Tel Aviv’s One-State Reality

Palestinians running in municipal elections offer a glimpse of a shared future.

A woman votes in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2013. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A woman votes in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2013. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On July 20, Lisa Hanania, a 31-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, gave birth to her first child at a Tel Aviv hospital. Soon after, she returned to her first campaign for public office. Hanania is seeking a seat on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council in elections on Oct. 30.

Hanania would have delayed her campaign, but her son’s birth came just one day after the Israeli Knesset passed the Nation-State Law. It is a lightning rod piece of legislation, stating that Jews alone have national rights in the State of Israel. Hanania’s electoral list, the Jaffa List, is the only list in the municipal election that is focused on the needs of Tel Aviv’s Arab minority, a population of roughly 20,000 Muslims and Christians.

All across Israel, cities are preparing for the municipal elections, which happen every five years. Citizens vote directly for their mayors, but they vote for city councils by choosing electoral lists. A list’s representation on the council is proportional to the number of votes it receives.

Israel’s national elections hinge on security—a code word for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and, to a lesser extent, the economy. Municipal elections, on the other hand, tend to center on more quotidian concerns: education, infrastructure, and the religious or secular character of the city as it relates to laws forbidding or allowing businesses to operate or public transportation to run on the Sabbath.

But while the local issues dominate, in mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, and Haifa, matters of national identity can arise in local debates, thus providing a granular view of the overall state of affairs between Jews and Arabs.

As the two-state solution drifts ever further out of reach, the Jaffa List campaign offers a glimpse of what one version of a one-state reality could look like and raises the possibility of a shared future in which Israelis and Palestinians govern together without casting aside their national identities.

Therefore, though the candidacy of Hanania, and the Jaffa List itself, is hyperlocal, it has national implications. Palestinian-led with Jewish members, the Jaffa List eschews empty rhetoric about coexistence in favor of a real push for equal rights, justice, and multiculturalism. It is coexistence with a backbone, a potent answer to the divisiveness dominating Israel’s political landscape.

“This could in the future be a model for all other mixed cities,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Jaffa activist and historian. “And then, maybe in the far future, it can give more hope that both sides of the conflict can share the same space and live together on an equal basis.”

Hanania, who is Christian, grew up in Jaffa and went to Brandeis University on a coexistence scholarship. A well-known local activist, she helped found the Jaffa branch of the Hebrew-Arabic Hand in Hand school, which goes from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade and is attended by about 400 kids. She is in the No. 2 spot on the Jaffa List.

No. 1 is Abed Abou Shhadeh, 30, another local activist. Abou Shhadeh, who is Muslim, worked in a garage after high school. At age 24, he watched a friend die after a gang fight and decided to go back to school. He is now a graduate student in political philosophy at Tel Aviv University. A blogger, Abou Shhadeh writes about racism against young Arab men, which he compares to the plight of black men in America.

Both Hanania and Abou Shhadeh are proud Palestinians who nevertheless see a place for themselves inside Israeli institutions. Their aim, Abou Shhadeh said, is to make Tel Aviv into a “city for all its citizens,” an echo of the Palestinian demand for Israel to end Jewish privilege and transform into a “state for all its citizens.”

Not that that dream hasn’t faced pushback. Hanania, who was something of a local internet celebrity before the election—she founded the popular Facebook page Secret Jaffa—appears in several online videos advertising the Jaffa List. In one, she reads vicious internet comments. “You can shove your [Arabic] language and your feelings of inferiority you know where,” Hanania reads off a phone. She looks into the camera: “Habibi [Friend], I will shove my language deep, deep into your ears, because when I’m on City Council, you are going to hear from me a lot.”

Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a single constituency, meaning any citizen in the municipal borders can vote for any list. But though Jaffa List hosted a handful of events in Tel Aviv, its energy has been trained on Jaffa, an area local residents contend is treated as an afterthought by City Hall.

Among the list’s priorities are the advancement of women in business and politics, the introduction of Arabic signage around Jaffa, the improvement of social welfare services, the establishment of an authority to monitor and combat police violence, the promotion of bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools, the development of community centers and sports facilities, and the establishment of a rent control system to slow the gentrification rapidly spreading through the neighborhood.

Abu Shehadeh, 42, helped found the Jaffa List in 2003. (He is Abou Shhadeh’s first cousin; the two translate their last names differently.) But asked to describe the list’s origin, Abu Shehadeh started with 1948, when most of Jaffa’s Palestinian population fled or was forced out by Jewish militias during the Arab-Israeli War, known among Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Almost overnight, Jaffa, once a cosmopolitan capital of the Middle East, was relegated to an impoverished suburb of Tel Aviv. In 1950, Tel Aviv and Jaffa formally merged into one municipal unit, but for decades Arab representation was scarce.

In 2003, Abu Shehadeh started the Jaffa List under the auspices of Balad, the left-wing national Arab party. The idea was to provide a platform to represent Jaffa Arabs in the municipality. It has had mixed success. From 2008 to 2013, Omar Siksik, another politician, and Abu Shehadeh took turns serving on the City Council. But in the last municipal elections, in 2013, the Jaffa List didn’t win a single seat.

Regrouping ahead of this year’s election, Abu Shehadeh stepped aside to make room for new faces. The new Jaffa List is made up of young activists in their 30s and 40s, most with little to no previous political experience. The list has Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Its slogan is: “For Jaffa, against racism.”

That message contrasts sharply with another one this election season. In early October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party mounted posters on bus stops in Tel Aviv with the message, “It’s us or them.” In one version of the poster, “them” was the “Islamic Movement in Jaffa,” pictured as a man with a green headwrap and a keffiyeh holding a large Palestinian flag. Hanania recorded a video in Hebrew accusing Likud of targeting the people of Jaffa. “Friends, Tel Aviv won’t be the liberal and multicultural city that it is today without Jaffa,” she said. “Jaffa is the beating heart of this place.” The video has 20,000 views. In a city of just under half a million, that’s a lot.

According to Abu Shehadeh, Hanania and Abou Shhadeh have become local celebrities. When they walk down the street, people call their names.

But as with all previous municipal elections, the question still remains whether Jaffa Palestinians will actually go the polls on election day. Voter turnout in municipal elections is generally low. In 2013, it was only 34.9 percent in Tel Aviv, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. Due to the dismal turnout, the Knesset passed a law in 2014 giving municipal election day a holiday.

According to the Jaffa List’s analysis, there are 11,000 eligible Palestinian voters in Jaffa (the other 9,000 are underage), about a third of whom vote. Abu Shehadeh insists that the number will rise to half this election because of the enthusiasm around the Jaffa List. Given those calculations, the Jaffa List is looking at one or two seats in the City Council, at most.

Not everyone is so optimistic about the list, nor is it the only coexistence party on the ballot. We Are the City is a list headed by Assaf Harel, an Israeli comedian, who is running for mayor. In the No. 2 spot of We Are the City is Amir Badran, a Palestinian-Israeli lawyer who is currently on the City Council. Ahmad Shaar, a taxi driver and former community organizer from Jaffa, is a supporter. Shaar explained that he feels Arabs can’t make change without Jews. The Jaffa List struck him as divisive; he said he read some of its supporters on social media say things like, “We are letting the Zionists rule over us,” and accusing Harel of being a Zionist.

“I don’t agree with that,” he said.

Other would-be voters were more positive. Ahmad Zeinab, the owner of the Double Espresso cafe in Jaffa, was so enthused about the “new face” of the Jaffa List that he hosted one of the group’s events there and hung a large campaign poster on the side of an apartment opposite the cafe. He said he was supportive of Hanania, who, if elected, would be the first Palestinian woman on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council. She represents “change and social justice,” he said.

For Hanania’s part, though campaigning postpartum was difficult, she felt she had no choice. She didn’t want her son, Joud, whose name means “goodness toward others” in Arabic, to grow up in a country with deepening inequality between Jews and Arabs, a state of affairs exacerbated, in her view, by the Nation-State Law.

After all, the next municipal elections in Jaffa aren’t until 2023, when Joud will be 5.

“If I go into the municipality now, I can make changes that when he is 5 will already be felt,” she said. “If I start when he is 5, it might be too late for him and for other kids.”

Naomi Zeveloff is an American reporter covering Israel and the Palestinian territories.
 Twitter: @NaomiZeveloff

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