Why There’s No Palestinian Protest Vote in Jerusalem
Candidates who ran for local office were subjected to violent threats by fellow Palestinians, but they have vowed to do it again.
JERUSALEM—Majda Ibrahimi, a 52-year-old Palestinian teacher from East Jerusalem, has never cast a ballot in her life. She didn’t vote in the first round of the Jerusalem municipal elections on Oct. 30, either.
“I don’t want to legitimize the Israeli occupation, and I am afraid of the Palestinian Authority,” Ibrahimi said. “Our situation is terrible, but voting wouldn’t make it any better. We Jerusalemite Palestinians are no one and we are nowhere.”
Ibrahimi lives in Beit Hanina, an upscale neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which, after conquering the city from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed in order to join East and West Jerusalem into what it refers to as its united capital.
Israel has accorded East Jerusalem Palestinians, such as Ibrahimi, permanent resident status. They are required to pay taxes and utility fees, and are entitled to receive social welfare benefits, including full medical coverage, as are all Israeli citizens. They are also entitled to vote in Israeli municipal—but not national—elections.
However, East Jerusalem Palestinians have consistently boycotted municipal elections as a way of protesting the Israeli occupation. This boycott has been reinforced by the Palestinian Authority, whose headquarters are in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which maintains that East Jerusalem is under occupation and should be the capital of future Palestinian state.
In the previous municipal elections, in 2013, less than 1 percent of eligible Palestinians voted, according to Daniel Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that monitors political and social developments in the city.
This time, however, there were indications that Palestinians would turn out to vote in larger numbers. Eliezer Yaari, an author and journalist with expertise on Jerusalem affairs, pointed to increasing “Israelization” among East Jerusalem Palestinians who have lived under Israeli control for 51 years. “There are generations who have never lived apart from Israel, and they are accommodating themselves to this reality, studying Hebrew, and possibly paying more attention to local, rather than national, issues. For these reasons, they might vote.”
Thus, it came as little surprise when, according to a poll published in July by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 22 percent of Palestinian Jerusalemites said they intended to vote or were considering voting in the municipal elections. And for the first time, a credible Palestinian candidate was standing for election to the municipal council.
In July, Aziz Abu Sarah, 38, a Jerusalem entrepreneur who co-owns MEJDI, a tour group providing “dual narrative” (Palestinian and Israeli) tours of Israel and the West Bank region, was the first to present his candidacy for mayor. He ran as head of the Our Jerusalem party he founded.
Abu Sarah, who speaks Hebrew and English fluently, in addition to his native Arabic, told Foreign Policy: “The occupation has denied us our most basic rights as Palestinians and as Jerusalemites. But the Palestinian leadership has not been able to provide an alternative, practical political strategy. I wanted to push Israelis and Palestinians to rethink their situation.”
But after a few months, Abu Sarah dropped out of the race. The Israeli authorities had raised issues over his residency status, in an attempt, he believes, to dissuade him from running. Even more seriously, he was frightened by threats of violence against himself and his family—and it was coming from other Palestinians.
“At a press conference, I was pelted with eggs. On the street, thugs were harassing my family. My character was assassinated on social media, and the mainstream Palestinian press refused to even mention my name, let alone defend me,” he recounts. “I was called a traitor and a collaborator. I had to drop out.”
Since East Jerusalem Palestinians make up approximately 38 percent of the city’s residents, pollsters estimated that they could have elected several members to the city’s 31-seat municipal council. Such representation would have had a significant effect on Jerusalem’s municipal affairs, especially budget allocations and priorities, and Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods; it could potentially have served as a legitimate voice as the representatives of the Jerusalemite Palestinians if and when diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are resumed.
Yet, once again, under 1 percent of eligible Palestinian voters cast ballots, according to neighborhood-level election results provided by the Jerusalem municipality. The reasons are complex and point to a general sense of despair among Palestinians and deep conflicts within the community.
The National Insurance Institute estimates that about three-quarters of East Jerusalemites live in poverty. Only about 10 percent of the Jerusalem municipal budget is devoted to East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Infrastructure such as roads, water, drainage, sewage, and electricity are therefore poor or nonexistent; only 59 percent of households are connected to the city’s water grid, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Because Israel has never created a municipal building and zoning plan for the city, East Jerusalemites are unable to receive permits to build or renovate their homes; and if they build without permits, Israeli authorities demolish their homes.
Furthermore, permanent residency can be very temporary: In an effort to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the city, Israel has instituted the “center of life” policy, according to which, if permanent residents live outside Jerusalem for any extended period—even if for studies or medical treatments—they could lose their residency and their right to live in, or even visit, the city.
Under a special agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, East Jerusalemites were permitted to vote in the last Palestinian elections, which were held in 2005. Although officially not permitted to act in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority has made some investments in parts of the city but have largely directed their activities to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Jihan, 39, who works for a Palestinian human rights organization and spoke on the condition that her name be changed to protect her anonymity, told FP that the “Palestinian Authority has always said that we should forgo the struggle for a better standard of living and our civil rights, because it would mean legitimizing the Israeli occupation.”
But, she argued, “the Palestinian Authority hasn’t done anything for us, either. They use Jerusalem as a symbol to maintain their position in the Arab world as the defenders of the holy city. But they don’t care about us, the real people who live here and love this city.” She was so fed up that she decided to vote in the municipal elections.
“East Jerusalemites are schizophrenic,” Jihan explained. “Palestinians on the West Bank resent us because we have benefits and options that they don’t have. Palestinians who live in Israel and have full citizenship think of us as West Bankers. And we’re certainly not Israelis. Voting could be a way forward, because we Jerusalemites have to fend for ourselves.”
Abu Sarah wasn’t the only Palestinian running. Ramadan Dabash, the mukhtar, or community leader, of the village of Sur Baher, also presented a list for the municipal council. Dabash, an engineer and one of the very few East Jerusalem Palestinians to receive full Israeli citizenship, has worked with the Israeli authorities and teaches at a college in West Jerusalem.
“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 told FP. “We need to change this reality and the only way to accomplish that is through gaining influence in the municipality.”
Dabash confided to a group of journalists before the election that he, too, was a victim of violence from other Palestinians. “Someone tried to kidnap my son, another person tried to run me over, but none of this stopped me,” he said. “But as we see from the results, it did keep Palestinians from voting,” he explained to FP after the election. He received 3,001 votes, several hundred of them from Jews.
Indeed, as the buzz around elections increased, opposition to voting in it increased, too, both in formal pronouncements and on the streets. “Participating in the elections will help the Israeli establishment … in implementing its colonial settlement plan and ethnic cleansing operations,” declared Saeb Erekat, the former head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Steering and Monitoring Committee.
Ziad Abu Zayyad, the co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal and former PA minister for Jerusalem affairs, wrote in the local papers that it is “Better to suffer from neglect than to become part of the occupation.” Furthermore, he argued, “Jerusalem belongs to every Palestinian and to the entire Arab world … To vote in the elections is to give up on Jerusalem not only in one’s own name, but in name of entire Arab people.”
Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, told worshipers at Friday prayers in June that participating in the elections is like removing oneself from “the religion, the nation, and the homeland.” Palestinian Christian leaders issued similar pronouncements.
After that, street violence against those campaigning increased. Volunteers handing out leaflets calling on Palestinians to vote were attacked; a campaign worker was hospitalized. Both Ibrahimi and Jihan told FP that they, and most of their friends, received anonymous threatening phone calls warning them not to vote.
Abu Sarah believes that the violence was coordinated by the Palestinian Authority. “Palestinian officials are afraid that they will lose their hold on us, that we will become more Israeli and less Palestinian,” he said. “That is ridiculous. I am a proud Palestinian and a proud Jerusalemite. I would not trade my identity for economic benefits. But I do not trust the Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt and does not represent me or other young Palestinians, who want to have a future here.”
Jihan voted for Dabash, but with reservations. “He is married to four wives. I am watching my society fall apart, and I feel torn between my values as a progressive human being and my identity as a Palestinian Jerusalemite,” she said. “East Jerusalem is in despair and religious extremists are taking over. Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are everywhere, but there is no one to turn to; we certainly won’t turn to the Israeli police.”
Waleed Ladadweh, who co-conducted the poll on voting intentions, concluded that the “campaign that incited non-participation and presented voting as treasonous was successful.” Yet Abu Sarah believes that “abandoning the city and not building up our communities is collaborating with the Israeli authorities.” He and Dabash “made a dent in the Palestinian mentality,” he argued. “Next time, people will vote.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson is the Israel editor for Moment magazine, the former editor in chief of the Jerusalem Report, and a regular contributor to Haaretz, +61J, and other international publications.