Amid all the hubbub over the new Palestinian government, the upcoming publication of the road map and the rest of the daily tribulations in the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO's executive committee found time last week to hold a discussion and make the expected decision demanding Jerusalem's Arabs boycott the upcoming elections for mayor of the city.
The executive committee, chaired by Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, discussed Jerusalem among other reasons because this past weekend, the Eastern Orthodox church celebrated its Easter Holy Fire rite. This key holiday for the church is marked by ceremonies at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and on the Via Dolorosa. As in the past, Arafat sent his representatives to the Christian ceremonies in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem's Arabs have been boycotting the municipal elections since 1967. The estimated 230,000 Arabs of the city are not citizens of Israel, but as permanent residents of the city they have Israeli ID cards that give them the right to vote in city elections. The boycott is the result of Palestinian refusal to recognize the 1967 annexation of the eastern part of the city to the State of Israel. All Arab and Palestinian publications refer to the Old City and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as "occupied Jerusalem." Often, they refuse to even use the term Jerusalem Municipality, and instead call it by the mayor's name, like "the Kollek municipality" or in recent years, "the Olmert municipality."
In the past there have been a few Arabs who raised the idea of participating in the elections, to improve conditions in Arab neighborhoods. Jerusalem's Arabs are a little more than a third of the population and if they were to vote en masse, they wouldn't be able to elect one of their own as mayor but they could certainly determine which Jewish candidate is elected. All those proposals quickly fell because it was clear that participating in the elections would be understood to be Arab recognition of the annexation of the eastern part of the city to the State of Israel.
Looking back, it is no accident Jerusalem was the main obstacle at Camp David. The further we get from 1948, the more the impression of the refugee problem is blurred, but the opposite is true in the case of Jerusalem. With the collapse of an important part of social secular ideology, the Muslim world (and perhaps the world in general) is becoming more religious, turning the holy city of Jerusalem into a major obstacle on the way to an agreement.
Palestinian spokesmen often say that of all the controversial issues, Jerusalem is one where they don't even have a mandate for discussions. For hundreds of millions of Muslims, it doesn't matter if Arafat and Abu Mazen concede to Israel on issues like settlements or borders and refugees. But they won't allow them to give up on Jerusalem because Al Quds, al-Sharif and Al Aqsa are not Palestinian or even Arab property. Andrew White, a Church of England leader who often visits the city, recently declared that Oslo was doomed to fail because it was a secular agreement, made by secular people, while it is the Holy Land and the Holy City at stake.
That's evident in the day-to-day life of the city. While the Jews of Israel mostly stay away from the city, Christian tourists have ceased arriving, and the West Bankers and Gazans are prohibited from visiting, every weekend tens of thousands of Israeli Muslim citizens arrive on board buses. It's an amazing sight. Hundreds of buses parked every Saturday around the walls of the Old City, Israeli Arabs by the thousands arriving to pray at Al Aqsa, filling the alleys of the markets of the Old City. The Islamic Movement subsidizes the price of the bus ticket. With a little exaggeration it could be said that under the current political circumstances, Jerusalem is now a kind of capital for Israeli Arabs more than for any other community in the country.
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