Not an Israeli Citizen, East Jerusalemite Sees His Mayoral Run as Part of 'Palestinian Struggle'

Aziz Abu Sarah, who heads Al-Quds Lana list, will have to petition the High Court to contend for the job

Aziz Abu Sarah.
Emil Salman

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian entrepeneur and CEO of a travel company, has thrown his hat into the ring of the Jerusalem mayoral race at the head of a newly-formed list called Al-Quds Lana. This would be the second Palestinain list in the race in October, and the first Palestinian contender for mayor.

Al-Quds Lana will be contending for seats on the city council and Abu Sarah himself will be running for the mayor's seat.

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The first Palestinian candidate to enter the Jerusalem race was Ramadan Dabash, who heads the list "Jerusalem for Jerusalemites." Its sole aim is to improve services to residents of East Jerusalem and Dabash refuses to deal with political matters.

Contrary to Dabash, Abu Sarah sees his race as part of the "Palestinian national struggle," says his adviser Gershon Baskin.

Among the obstacles in Abu Sarah's way is the fact that like 90 percent of the residents of East Jerusalem, he is a resident but not a citizen of Israel.

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Under the law, only a citizen can be mayor of Jerusalem. Abu Sarah plans to sue at the High Court of Justice to have the law changed. "It can't be that a third of the city's residents can't run in the race for the most important seat in city hall," he said.

Abu Sarah explicitly charges that municipal neglect of East Jerusalem is related to the Palestinian identity of its residents. "These things are connected. The reason for the neglect is that the Finance Ministry isn't handing over money, just because we're Palestinians," he said.

The residents of East Jerusalem for their part do have the right to vote in city elections, but not in general elections for the Knesset. However, the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have boycotted municipal elections since 1967 because they oppose the city's unification.

In the past, Palestinians who thought to run in the city hall election gave up the notion after being threatened or having their cars set on fire by Palestinian nationalists. In March, Dabash persisted it was time for the Palestinians to have their place in city hall and that he feels the people are ready to vote.

Can vote but won't

All the Palestinian political factions perceive voting as normalization of the occupation, hence the broad-based opposition. In the last election in 2013, less than two percent of the eligible East Jerusalem voters actually did vote.

Abu Sarah says 180,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are eligible to vote and they should. "We can decide who the mayor will be," he said, referring to the fact that incumbent Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat won his last election in 2013 by 110,000 votes. He is however pessimistically predicting that if they do, Netanyahu "will come up with all kinds of laws to prevent it."

"However, this way people who think the status quo in Jerusalem can continue, will realize that it can't," he said.

Other voices in East Jerusalem are also calling for change, in light of the political stalemate: Not only could they change the situation of East Jerusalem residents, they might be able to exert political pressure on Israel.

Abu Sarah has been unsuccessfully trying for months to get Palestinian political figures to support his candidacy. If anything, his people expect imminent heavy pressure to come down on him to withdraw.

Dabash says that most Palestinians in the neighborhood of Mamilla would prefer to remain under Israeli control. However, since his candidacy was revealed earlier this year, pressure to boycott the elections seems to have increased.

Baskin, Abu Sarah's aide, says "We are trying to at least reach the understanding the Palestinians won't hurt other Palestinians who want to vote."

Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, issued a fatwa forbidding the East Jerusalemites to vote. But a recent survey conducted by a Palestinian polling company found that 22% of the East Jerusalemites would like to vote.

Baskin suspects Israel's right-wing is also trying to discourage Abu Sarah's candidacy, but the more the state opposes his list, Baskin says, the more it will spur the East Jerusalemites to vote.

Abu Sarah was born in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz and today lives in Jerusalem and the U.S. He owns a company that provides political tours in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His brother died during the first intifada of injuries after being beaten up in prison. Following his death, Abu Sarah became active in a forum of bereaved families. He hopes Israelis will vote for him too: "Israelis who understand that things can't go on this way," he explains. The first thing he would do as mayor, he says, is to stop the home demolitions in East Jerusalem.