Breaking a taboo: Jerusalem elections and the Palestinian vote

Why We Wrote This

If one accepts a principle of democracy that voting gives power to the people, then not voting means the opposite. In East Jerusalem, some Palestinians question the price paid for boycotting elections.

Dina Kraft
Ramadan Dabash, a candidate for Jerusalem's City Council from East Jerusalem, stands in front of City Hall. If elected he would make history as the first Palestinian from East Jerusalem to be a City Council member.

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Ever since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, subsequently declaring the whole city its unified capital, East Jerusalem Palestinians have mostly boycotted municipal elections. It’s been an act of protest against Israeli rule. But a growing number of East Jerusalemites are taking Israeli citizenship, an indication they are beginning to see themselves as part of the city’s fabric. And a recent survey suggests that almost 60 percent of East Jerusalem residents believe Palestinians should vote in the city elections. Among the longtime issues they face: overcrowding, high rents, crumbling infrastructure, and a shortage of classrooms. Now Ramadan Dabash, a civil engineer and community activist, is running for office, hoping to be the first East Jerusalem resident to sit on the City Council. “Currently we have no one to speak for the residents of East Jerusalem and the division of resources that we deserve,” Mr. Dabash says. “We, with our very own hands, we can change this situation.... City Hall is a place we need to be so we can put on the pressure and ensure our needs are met.”

It’s only a little after 10 a.m., but the sun is already baking the sprawling limestone plaza in front of Jerusalem’s City Hall and Palestinian Ramadan Dabash, a civil engineer, builder, and community activist from traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, is in the midst of making a dent in history.

Mr. Dabash, who was submitting the paperwork inside needed to register his run for a seat on the Jerusalem City Council, takes a brief respite to explain why he is breaking decades of a Palestinian taboo – which has largely held since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and subsequently declared the whole city its unified capital – to do so.

“We, with our very own hands, we can change this situation – 51 years of neglect of East Jerusalem,” he says. “We need to stop complaining and start doing. City Hall is a place we need to be so we can put on the pressure and ensure our needs are met.”

The burly candidate, who heads a new party called “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” then quotes Hillel, the Jewish sage from the first century BC, and his famous call for being proactive: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Mr. Dabash’s run for a seat at the table of Jerusalem’s governing body, if successful, would make him – and his fellow party members if they also got enough votes – the first East Jerusalem residents to serve on the City Council since Israel annexed their half of the city.

It’s a long shot, but Dabash is hoping his bid galvanizes fellow East Jerusalemites to break with more than 50 years of boycotting municipal elections. The boycott, initiated to protest Israeli rule, is rooted in an argument that to vote would be to recognize Israeli sovereignty. But that, he argues, has kept Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem politically powerless.

East Jerusalem is one of poorest parts of either the West Bank or Israel. According to some estimates, as many as 70 percent of its Palestinian residents live below the poverty line. There is great bitterness over home demolitions that often follow the building of homes – or extensions of homes – without permits that East Jerusalemites claim are nearly impossible to procure from a city that views them as a demographic threat.

Although there have been millions of government dollars invested in building and expanding Jewish neighborhoods in the city – including in East Jerusalem – no plans for expanding or building Arab neighborhoods have been put in place since 1967. Overcrowding, high rents, crumbling and insufficient infrastructure, and a chronic shortage of classrooms are long-time concerns of East Jerusalem residents.

Cracks in the boycott wall?

But as a growing number of East Jerusalemites take Israeli citizenship and send their children to high schools where they can matriculate with an Israeli diploma – indications they are beginning to see themselves as part of the city’s fabric – there appear to be cracks, albeit small ones, in what was once a solid wall of support for the boycott.

The boycott is pushed heavily both by Muslim leaders in the city and by the Palestinian Authority itself. But a survey jointly conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, suggests that almost 60 percent of East Jerusalem residents believe Palestinians should vote in the city elections, while only 13 percent hold firm to the boycott position.

Whether they will actually break ranks to come and vote will be seen Oct. 30, when city elections are scheduled to take place.

“Currently we have no one to speak for the residents of East Jerusalem and the division of resources that we deserve,” Dabash says, arguing for representation for the estimated 37 percent of Jerusalem’s population made up of the city’s Palestinian residents.

Such a sizable potential voting bloc could shift the balance of power in the City Council, where currently a coalition of right-wing Jewish and ultra-Orthodox parties rule. But surveys and possible momentum aside, the pressure not to participate runs deep.

Then there is the practical side – with relatively few polling stations usually set up in East Jerusalem, accessibility is a challenge, especially for those living beyond the Israeli-built security barrier, who can enter the city proper only through checkpoints.

Squeezed on both sides

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian political and social activist, recently quit his effort to run for mayor of Jerusalem on a decidedly political, anti-occupation platform after being squeezed on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

His decision underscored how difficult it is to break the current paradigm, but Mr. Abu Sarah says he hopes the symbolism of his attempted run will help change the mindset among his fellow East Jerusalemites.

“When you tell certain Palestinians you are running in the city elections they think you are accepting the occupation,” he says. “I was trying to say that you can be a good Palestinian and run in the municipal elections and keep your identity.

“It scared some people, especially Palestinian factions, which freaked out significantly. If they had not seen people buying into our message they would not have reacted with such anger and threats,” he says.

“I think people are getting tired and frustrated from all the slogans of nationalism that lead to nothing and the reality that their life is getting worse,” Abu Sarah adds.

Pushback from Palestinian elements to his run was fierce. There were threats of physical harm to him and to those who planned to run with him.

Polling booths: a symbolic victory

The Interior Ministry originally planned to open only six polling stations in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Just 2 percent of eligible East Jerusalem Palestinians voted in the last municipal elections in 2013. But still, the handful of stations stood in stark contrast to the 187 polling stations in Jewish neighborhoods of the city, and Mr. Dabash decided to protest by appealing directly to the Central Election Commission.

He won his appeal, and there will now be 20 East Jerusalem polling stations on election day. Jewish Jerusalemites of various political backgrounds came out in support of adding the extra polling stations in East Jerusalem.

The combination of this victory on polling stations, together with having Palestinians running for the city council, has researcher Yair Assaf-Shapira at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research cautiously optimistic that this election could bring the long-awaited leap in East Jerusalemites voting.

“We feel like we are on the precipice of something. But we also know that voting is a pragmatic action as well as a symbolic one. Sometimes, at the last minute, even a person who planned to vote, might … return to their roots and decide to honor the boycott,” he says.

He adds that he has heard of Jewish residents of Jerusalem who plan to vote for Dabash because they believe it’s overdue that a representative from East Jerusalem sit on the city council.

To vote, or not to vote

Inas Jweihan, a 22-year-old university student, says she is still making up her mind about voting. She is standing next to a stone wall covered in graffiti. One of the slogans sprayed in black paint reads, “Dignity.”

“Most of us don’t vote,” she says, walking up a steep hill in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor. “But I want to feel like I am a human being who also lives here, a citizen who has a right to vote. The neglect of our areas, it bothers me a lot.”

But her neighbor, Muntasir Qaisi, 38, who runs a corner grocery, says he has never voted and does not plan to start now, even with a Palestinian candidate.

“Look at us here, Jews and Arabs living just meters apart and see how different our neighborhoods are. Just look at the trash in the streets,” he says, gesturing outside the doorway. “All elections are just lies. Politicians say they want our votes, but they do nothing for us.”

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