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In first, Arab list qualifies to run for Jerusalem City Council

Party head Sundus El-Khot says integration into the municipality and the Israeli education system will improve the lives of the city’s Arabs.

Sundus El-Khot, head of the All of Its Citizens party list running in the Jerusalem municipal election, Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.
Sundus El-Khot, head of the All of Its Citizens party list running in the Jerusalem municipal election, Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

Hoping to shake up Jerusalem City Hall, an Arab political list has qualified for the first time to run in the capital’s municipal election.

Sundus El-Khot, a lecturer, teacher and facilitator living in western Jerusalem, filed the final paperwork on Friday, including a slate of 18 candidates and 750 signatures of support from the public for the list called Kol Ezraheha (All of Its Citizens). Given Palestinian opposition to participating in Israeli politics and historic low turnout, recruiting candidates and getting the signatures was a tall order.

“For many years I broke stereotypes when I taught Jewish children the Arabic language, and later I shattered myths held by their parents. Now I will break another record and become the first Arab woman to join the Jerusalem City Council,” the 33-year-old said.

Her journey has been fraught with challenges, including threats from the Palestinian Authority and influential Islamic clerics in eastern Jerusalem, who oppose her participation in the Oct. 31 municipal election.

The candidates list includes Walid Abu Tiya, an Israeli Arab and former Finance Ministry official who threw his hat in the ring for mayor, but dropped that race to instead seek a place on the 31-seat municipal council.

Language as a bridge

El-Khot is a graduate of the Hebrew University and previously managed Sanonit, an organization that promotes inclusive education.

Seeing language as a bridge between people led to her involvement in Madbarot, an organization that brings Jewish and Arab women together monthly to learn and practice Hebrew and Arabic. El-Khot teaches Arabic on the organization’s website.

She has also taught Arabic to Jewish women, sitting judges and members of think tanks, in an effort to dispel misconceptions.

“I found that female power can also stand above all the controversies surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and deal with the manifestations of discrimination in education and even remove obstacles to learning the Arabic language in Israel,” El-Khot said.

“In my view, a course in spoken Arabic for Jewish medical staff is especially important, as it allows them to understand and communicate with Arabic speakers who come for treatment,” she said. “My dream is to upgrade the study of both Arabic and Hebrew languages to bring people closer together and work toward peace and harmony among nations.”

In recent days, El-Khot met with various forums of Arab teachers who expressed support for her and the need to integrate into Israeli society. But the teachers are afraid to be publicly identified with these forums.

“The fear that Arabs who agree to run for a place in the Jerusalem Municipality will be denounced as ‘normalizers or Judaizers’ is a serious concern,” El-Khot said.

“But we must show courage and conviction that integration into the municipality, studying Arabic and citizenship in the Arab schools in Jerusalem and working under the Israeli education system, all of these will help improve the standard of living of the city’s Arabs and also in dealing with the rising wave of crime and violence in Arab society in general.”

Arab opposition

Arabs in eastern Jerusalem said that running for office in a Jewish municipality—especially Jerusalem—“legitimizes” the “Judaization” of the city.

“It seems that the initiators of the list tried to beautify it by mixing the names of public figures with traditional status and heads of families,” a Fatah operative in eastern Jerusalem said.

This is in line with a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by the Supreme Palestinian Fatwa Council and its head, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, prohibiting Arab participation in Jerusalem elections. The council is part of the Palestinian Authority.

Jerusalem has a population of around one million, of whom some 700,000 are eligible to vote. This includes 420,000 Jews and 280,000 Arabs. Arab voters include Israeli citizens as well as roughly 150,000 non-citizens who have permanent residence status.

Palestinians with permanent residence are entitled to vote in municipal elections and receive social benefits, but they are not allowed to vote in national elections or hold a mayoral office.

The Arab boycott of local elections dates back to 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited after the Six-Day War. Israel offered citizenship to the residents of the city’s eastern neighborhoods, but the vast majority said no, opting to keep their Jordanian citizenship.

Arab parties and individuals have never garnered enough votes to receive a city council seat. Historically, Arab participation in local elections has been around 5%.

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