Despite Official Boycott, Over Half of East Jerusalem's Palestinians Want to Vote in City Elections

As despair over the chances of a two-state solution grows, calls grow within the community to participate in municipal elections, in order to reduce the inequality between the city's western and eastern parts

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, 2016.
The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Almost 60 percent of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents believe they should participate in the city’s municipal elections, while only 14 percent oppose doing so, according to a new poll.

The respondents who supported voting in municipal elections tended to be younger, more educated and financially better off.

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In recent years, especially as despair over the chances of a two-state solution has grown, there have been increasing calls within East Jerusalem’s Palestinian community to participate in municipal elections to improve the situation in Palestinian neighborhoods and reduce the inequality between the city’s eastern and western part. But such statements have been vehemently opposed by the main Palestinian parties, and Palestinians who sought to run for election were violently attacked until they withdrew their candidacies.

Palestinians currently comprise about 40 percent of Jerusalem’s 865,000 population. After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it gave the area’s Palestinian inhabitants permanent residency rather than citizenship, so they are entitled to vote in municipal elections but not national ones. Nevertheless, Palestinians have consistently boycotted the mayoral and city council elections. In Jerusalem’s last municipal election, for instance, fewer than 1 percent of eligible Palestinians voted.

The poll, commissioned by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is based on face-to-face interviews with 612 East Jerusalem Palestinians. It was taken in January, after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Participating in elections is seen as a way to express dissatisfaction with the existing situation at both the civic and the diplomatic level, given all the uncertainty which derives from continuation of the existing situation, with no prospect for change visible on the horizon,” said Prof. Dan Miodownik, head of the university’s Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations.

Miodownik and doctoral student Noam Brenner, of the university’s political science department, designed and commissioned the poll in conjunction with IPCRI – Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives. The actual polling was done by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, headed by Dr. Nabil Kukali. “Part of the story here is one of protest – against the situation, against Israel, against the lack of a diplomatic horizon,” Miodownik continued. “It’s not that they’re telling themselves, ‘If we participate in the elections, everything will be all right.’

“We also see in the other questions that there’s great opposition to normalization with Israel, but participating in the municipal elections is the only way Palestinians have to protest legally in Israel,” he added. “It’s the only method the law doesn’t prevent them from using.”

But despite the poll’s results, Miodownik believes the day when large numbers of East Jerusalem Palestinians will actually vote in municipal elections is still far off, due to the Palestinian parties’ fierce opposition. “For this to happen, they would need at least tacit consent from Fatah,” the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, he said.

About six months ago, Eyad Bahbouh, a teacher from East Jerusalem’s A-Tur neighborhood, announced the establishment of an East Jerusalem political party to run in municipal elections and he has been trying to mobilize support for it. Ramadan Dabash, head of the Sur Baher neighborhood administration and an activist in Israel’s ruling Likud party, is also trying to run for city council.

The poll asked respondents about their preferred solution for the city. A whopping 97.4 percent strongly opposed the idea that Jerusalem in its present borders should remain annexed to Israel. But a no less sweeping majority, 96.6 percent, strongly opposed a return to the 1967 lines without free access to both sides of the city.

When asked about returning to the 1967 lines while maintaining free access to both sides of the city, opposition dropped to 34.5 percent. Nevertheless, only 22 percent actually supported this solution.

Another option that roused sweeping opposition – 95 percent – was for all of Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods to become part of a Palestinian state except the Old City, where Israel would retain control, but also uphold the religious status quo at the holy sites. When asked about a similar solution in which Palestinians would get control over the Temple Mount, opposition dropped to 50 percent, but only 12 percent supported it.

“There are two opposing solutions here – a classic division along the 1967 lines and full annexation – and all the respondents oppose both of them,” Miodownik noted. “This shows that they see no hope on the horizon, but on the other hand, none of them is willing to have his life within the [entire] city taken away. The solution that gets any support is that which on the one hand returns to the ’67 lines, while on the other hand preserves the fabric of life and enables employment. What’s interesting is that the percentage of support for this is higher among the group that supports voting in municipal elections.”

The poll has a margin of error of less than 4 percent. East Jerusalem is considered a very difficult place to conduct surveys, and few polls of its Palestinian residents’ views have been published.

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