On a Bright Jerusalem Morning, More Security Forces Than Voters at the Polls

In the Palestinian neighborhoods of Israel's capital city, most people don't even know that today is Election Day.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

It’s past midday at voting station No. 547, which also happens to be No. 636. The polls have been open for five hours, and so far, four people have come to vote.

That’s one voter for every border policemen stationed on site at the boys' high school in Sur Baher, an East Jerusalem neighborhood I see everyday from the end of my street in Arnona. One pair of uniformed men with rifles across their chests is on guard, while another pair sits in a room nearby, holding their heads up from boredom, doing a crossword puzzle. One of the two people manning the polling station on behalf of the Central Elections Committee, a kippah-wearing young man who would only give his name as Yashuv, fills the long, quiet hours by reading a book by S.Y. Agnon, Israel’s Nobel laureate, called “Sipur Pashut” – a simple story.

The story of East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed, couldn’t be more complex. One man leaving as I was entering acknowledged in a whisper that he had just voted, but politely declined to be interviewed: What could he possibly stand to gain by opening his mouth? Last week, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah sent out word that this year – as in every municipal election since Israel put permanent residency cards in the hands of Jerusalemites who had until then lived in Jordan – Palestinians should not participate.

And in the expectation that most would comply with the call to boycott, one would hardly know one is approaching a polling station. No banners, no signs, no leaflets, no activists standing a short distance from the front door, hoping to sway the undecided. So few people are expected to show, it seems, that the election authorities don’t seem troubled by sticking two polling stations – of the 120 it boasts are available in East Jerusalem – in one building. Meanwhile, nearby Jabal Mukaber has none – despite the fact that more than 21,000 people live there, according to 2011 statistics.

“We’re neither here nor there – not in the Palestinian Authority and not really in Israel, so we end up with nothing,” says Abed Said, who teaches Hebrew and physical education in the elementary school across the street. He’s been trying for two years to get the municipality to install a shade over the large courtyard where his students are playing beneath a blinding midday sun. “Two years – and nothing. If it were a Jewish school, it would arrive in a week,” Said says. “I watch the television, and when they’re talking about elections, none of the parties even talk about East Jerusalem at all. It’s like we don’t exist.” He’s still vacillating over whether he’ll bother casting a ballot today; he doubts it will make any difference.

On the main road through Jabal Mukaber, it’s difficult to find anyone who knows that it’s Election Day. The only reminder that today is the big day is a sprinkling of posters in Arabic for Haim Epstein – a religious candidate for mayor who could, at most, gnaw away at support for Moshe Leon, Mayor Nir Barkat’s main challenger. The posters are stuck on the trash receptacles.

“What elections?” more than one person answers when we stop to ask whether they’re voting.

“Is that today?” asks Iman Hamed, who runs a small business selling sweets. She has no idea where to vote if she decides to, and hasn’t received a white card in the mail telling her where to go. “We’re living here, and we get services from them, so why not vote,” she poses. “So who should I vote for?”

Zaid Hamdan is a lawyer who lives in Jabal Mukaber, and at 38, has never voted in an election his entire life. This year won’t be any different. “I see what happens,” says Hamdan, who wears a stylish collared shirt and tinted sunglasses. In the past, the parties used to come and promote themselves, and we’d get our hopes up, but after election day they did nothing for us. No one is listening to what we need,” he says.

But why not fight city hall by voting? His friend clicks his tongue. “Al fadi,” he says. It’s pointless.

Mohammed Jallal, who owns a popular grocery store, for several years ran a neighborhood committee to try to bring the needs of people in “Mukaber,” as he calls it for short, to the municipality. But after a minor success – getting the city to improve garbage collection – the committee broke up amid local rumblings of “too much cooperation” with the Israeli authorities. “Some Palestinians will say, ‘Oh you’re a traitor,’ when actually, all I care about now is the fact that there are 45 kids in my daughters’ class at school and sometimes there’s no electricity,” says Jallal, who has 11-year-old twin girls. “If they can confiscate land to build more roads, why can’t they build more schools?”

Some Palestinians do get out to vote. Mary Siriani, who recently moved from Beit Hanina to Armon Hanetsiv – from a Palestinian neighborhood to a mostly Jewish one – says she’s voted for decades. It’s proof, should she ever need it, of being a “good citizen,” a kind of insurance from the Interior Ministry revoking residency rights, as it often has. “We were born here, it’s our city too, and we should show it by voting.” She planned to cast a vote for Barkat, but had no idea what other party deserved her vote for city council. Whether parties have failed to campaign in Arabic or whether the Arabic media has ignored the campaign – probably a bit of both – few Palestinians plan to vote seem to know what the various parties stand for.

The dozen or more leaflets shoved into my mailbox over the last few weeks apparently arrived only because I live in Arnona. No one bothers wasting their advertising funds down the hill, in Sur Baher and Jabal Mukaber.

A teacher at the Sur Baher high school says he wishes he could vote here, rather than in the district where he lives – in Shuafat, on the northern edge of the city. “People still feel nervous about voting,” he said. “Maybe it’ll make a difference if we do, but we have our doubts.”

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