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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Palestinian ends historic run for Jerusalem mayor citing pressure from all sides

Activist says Israeli residency threat and Palestinian opposition to blame for decision to withdraw

Aziz Abu Sarah, 38, Palestinian journalist and non-Israeli resident of East Jerusalem, addresses the media. Alamy Live News
Aziz Abu Sarah, 38, Palestinian journalist and non-Israeli resident of East Jerusalem, addresses the media. Alamy Live News

Aziz Abu Sarah wanted to do what others told him was impossible: run for mayor of Jerusalem and become the first Palestinian local leader of the contested city.

As a Palestinian resident of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, Mr Abu Sarah can vote in municipal elections, but only as a non-citizen. The 38-year-old cannot vote in national Israeli elections or technically run for mayor at all.

Yet he did, at least informally, believing a run at the mayorship would give his fellow Palestinians a greater stake in the city they seek part of to be the capital of any future sovereign state and improve their livelihoods. Three-quarters of East Jerusalem’s neglected Palestinians live below the poverty line, compared to an overall poverty-rate of 20 per cent in Israel.

“What we can do for sure is to have our voices heard,” he told The National of his decision to run anyway with an all-Palestinian list for his new party, Al-Quds Lana – Arabic for “Our Jerusalem”.

“We can fight for the budget,” he said, adding that East Jerusalemite residents are nearly 40 per cent of the population, but receive only 10 to 12 per cent of the city budget. “We can try to obstruct decisions that hurt the residents of Jerusalem. And the least of all we can know what the heck is happening behind the closed doors.”

But on Tuesday, after just a few weeks of Mr Abu Sarah’s historic campaign, he announced he was withdrawing because of threats from the Israelis to rescind his residency, as well as from Palestinians for violating a long-held boycott of Israel’s electoral rule of Jerusalem.

“It seems that entrenched political interest groups on both sides hope to maintain the status quo, and will stop at nothing to prevent forward progress,” the journalist and tour guide said in his announcement, posted to Facebook.

“Recently, I went to renew my travel document, I was told that my status as a Jerusalem resident is ‘being checked’ [by the Israelis] due to my travels and work abroad,” Mr Abu Sarah wrote. “In other words, I am facing the possibility of losing my right to live in Jerusalem…In addition to this, despite a lot of strong support from Palestinian Jerusalemites, some Palestinian advocates of the elections boycott policy are applying strong pressure on our candidates and their families.”

Mr Abu Sarah’s campaign was always a gamble from the start. In the last municipal and mayoral elections held in 2013, only slightly more than one percent of the estimated 180,000 eligible Palestinians voted. The consensus in the community has long been to boycott the elections as a means of protesting Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah leadership, based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and banned by Israel from operating in Jerusalem, have called for boycotts, as have the also-banned Hamas and other Palestinian religious bodies. At Mr Abu Sarah’s first public campaign event, several Palestinian youths threw eggs at him in protest.

When it comes to Jerusalem politics, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are the core voting bloc to court. If Palestinians voted, in theory they could also make or break a candidate. But many East Jerusalemites don't even know they have the right to vote in local elections, or think that voting would actually change anything in a system they see as bent on keeping them out. (If they live outside of Jerusalem for too long, for example, they can lose their residency.)

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The Jerusalem municipality has in turn designated six polling stations on the east side, versus 187 in Jewish communities, where turnout is high.

Still, this year, analysts have said, feels different. That's in part because Palestinians in Jerusalem are more mobilised after the controversial relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

The move effectively recognised Israeli sovereignty over the divided and disputed city. Palestinians are further frustrated with the string of US aid cuts to the PA, United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and other institutions, like hospitals in East Jerusalem. Amid it all, there’s widespread frustration with the Palestinian leadership, which is split between the West Bank and Gaza, and entirely removed from daily life in derelict East Jerusalem.

More Palestinians are interested in new strategies, like voting, Mr Abu Sarah said. For the first time, he was one of two Palestinians with very public campaigns for the municipality. The other Palestinian candidate, Ramadan Dabash, 51, an engineer and community leader from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sur Baher, is still running for the municipality, which until now has no Palestinian representation.

Mr Dabash has taken an entirely different approach to his fellow Palestinian’s more activist style. He is running on an apolitical platform of highlighting “the miserable economic situation of the east side,” and bringing services to Palestinians there, he said.

“We don’t have enough money for roads, schools, pools, and places for kids to play,” he told The National. “All the money goes to the other side of Jerusalem… It’s not enough to cry all the time that the Israeli side does not give us enough services, so we need to get inside the municipality.”

Mr Dabash’s politics, though, have been a turn off for some potentially mobilised Palestinians. Last year, he briefly joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, and critics say he’s too close to right-wing Israelis. Some Palestinians also see his candidacy as ultimately benefiting Israel more, in that he’ll become the token “good Arab,” who Israelis can cite to counter criticism of the discrimination facing Palestinians.

Still, speaking two days before ending his campaign, Mr Abu Sarah insisted that “by joining the municipality you don't accept the occupation”.

His argument is that doing nothing is in itself normalising the Israeli occupation and a green-light for ever-growing Israeli control over the city.

“We are accepting everything the municipality is doing to us. As a people or as a leadership, we don't have a strategy to save the city,” he said.

He admits that in the eyes of other Palestinians maybe he is “wrong,” but he says he is trying to do something different to break the cycle of hopelessness for his people in Jerusalem. He asks those who oppose him to do the same.

“If you have a better strategy, let me know,” he concluded.