(photo credit: )
As in previous municipal elections, the overwhelming majority of Jerusalem's Arab voters boycotted Tuesday's vote.
Only a few thousand Arabs - mostly municipality workers and their families - cast their ballots amid tight security measures and threats by Palestinian activists.
The number of Arab voters in the city is estimated at 125,000. But since 1967, the Arab residents of Jerusalem have been boycotting the municipal elections out of fear that their participation would be interpreted as recognition of Israel's annexation of the Arab neighborhoods.
The Arabs in Jerusalem are entitled to vote and run in the municipal elections in their capacity as permanent residents of the city. However, because they aren't citizens of the state, they can't vote for the Knesset.
As has been the case on the eve of each municipal election, the Palestinian Authority issued several warnings to the Arab residents not to participate in the election. PA officials and spokesmen repeatedly warned that any Arab who presented his or her candidacy or voted would be treated as a "traitor." The PA's top religious leaders also issued a number of fatwas [Islamic decrees] banning Arabs from taking part in the municipal election.
Early Tuesday, PA supporters in the city tried to enforce a commercial strike in protest against the municipal election. But after most of them were detained by the police, the merchants reopened their businesses, especially inside the Old City and in the main commercial center near Salah Eddin Street.
Graffiti painted overnight on the walls also warned the Arabs against participating in the election. The warnings were issued by masked men belonging to various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah.
However, despite the threats and warnings, dozens of young men working for the different candidates were seen roaming the streets and neighborhoods in an attempt to recruit potential voters. Cars carrying posters of Nir Barkat and Arkadi Gaydamak could be seen in almost every neighborhood and village in the eastern part of the city.
Gaydamak appeared to have run the largest election campaign in the Arab part of the city since 1967. Over the past few months, Gaydamak succeeded in building a vast network of supporters who worked hard to introduce him to the Arab population.
Gaydamak also ran full-page advertisements in Al-Quds, the largest daily newspaper, in which he urged the Arabs to vote for him. It was the first time that a Palestinian daily had agreed to publish such advertisements.
Gaydamak supporters expressed confidence that the majority of the Arabs who defied the boycott voted for their candidate. "Many Arabs like Gaydamak," said Ahmed Hosni, who has been working as an advisor for Gaydamak's election staff for three months.
"Gaydamak is the only candidate who visited the Arabs and promised them equality and better services. He seems to understand their problems."
Asked about the PA's call for boycotting the vote, he replied: "What has the Palestinian Authority done for the Arab residents of Jerusalem? Absolutely nothing; I see no reason why we shouldn't participate in an election that doesn't have political repercussions. These elections are about the municipal services and taxes more than political issues."
Issam Abu Rmaileh, a shopkeeper, said he was didn't vote because he was afraid that PA activists would harm him.
"I heard that they were standing outside the voting centers and threatening people who wanted to come and vote," he said. "I would have liked to vote because it's in our interest, but who's going to protect me and my family afterwards? The Israeli police don't do anything for the Arabs."
Reflecting the state of apathy, many Arab residents interviewed Tuesday said they weren't even aware that it was Election Day. And those who had heard about the election said they thought Gaydamak was running for prime minister.
"Most people just don't care," said civil engineer Haitham Bakri. "These elections are for west Jerusalem, for the Jews. The Arabs are out of the game. The candidates don't care about the Arab residents."
Hatem Abdel Kader, a top Fatah operative and resident of the city, said the decision to boycott the election was a "natural response to the ongoing occupation of east Jerusalem."
He added: "Participating in the election means legitimizing Israel's illegal occupation of the city, and that's why we're opposed to the move. East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and one day we will have our own municipality and elections."
Abdel Kader criticized those Arabs who either ran in the election or cast their ballots, dubbing them a "tiny minority that is driven by greed."
Another Fatah activist claimed that Gaydamak had "bought" hundreds of young Arab men. "He exploited the fact that there are many unemployed young men who are desperate for work," he said. "These people want to earn a living and some of them are even prepared to work for the devil."