A crack in the wall

The taboo on Arab participation in the municipal elections is lessening.

Ramadan Dabash (photo credit: PR)
Ramadan Dabash
(photo credit: PR)
The significant amount of time that has elapsed since June 1967 has brought many Arab residents of the eastern side of the city to acknowledge that a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem will not appear anytime soon. This realization may be causing a profound change in the way Arab residents view the municipal elections, and there are indications that more Arabs than ever before may turn out to vote on October 30.
A recent survey conducted by the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University, run by Prof. Dan Miodownik, suggests that the taboo on Arab participation in the municipal elections is lessening. The polling itself was done by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, headed by Dr. Nabil Kukali. The survey found that 60% of the Arab residents believe they should participate in the coming elections, compared to only 14% who remain fiercely opposed to participation.
One of the explanations for this rather dramatic change is to be found in the profile of the survey respondents – the 612 Arab residents who answered the face-to-face survey last January (following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) are primarily young, educated, relatively well-off financially, work mostly with Israelis in the western side of the city and speak fluent Hebrew. Many of them have studied at the Hebrew University or at one of the other Israeli colleges.
“These results do not say that the Palestinians in east Jerusalem have reached the conclusion that if they participate in the elections their situation will improve,” cautions Dr. Meir Margalit, former city council member (Meretz) and presently a lecturer at Ono Academic College. “It means they understand that their dreams to see east Jerusalem become the capital of Palestine are fading. They feel that everything is closed for them, and the only option left is to take part in what they perceive as the only thing the law doesn’t prevent them from doing – taking part in the municipal elections, since they cannot vote for the Knesset.”
SHAHER SHABANEH lives in the E-Tur neighborhood (Mount of Olives), speaks Hebrew fluently and has regularly participated in elections, but says he has no illusions.
“What good does it do me that I go to vote? My name doesn’t even appear on the voting list in my neighborhood; each time I have to go and check again and call the administration to find where I can vote. After I vote, what do I get? Has this municipality built a new school, a new kindergarten, some sidewalks or a public garden in my neighborhood? Of course not.”
Palestinian candidates for the municipal elections have emerged here and there over the years, but they have not had much success. A few months ago, E-Tur resident Iyad Bahbuah, a teacher, tried to form an east Jerusalem list for the council. He is still trying to get the minimum support required to run the list, but he and none of his few supporters sound optimistic.
Another attempt, which might be a bit more successful, is Dr. Ramadan Dabash’s initiative. A lecturer in engineering at an Israeli academic college, Dabash, who has Israeli citizenship and speaks fluent Hebrew, is forming a list to run for city council, “Jerusalem for the Jerusalemites.” He is also the chairman of the Sur Bahir local council and community center and has recently become an activist in the Likud.
“I try to explain to my people that there is no other way to obtain our rights. This is the rule of the game and we have to play by it,” says Dabash, adding that while in the future he believes a local list should include Jews and Arabs together, “it is too early for that now; for the moment I am working hard to bring my own people, the Palestinians of the east side, to vote for my list.” Asked if he believes he can obtain enough votes, Dabash sounds confident and says that his aim to win four or five council seats is realistic.
The poll found that 97.4% of Arabs asked are strongly opposed to the annexation of east Jerusalem to Israel, but at the same time 96.6% are strongly opposed to a return to the partition of the city as before June 1967, without free access to both sides of the city.
“We want to have a normal life,” says Shabaneh. “It means we want to move freely in the whole city, but we want to have our basic rights. We want the Border Police to stop interfering in our lives and harassing us. We want to have the classrooms we need for our children, we want to have the right to build our houses and not see the municipality coming to destroy them.”
Asked if he supports participation in the elections, Shabaneh answers bitterly, “No, because we feel that we are not truly invited to participate in the elections. As we approach the election date, there are more and more provocations – like demolition of what you call illegal construction – and the immediate result is that the extremists among us say, ‘You see, there is no hope and no reason to vote’ and that’s the end of the game.”
Despite the change in the atmosphere, Shabaneh does not believe that Arab residents will come out in large numbers to vote in October.
“There will be no change. We have, naturally, been close to the Israeli Left parties, but we realize that they – Meretz for example – have no power at all. But we cannot join the right-wing Israeli parties, so we have no political horizon. We will remain on the same level, about 1% of the residents will dare to vote, the rest will remain at home, hopeless.”
In regard to an eventual new wave of violence, Shabaneh says, “There will be no new intifada. What for? What have we gained from it? Hamas is rather strong here, but people keep an eye on their children and prevent them from taking action.”