Ten weeks before the local elections in Jerusalem on Oct. 30, 2018, terrorist organizations are increasing the pressure on east Jerusalem residents to stay away from the voting booths and maintain the boycott of Jerusalem’s municipal elections as in the past. While the pressure grows, this time surveys and some new, different voices reflect a desire among many Arab east Jerusalemites to participate in the elections. They seek to become part of the municipal establishment so that they can wield influence and channel budgets into services and infrastructure for the Arab neighborhoods.
An open letter appeared in various Arab media outlets calling on Arab Jerusalemites to boycott the city’s municipal elections. It was translated for the first time on the Facebook page “View from East Jerusalem – 0202” under the heading: “The Islamic nationalist forces in Al-Quds the occupied capital.”
The letter states: “We regard anyone who takes part in the elections, supports them, or deals with them as someone who is cut off from the nation and will be seen as one of the mechanisms of the occupation and its helpers.” The letter further asserts: “Whoever takes part in the elections is a traitor who harms all the Palestinian values.”
This public letter was preceded by a religious ruling by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, which also states that whoever takes part in the elections is a traitor and that “whoever among the Jerusalem residents takes part in the local elections will be defined as someone who has left the fold of nationhood, the homeland, and the religion.” A few weeks ago, the PLO Executive Committee took the same stance, warning the east Jerusalem population not to have anything to do with the elections. The committee, which is headed by Mahmoud Abbas, warned that “participating in the elections could signify de facto recognition of Israeli rule and sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
Candidate Ramadan Dabash on the threats: ‘I’m a traitor? They’re traitors!’
Yet, despite the growing tensions in the east Jerusalem street and the attempts to terrorize the population, “Mukhtar” Ramadan Dabash, chair of the community administration in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, has announced his intention to head the faction, “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” that will run in the elections for the Jerusalem City Council. Dabash also said he intended to do so in collaboration with Palestinian entrepreneur Aziz Abu Sarah and left-wing Jewish activist Gershon Baskin.
The initiative for the Jewish-Arab list, however, apparently ran aground, and Baskin will not be included in the party. Surveys indicated that a joint list of this kind would perhaps add a few hundred Jewish votes, but would lose thousands of Arab voters who oppose collaborating with the Jewish left in the electoral framework. Therefore, Dabash’s list will include only Arabs.
The main objective of this new faction is to wield influence through municipal representation on the allocation of municipal resources and budgets in the spheres of infrastructure and services. Dabash, for his part, is not deterred by the Mufti’s religious rulings or by the threats that have been directed at him. He made clear that he opposes the division of Jerusalem. He said that if a referendum were to be held among the east Jerusalem Arabs, “they would vote to keep living in a unified city even if it entails recognizing both its western and eastern parts as the capital of Israel.”
“I’m a traitor? They’re traitors,” Dabash asserted recently in a conversation with me. “These elections are a municipal affair. Fifty-one years in which we have no father and no mother. Fifty-one years in which Hamas and the PLO sat like onlookers from the side and did not help us, neither in construction nor in education, nor in many other municipal matters.” He added: “Islam is a religion of life not of death. The Mufti is wrong when he says that we’re traitors. We want to give the east Jerusalem residents a chance to live like human beings. I want to have clout from the inside, to get more resources allocated to the Arab residents.”
Arabs are 31 percent of the voters
About 630,000 Jerusalemites are eligible to vote. Some 200,000 of them, 31 percent, are Arabs. (Arabs constitute 41 percent of all Jerusalem residents, but many are children and teenagers too young to vote.) In the 2013 municipal elections, only 1 percent of the city’s Arabs voted. Dabash estimates that at least 40 percent of them want to vote, but do not know what they will ultimately do if two days before the elections, as in previous election campaigns, Hamas threatens their lives. According to Dabash, “I think this time it’s more widely understood that a change is needed. I myself am not afraid. One can’t remain silent any longer. One has to stand up and vote.”
Dr. David Koren, Arab-affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, said recently in a conversation published in Israel Hayom that, indeed, “many more of the east Jerusalem Arabs will vote than in the past, but still not enough.” Koren thinks there will be voting blocs in places such as Wadi Joz, Beit Safafa and Sur Baher, but he is not convinced that there will be enough ballots cast to pass the minimum threshold of votes.
“The east Jerusalem residents are still threatened and intimidated by terror and extreme nationalism,” observes Koren. “The Palestinian Authority’s ability to stick labels on them as ‘Zionist agents and collaborators’ still exists. And it has a deterrent effect.”
Koren’s impression is that “the number of courageous people who are freeing themselves from the threat is growing. You also hear from the private person who will tell you, in a conversation in a closed room, that he prefers to keep living in one city under Israeli sovereignty but with equality, something he will never say on the outside. But a vote is another step forward, and I am not convinced that the general public is ripe enough for it. What is completely clear to me is that from a security standpoint, the police and the security establishment must give the east Jerusalem population a sense that it is safe to go out and vote, and I am convinced—in light of conversations I held with the police—that they are completely aware of the issue.”
“Does the Jewish population have reason to fear Arab representation on the City Council?” Koren was asked. He replied: “Whoever wants to see Jerusalem divided with two different municipalities has no reason to support it. Whoever truly understands what is entailed by a united city has to know that as part of the processes of ‘Israelization’ and becoming citizens that a considerable portion of the east Jerusalem Arabs is undergoing, they will in the future become part of the political and municipal game.”
A disconnect between the local and national arenas
Early this year, a wide-ranging survey of east Jerusalem Arabs by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 60 percent think they should take part in the Jerusalem municipality elections at the end of October, that they should try to exert influence from within, and that after the protracted boycott, the time has come to take part in the “municipal game.” (The survey was commissioned by the Hebrew University to gauge Arab attitudes after President Donald Trump declared U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.)
The survey results were not a surprise. They again showed that alongside trends of Islamization and religious radicalization in east Jerusalem society, the Israelization trend among many east Jerusalem Arabs is also continuing and perhaps even gaining steam.
The survey results also indicated the strength of the reality for Jews and Arabs after 50 years together in a single city without borders. Today, many in the Arab community seek parity of services and infrastructures between the eastern and western parts of the city by securing clout on the City Council. The survey findings suggest that this interest is stronger than the interest in the Palestinian national narrative about Jerusalem pushed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Those two entities, each in its own way, view any cooperation with Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, as “treason” against the “supreme goal” of “establishing Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.”
The survey apparently shows that a considerable part of the east Jerusalem residents is prepared to set aside the “supreme goal” of the Palestinian leadership. Instead, they wish to distinguish between the local, municipal arena and the Palestinian national objectives, which for now appear unachievable. The poll also suggests that many more eastern Jerusalem residents now understand that obtaining a larger stake in the municipal budgets, which have been flowing mainly to western Jerusalem for many years, requires political clout on the City Council.
Seeking ballot boxes, not bullets
And yet, just months before the Oct. 30 elections, the atmosphere in some parts of the eastern Jerusalem street is one of fear, and it is not clear whether these trends, which have been mounting for several years, will be translated on election day into east Jerusalem Arabs heading to the polling stations. That also appears to depend on the activity of the Israeli security branches and on whether they can give east Jerusalem residents a sense of security. Part of the answer lies in a sufficient dispersal of the ballot boxes. In the previous elections, only 13 voting booths were provided in the eastern part of the city, making it much more difficult for the few residents who wanted to vote.
In previous municipal election campaigns, the terror organizations were able to torpedo any significant participation by east Jerusalem Arabs and Arab parties with the exception of the 1969 elections. Only a few percent of those eligible to vote came to the polls, and terror triumphed. Over the years, these tiny numbers conveyed a Palestinian national message of not formally recognizing Israeli rule and unification of the city.
Israel, for its part, failed to create a sense of security that would have enabled more east Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections. The threat to their safety was too tangible. It is still well-remembered in east Jerusalem that in the past the Arab public who wanted to take part in the local elections and well-known figures who wanted to run for a seat on the City Council, were threatened and sometimes even subjected to the violence and terror of Hamas and Fatah. For example, Hanna Siniora, the former editor of the newspaper Al-Fajir and who wanted to run for the City Council, had two of his cars set ablaze. Local initiatives in Beit Safafa and Sur Baher met a similar fate.
This time, will Israel be able to create a different atmosphere and different conditions? At the moment, the picture is still unclear, but the terror threats do not augur well. The Israelization trends by themselves will not change the electoral map in the eastern part of the city. What is lacking there is a feeling among the residents that they are protected against the threats made by terror groups and that their physical safety is ensured. However, feelings of safety and security are much harder to impart.
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.