The east Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis and the security barrier that separates it from the rest of the city.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is hard to wake up to the reality that the campaign is officially over. For the past months I had the privilege of working hand in hand with Aziz Abu Sarah, the first Palestinian from east Jerusalem to declare his intention to run for mayor of Jerusalem since the establishment of Israel.
This was an historic act that could have changed the future of Jerusalem. It was designed and orchestrated with the direct intention of serving as a wake-up call, both for Israelis and for Palestinians. For Israelis, it was a scream out – wake up – 38% of your historic capital city is Palestinian! They are not Israelis and they do not want to be Israelis. They are discriminated against in every way imaginable. Their status and right to live in the city of their birth is conditional and linked to the absurd notion that they entered the State of Israel. More than 14,000 of them have lost that right since 1967 and many more are threatened with the possibility of losing the right to live in their own homes.
Aziz Abu Sarah is now facing the strong possibility that his Israeli-granted right to live in his own city will be removed. Is this a coincidence of timing and circumstance? We think not. We believe that it is directly connected to his decision to challenge the status quo and to have a real chance to turn it upside down.
For 51 years, most Palestinians in Jerusalem have boycotted the Jerusalem municipal elections. They don’t want to grant Israel’s illegal annexation of east Jerusalem legitimacy. This past year with the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinian resolve to fight for east Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine has significantly increased, and the political opposition for the Palestinian leadership to participation in the Jerusalem elections has definitely increased with it.
MANY THOUSANDS of young Palestinians in Jerusalem – according to polls, surveys and the work that we did over the past months talking to thousands of them – are eager to participate in elections and to vote. But also there is a great fear among them, because breaking a 51-year-old political taboo requires a special kind of courage that is very rare to find in these parts.
But many Palestinians were prepared to jump in because they face the reality that more than 80% of Palestinians in east Jerusalem live under the poverty line. They know that when the Municipality of Jerusalem transfers responsibility for waste collection to a private company, the already filthy Palestinian neighborhoods will be even more filthy and unsafe. They know that the “winners” of the tenders to collect the waste are all part of a net of local tycoons and gangsters, close to the Israeli authorities, who have done almost nothing over 51 years to equalize services in what they call a “united” city.
The Palestinians in Jerusalem wake up every day knowing that one of every two homes in their city could face demolition orders from the municipality because there are almost no zoning plans that enable legal building to take place. There are already thousands of demolition orders out there. One of the candidates in the list that we were hoping would be elected was someone who had to demolish the home that he built with his own hands, to save the fee that he would have had to pay if the municipality demolished it. In the end, the association headed by right-wing Jerusalem council member Aryeh King managed to force him off of his land entirely.
This is the reality that Palestinians in Jerusalem know. They know that there is a lack of some 2,500 classrooms for public schools in their city; that despite Israeli High Court orders to build them years ago, the City of Jerusalem, under Nir Barkat and previous mayors, has slept soundly every night knowing that thousands of Palestinians in east Jerusalem have no place to go to school.
OUR DECISION to run a Palestinian campaign for mayor of Jerusalem was also a wake-up call to the Palestinians who are political orphans. Since Faisel Husseini passed away in 2001 there is no leader in east Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Authority has had no legal authority to function in any way in Jerusalem since Oslo – something that they were tricked into beyond understand that Oslo was supposed to be a five-year deal before getting to a more resolved permanent status. Our campaign was a call for Palestinians in Jerusalem to take direct responsibility for their city and for their lives because no one is going to save Jerusalem for them except themselves.
Aziz Abu Sarah is one of the bravest people I have ever met, but the pressures from both sides and the real threat of losing his right to live in the city of his birth forced him to make the decision to step down before the elections. There are still many legal and political battles ahead; many of the Palestinians who started this process will continue through Huqoquna (Our Rights) – a new NGO that was formed to raise consciousness and to help politically organize Palestinians in Jerusalem to get their rights.
There is also another Palestinian list running for the Jerusalem city council, and although I personally have some reservations about this list, if significantly more Palestinians vote in these elections than in the past, it will also reflect partial success of the work that Aziz Abu Sarah and our campaign has done over the past months.
Aziz’s campaign was a trail blazer and much more needs to be done. I am confident that this was the first real step in that direction, despite the disappointment of not making it to the finish line. It was still the successful launch of a process way overdue.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.
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