More than a third of the people who have the right to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections on Tuesday are Palestinian – but if history is any indication, very few will show up at the ballot box.
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Fuad Sliman, the only Palestinian in the race, had hoped that things could look different this year. In recent months, many East Jerusalemites told him they were so fed up with the situation in their neighborhoods and their lack of power in City Hall, they were ready to vote on October 22.
But updates he received in just the past week indicate that various Palestinian factions have sent out word to East Jerusalemites, strongly encouraging them to uphold a decades-old boycott against participating in the elections.
“People have a dilemma, and I understand them,” says Sliman, who is fourth on a joint list of Meretz and Labor. “They know unequivocally that the time has come to partake in elections, but they worry about how it will affect the external picture, because they hear arguments that to vote is to legitimize the occupation. They want the same kinds of municipal services that they see in the rest of the city. And yet, if they vote, they feel it’s kind of forfeiting their rights. It’s like the heart says something, but the head says something else.”
Sliman, 52, knows what is to feel torn. He moved to Jerusalem 30 years ago from Eilabun, a largely Christian village in the Galilee, to attend university. He married a Jerusalemite, took a position as a nuclear medicine technician at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Kerem, and got involved in the Histadrut. He and his wife Iman – a reporter at the Voice of Israel’s Arabic service – spent the last 20-odd years living in Wadi Joz, an Arab neighborhood northeast of the Old City, raising their three children.
About two years ago, however, they picked up and moved to Pisgat Ze’ev, a neighborhood well over the Green Line which the Palestinian Authority – and every government but Israel’s – considers to be a settlement. Here, they have more space than they did in their crowded home in Wadi Joz, Sliman explains in an interview in his sprawling living room, where he keeps one eye on Israeli evening shows on his big flat-screen TV. The gated entrance to his home, like every home on the street, feels more West L.A. than East Jerusalem, breathing affluence and privacy.
They didn’t move to Pisgat Ze’ev only to get a little more elbow room. They knew that just five minutes up the road from Wadi Joz, the developed world beckoned.
“Everything there is lacking,” he says. “Infrastructure. Parks. Trees. Schools. Public transportation. Sidewalks. A mother can’t walk with a stroller there because the roads are so bad – in some places there’s no asphalt and it’s just rocks and sand. In the winter, it turns to mud. Here, there are lights in the road, and when one goes out, the city comes and fixes it the next day. There, whole streets are dark and no one cares.”
The school system in East Jerusalem is a “catastrophe,” Sliman adds, and has a shortage of about 1,000 classrooms. That’s a figure quoted by NGOs such as Ir Amim and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, but what does it mean? It means that children learn in classrooms packed like sardines, and many go to school shifts, some from 7 a.m. to 12, the others from 12 to 5. “Young kids can’t learn at this hour, and can’t join any sports or after-school activities,” he adds. It’s no wonder many wind up dropping out, and that the privileged few go off to private schools – a phenomena that doesn’t exist in West Jerusalem because there’s no need for it.
Things are the worst of all, he says, in neighborhoods just up the road from here, in places like Kufr Aqab and Ras Hamis. There, people live on the other side of the wall (Israeli officialdom calls it a separation fence) but they are still inside Jerusalem municipal boundaries – and must keep paying their Arnona (municipal taxes) to maintain their Jerusalem residency status. And yet the trash doesn’t get picked up. “You wait an hour at the checkpoint to get anywhere,” says Sliman, “but you don’t get any services.”
Most problematic, growth in Palestinian neighborhoods is stifled, and finding it impossible to obtain permits, many simply build anyway, only to have the finished product demolished later. Incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat may be getting slammed on the right from Likud-Beiteinu candidate Moshe Leon, who accuses him in posters around town of being “good for the leftists,” but in Sliman’s eyes – and in Meretz-Labor's in general – Barkat has sped up the pace of home demolitions during his term, serving right-wing interests.
“The population knows that Barkat’s pushed things in the municipality further to the right,” Sliman says. “If an East Jerusalemite would ask me, I would say, cast a vote for the city council, and then put a blank paper for mayor.” (Israelis vote by putting slips of paper into small envelopes.)
In the end, only a trickle are likely to show up. Rumors were rampant in recent weeks that East Jerusalemites could act according to their conscience and vote if they so choose. In other words, political operatives acting on behalf of various Palestinian national factions wouldn’t turn up the social pressure to stay home. Naomi Tsur, the head of the Ometz Lev movement, said at a neighborhood meeting last month that she’s been told by her friends in East Jerusalem that Palestinian women were going to be “allowed” to vote by mukhtars and other local leaders – and she hoped some of them would cast their vote for her pro-women party. Tsur declined to give names of her sources of that information.
Ultimately, it became clear that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah still views going to vote as a threat to Palestinian interests. “We don’t vote in Jerusalem elections,” a PLO spokesman in Ramallah explained to me, “because we don’t want to legitimate an institution that has been keen on the illegal annexation of our land, displacement of our people and construction of illegal settlements.”
Sliman says that the idea of women coming to vote without their husbands is unrealistic. More helpful would be to let East Jerusalemites vote elsewhere in the city – near places of work, for example, in West Jerusalem. In previous years, Sliman explains, various Palestinian activists have stood near polling places and intimidated anyone planning to go in to vote, sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly, by photographing people on the path to the ballot box, inducing fear of reprecussions. For just this reason, Meretz asked the Central Elections Commission to allow voting in other places - but its request was rejected.
It was a great disappointment, says Pepe Alalu, the head of the Meretz-Labor list and a former deputy mayor, because freeing people from the fear of voting in their own neighborhoods could potentially have brought tens of thousands of people out to vote.
But the numbers show that the system doesn’t want them – and doesn’t expect them. Each voting precinct in East Jerusalem covers about 4,000 voters – as compared to 500 or 600 for each place in West Jerusalem. Put another way, there are 809 places to vote, and only 121 in East Jerusalem. “Even if all those people came out to vote, the voting places in East Jerusalem couldn’t accommodate them,” he says.
Still, he tries to convince people where he can. You won’t find Meretz posters plastered around East Jerusalem; in the neighborhoods where a third of Jerusalemites live, you’d never know there was an election on at all. But he does have stacks of Meretz flyers in Arabic, handed out in a more discreet fashion.
“If Arabs can take a little step ahead and think not just about the national issue, but about life in this city, they could make a huge difference in their lives,” says Sliman. “I don’t think that going out to vote means you forfeit claims on East Jerusalem. Until there is a permanent solution, there needs to be improvement in people’s lives. If Meretz will get a good mandate from the population, with three to six places on the city council, then we can truly have influence over the mayor’s office and make a difference in what’s happening.”