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East Jerusalemites Ponder Participating in Municipal Vote
A man walks past an overflowing dumpster in east Jerusalem close to Herod’s Gate. (David Lee)

East Jerusalemites Ponder Participating in Municipal Vote

Fewer than one percent of Palestinians voted 5 years ago, but some say this year’s vote on October 30 will be different

In a stark reversal of the trend in the last Jerusalem municipal election held five years ago in which fewer than one percent of the Palestinian population voted, a recent poll now indicates that nearly 60 per cent of Palestinians living in east Jerusalem believe they should participate in the next round of balloting.

Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, which is under Israeli jurisdiction, have widely rejected the idea of voting in the city’s municipal elections ever since Israel annexed the eastern half of the city after the 1967 war, an act rejected by both the Palestinian Authority and east Jerusalemites alike.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian newspaper Wafa and the poll conducted jointly by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion suggest a shift away from the blanket tendency to boycott elections, although sympathy for Palestinian issues remains firm across the board.

Just a sidewalk away from the Old City, the center of east Jerusalem is visibly less crowded than the Israeli side of the city where modern shops and restaurants are packed with tourists. A lot of the buildings look run-down and shuttered, while the streets are lined with empty boxes, papers and other trash.

“Jerusalem is under occupation. The election is illegal, because they don’t have any right to make elections,” declared Hazzam Abu Nageeb, a shop owner in east Jerusalem.

Just north of east Jerusalem, Palestinian students at the Mt. Scopus campus of The Hebrew University, weigh-in.

“[On top of] having no equal rights, we are humiliated every day,” Hussam Shweiki, a computer science major, tells The Media Line. “Palestinians are body checked at the Damascus Gate and at bus stops for no reason.”

Shweiki cites the difficulty Palestinian residents face of finding jobs as a major reason why he might vote in the upcoming municipal elections. Jameel Agdharia, one of Shweiki’s friends, adds: “I respect [Shweiki’s] choice to vote, but I wouldn’t even vote for a Palestinian candidate.”

One of the biggest factors playing into this year’s municipal election is the expectation of several Palestinian candidates running on the ballot. This comes five years after eight Palestinian candidates withdrew from Jerusalem’s municipal election after strong opposition from the PA. However, Munther Dajani, a political science professor at Al-Quds University, believes that Palestinians are tired of the PA not doing enough for east Jerusalem.

“Jordan is the only country that sees [and cares for] the problems on the ground for [east Jerusalemites],” Dajani tells The Media Line.

“Five years was a long time ago,” says Gershon Baskin, the founder of the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. “We can significantly raise participation as we have a list of Palestinian candidates running for office this year.”

A former adviser to the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leaders involved in the Middle East Peace Process, Baskin has been connected to numerous high-profile negotiations, including the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas’s clutches. He has been vocal about his support for the “two-states for two peoples” solution, and now he is helping Palestinians achieve official representation on the municipal level.

“We are trying to break a 50-year-old taboo about Palestinians running in the elections, so we have to be precise and sensitive about the timing of campaigning in front of the public,” Baskin explains to The Media Line.

Even without an official name for the all-Palestinian party, Baskin says calls for Palestinian representation in the local government have grown since the Oslo Accords in 1990 between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, an agreement that many Palestinians feel has failed to change the status quo for east Jerusalem.

“Fifty years of non-participation has not benefited Palestinians, and the people feel as if they are losing their Jerusalem,” Baskin continues. “They desperately need about 2,500 more classrooms and better infrastructure,” he adds.

Baskin hints that there may be a candidate for the mayoral seat alongside other candidacies for the city council. Although there hasn’t yet been any publicity about the candidates in this party, Baskin says there will be an official campaign in September and October.

Ramadan Dabash is one of the hopeful Palestinian candidates whom Baskin has reached out to. Dabash is a civil engineer who has worked with the Israel Defense Forces and has visited the Knesset on many occasions in his role as the community administrator of Tzur Baher, a Palestinian neighborhood southeast of east Jerusalem.

“I can go on living my life, but I wanted to do something about the Palestinians who needed help from someone able to work with Israeli officials,” Dabash tells The Media Line.

“I agreed with Baskin that we should have an all-Palestinian party to unify Palestinian voters, but we will work jointly with Israeli officials once we are inside the municipality,” Dabash maintains.

He says his party—possibly to be called Jerusalem for the Jerusalem People—is made up of 22 fellow Palestinian candidates, but he doesn’t specify whether his party is connected to the all-Palestinian party Baskin alluded to.

After hearing about the potential for Palestinian candidates running in this year’s elections, some Palestinians seem encouraged by the prospect. “Yes, I think I must go and vote for the right candidate,” Moutasem Jabary, a university student from east Jerusalem, tells The Media Line.

“I want to see the changes in the streets, a cleaner Muslim Quarter in the Old City, less racism towards the Palestinian people from the Israeli Police and government—a little peace,” Jabary adds.

Nimrod Korman, a Jewish student at The Hebrew University, also informs The Media Line that he has been hearing about Palestinians who, in increasing numbers, want to participate in local politics.

“From talking to friends, I think there is an individual-to-individual desire to vote and participate like other Israeli citizens,” says Korman. “I think this attitude is good for democracy.”

(David Lee is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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