,285 total, out of a total 132,124 eligible voters), representing 0.28 percent of total eligible Palestinian voters in an election with a 1.7 percent voter turnout. In addition, there is additional empirical data that comes to us by way of observable evidence. When politicians’ popularity is surging in East Jerusalem, it is common to see their photos appear in shop windows and on billboards, and flags in support of them raised on the electric pylons. But the pictures dotting East Jerusalem today are of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, not Barkat, and it is the Palestinian flag, not the flag of the municipality, that is displayed throughout East Jerusalem.

These are just two examples that help illustrate how a seemingly straightforward question can, in the context of a poll in East Jerusalem, yield results that are misleading and nonsensical.

Where Things Went Wrong

On their totality, the results of recent polls in East Jerusalem are so contrary to my cumulative experience of 20 years on the streets of East Jerusalem, and contradictory to all other empirically sound indicators, that I am compelled to cast doubt even on their approximate validity. What went wrong with this polling? While I do not doubt the professionalism of the pollsters or impugn their personal integrity, at the very least it appears that their polling was conducted and analyzed in a manner so oblivious to the unique complexities of Jerusalem as to lead to spurious conclusions.

But I suspect that something more significant is at play here: that the pollsters and their sponsors were engaging in this enterprise not out of genuine intellectual curiosity about what Palestinians in East Jerusalem think, but to get the answer they got, to wit, that Palestinians in East Jerusalem prefer Israel to Palestine. Such an answer is of tremendous value, as we have seen, to those inside and outside Israel who wish to deflect the often-blistering criticism Israel faces over the inequities of its rule in East Jerusalem, and to challenge the Palestinian claim that a permanent status agreement requires a political division of the city. 

In short, these polls are just the latest element in a rearguard action in the service of the largely discredited mantra: "Jerusalem-the-eternal-undivided-capital-of Israel".

And I suspect that what is apparent to me was equally apparent to those being interviewed. In East Jerusalem, pollsters acting in the service of a poll-with-an-agenda met up with a population whose vital interests hang on applying decades-old skills that sniff out just what such pollsters are up to. In this case, even the honest pursuit of "high international standards" could not and cannot prevent the receipt of grossly tainted results.

Public Opinion in East Jerusalem and the Peace Process 

The day may come when a real political agreement between the national leaders of Israel and Palestine will be brought before both peoples. At that point, the aspirations of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem will indeed come into play — but even then I doubt that their desires will have a decisive impact, one way or another. Just as Israeli opponents of any potential agreement will want to include the Jews of the Diaspora in a referendum on the agreement, and Palestinian opponents of an agreements will insist on the right of Palestinian refugees around the world to vote on any agreement, the various stakeholders will likely determine what to ask the residents of Jerusalem about the future of their city, and how to ask it, based on the prevailing winds of public opinion, subject to much manipulation. But at the very least, the choice will then be real, and will give Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, for the first time in memory, the opportunity to participate in determining their own future. Nothing approaching those circumstances exists today.

This is not a "get out of town" message to the pollsters. On the contrary — come back. But come back when you are ready to do more than "drive-by polling." Come back with the humility, the time, the perseverance, and the resources necessary to get a genuine grasp of the ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions that define this remarkable city. In the meantime, the only thing one can really learn from the polling you’ve done so far is that the beliefs and attitudes of Jerusalem’s residents are more complex than the ideologies — Israeli or Palestinian — that purport to explain them. But we didn’t need a poll to figure that out.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

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