Palestinian Candidates Won't Win Jerusalem Race, but Are Still Making History

Aziz Abu Sarah and Ramadan Dabbash have already made a significant point by running for office in an Israeli municipal poll that the Palestinians traditionally have boycotted since 1967

Abu Sarah and fellow party candidates at a news conference this month.
Olivier Fittousi

In Safra Square beside the Jerusalem’s city hall building, there is mosaic of the famous Bünting map from the 1500s, which features Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the center of a flower, each petal of which represents different continents: Asia, Europe and Africa.

Last Thursday, this map was the backdrop of a news conference held by a new Palestinian political party, Our Jerusalem -- Al-Quds Lana in Arabic -- headed by Aziz Abu Sarah, who is running for mayor. Abu Sarah and two colleagues in their 20s and 30s wore Palestinian flag lapel pins.

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Theirs is the second Palestinian party to announce that they are running in the municipal election after Ramadan Dabbash’s Jerusalem for Jerusalemites party.

Both parties are seeking to break through the traditional boycott of Israeli municipal elections by Palestinian Jerusalemites ever since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-Day War and united the city under one municipal authority. Breaking through the Palestinian taboo against voting in an Israeli municipal election appears to be more or less the only thing the two parties have in common, however.

Dabbash is running on a platform that emphasizes the importance of improving municipal services to Palestinian residents of the city, while Our Jerusalem is running on an anti-occupation platform.

Ramadan Dabbash at his home in East Jerusalem's Sur Baher
Emil Salman

The prospect of either party winning a seat on the city council, or either of their leaders becoming mayor, appear slim. Only a small portion of the city’s Arab population has turned out to vote in the past. In the last election, the turnout was less than 2 percent of eligible voters.

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Theoretically, if the Palestinians, who constitute 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population, would take the collective decision to abandon their boycott of municipal elections, they would be able to elect a mayor, but such a prospect is not in the offing for the foreseeable future.

Even if Abu Sarah and Dabbash don’t get elected, they have gone further than any other Palestinian candidate since Jerusalem’s unification and have sparked unprecedented debate among Jerusalem Palestinians about whether they should vote in municipal elections.

A view of Sur Baher in 2017
Emil Salman

Opponents of the vote are no less adamant in their stance. Shortly after Abu Sarah’s news conference began, a group of young Palestinians threw eggs at the Our Jerusalem party candidates, although most of the projectiles missed their target and hit the mosaic of the map.

Dabbash, the first Palestinian candidate to enter the race, is a well-to-do and well-connected civil engineer and businessman and chairman of the community administration of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher. He's a father of 12 with four wives. His Jerusalem for Jerusalemites party has two separate websites, in Arabic and Hebrew, and the differences between them are instructive.

The Hebrew website describes “a united Jerusalem under [the authority] of the Jewish State of Israel” as an accomplished fact. The addition of the words “and that’s good,” were deleted after the site went online.

In Arabic, the site does not address the city’s political status and focuses on the rights of Jerusalem’s Palestinian citizens and support for the neighborhoods. “I wrote this after what I heard from the people,” Dabbash said. “Most of them are not prepared today to give up their [Israeli] identity cards [which gives them residency status]. This ID has become sacred. Most of the people don’t want to have the Palestinian Authority here.”

When asked why he doesn’t state that on his Arabic-language website, he responded: “There are people for whom it isn’t good to read that in Arabic,” adding: “People want somewhere to throw their garbage. They’re not looking for politics. I don’t want to declare who’s the boss in the city, but we are here and we deserve to live here.”

Sometimes politics does intrude, however. Other East Jerusalem Palestinian candidates have quit the race in the face of threats, leaving him as the only remaining Jerusalem for Jerusalemites candidate. And he himself admits: “I might wake up in the morning and find that they’ve torched my car. It’s not terrible. We’ll buy a new one.”

He alleged that something more serious happened this week. His opponents, he said, tried to kidnap his two-year-old son in an effort to get him to drop out of the election.

Dabbash is held in high regard at city hall for what he has done in Sur Baher, which is in better shape than most other of the city's Palestinian neighborhoods. Its community administration offers Hebrew language and computer classes for children and adults, and the police are building a new station nearby. Some of the streets have been repaved, for the first time since before the Six-Day War, and unlike some other parts of the city, most of the neighborhood’s houses were built with construction permits.

This is part of the reason, however, that he has a reputation among Palestinians as being too enthusiastic to work with Israeli authorities. People mention Dabbash's past membership in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. He is also accused of cooperation with Israeli security forces, a serious allegation in the Palestinian context.

The fact that, unlike 90 percent of the city’s Palestinian population, he has Israeli citizenship, also detracts from his case as an authentic candidate in the view of some Palestinians.

Aziz Abu Sarah
Emil Salman

He chuckles at the allegations, pointing sarcastically at his computer at his neighborhood administration office. “Here, you see? This is where I pass information to the Shin Bet,” referring to the Israeli security agency. Although he had a past affiliation with Likud, he said he no longer does and did in the past to benefit East Jerusalem.

In recent weeks, there have been talks about Dabbash’s and Abu Sarah’s parties running on a joint slate, but these contacts have run aground at this point. “They wanted me to raise a Palestinian flag in the campaign, to paint the western part of the city black and for me to declare Al-Quds as the capital of Palestine,” he said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.

Abu Sarah, 38, is very different from Dabbash in outlook and background. Born in the neighborhood of Wadi Joz. Abu Sarah’s brother was jailed in 1990 during the first intifada for involvement in stone-throwing and released after 11 months. The brother died three weeks later and the family held Israeli authorities responsible for his death, alleging it was a result of torture and prison conditions.

Aziz Abu Sarah said his mayoral bid is part of the Palestinian fight against the occupation. Although he speaks fluent English and Hebrew, he refers to his hometown only as Al-Quds and draws a link between discrimination in public spending - in Palestinian neighborhoods and politics, and promises to deal with both. But he says his main aim is to “rock the boat.”

As part of that effort he is running for mayor, unlike Dabbash, who is only running for a council seat. But for his electoral bid to be successful, he would need to petition the High Court of Justice to strike down a requirement that the mayor hold Israeli citizenship, which he does not. Abu Sarah is likely to fail in such a challenge, but feels he wins either way.

“I was born here and my parents were born here. If this is a democracy, allow me to run. If not, don’t allow me to. That will expose the bluff of Israeli democracy,” he said.

“All of us [Jerusalem Palestinians] pay municipal and health taxes, everyone has a bank account and everyone works in Israel. It is my view that, if we are already paying, let’s accept our rights.”

A court challenge by Abu Sarah would not be his only hurdle. The Muslim mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, has issued a fatwa, an Islamic religious ruling, barring Muslims from voting in the election.