Despite the desire of Arabs in eastern Jerusalem for greater integration in Israeli life, their fear of the Palestinian Authority and its agents kept them away from the polls in October. And while seeking pragmatic and constructive integration in Jerusalem, they still adhere to the Palestinian side of the identity axis. Once again, 38% of the capital city’s residents remain outside its political arena.
A comprehensive survey by researchers from Hebrew University conducted in early 2018 showed that 58% of Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem believe that they should participate in Jerusalem municipal elections, while only 13% were opposed. This survey augured a revolution in the voting patterns of eastern Jerusalem Arabs in the municipal elections. In the 2008 elections, only 1.7% of the Arabs in East Jerusalem cast ballots, and the proportion of those voting plummeted to 0.9% in the 2013 elections.
It also appeared that a change had occurred in the City Council election campaign. In the 2013 elections, not a single Arab resident ran for the City Council. In contrast, two eastern Jerusalem lists campaigned in the City Council elections in recent months. One list, led by Aziz Abu Sarah, withdrew after Abu Sarah and his colleagues were threatened by groups identified with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). On the other hand, the Jerusalem My City list, led by Dr. Ramadan Dabash, chairman of the Sur Baher Community Center and a scion of one of the strongest clans in the village, continued its campaign.
Dr. Dabash and his associates in the eastern part of the city were active on the social networks and held scores of political meetings in private homes. They felt that for the first time since 1967, they would be able utilize representation on the City Council to deliver a message to the Palestinian public in eastern Jerusalem. They hoped for a significant change in the quality and extent of the municipal services rendered to the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
Dabash believed so strongly in the likelihood of change that he demanded that the Ministry of the Interior increase the small number of polling stations in schools in eastern Jerusalem (six, compared with 187 in western Jerusalem). The Ministry of the Interior granted his request and increased the number of polling stations to 21. Finally, there were also a number of Jewish residents who announced that they would vote for Dabash’s list in the belief that the city’s Arab residents should be represented on the City Council.
Yet Dabash and his supporters attracted only 3,000 votes in the October elections, 1.19% of the votes cast. Ostensibly, they could have won a third of the City Council seats. Why, then, did their hopes and dreams run aground at the ballot box? Several reasons can be cited for this result, some of which are technical, while others are more deeply rooted.
First, Fatah members and other nationalistic groups disrupted the elections and intimidated voters near the polling stations. While the Israeli police cracked down on them and detained some of them for investigation, there is no doubt that this made potential voters fearful that they would be labeled “agents” and collaborators of the “Zionist occupier,” as Dabash and the members of his party had been. There is no doubt that anxiety and fear of the PA’s agents and of being labeled as “Zionist agents” and collaborators caused eastern Jerusalem voters to stay away from the polling stations.
Secondly, voters reported technical problems pertaining to the geographical proximity of the polling stations to the voters, as well as polling stations that reportedly were not opened at all.
Nevertheless, it appears that the main reason why so few voted lies elsewhere – in the profound processes that have taken place in eastern Jerusalem society during the period preceding the elections. These processes were responsible for both the surprising results of the surveys, the atmosphere on the social networks, and the low percentage of those who actually voted. This atmosphere concerns the seesaw movement of Palestinian society in eastern Jerusalem between Israel and the PA, each of which has relations of both intimacy and distance with that society.
On the one hand, Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem are enhancing their transportation, employment, medical, and academic connection with the western part of the city, and with the Hebrew language, the Israeli educational system, and Israeli institutions.
On the other hand, many of them remain loyal to the PA and the Palestinian ethos with respect to the need to divide the city, and they believe that integration into Israeli society and its institutions is an ideological and national “sin.”
This seesaw movement creates a constant struggle in eastern Jerusalem public opinion between supporters of integration and supporters of separation and adherence to the Palestinian narrative. The latter regard Israel’s attempts to improve services for residents of the eastern part of the city as Zionist manipulation aimed at “Judaizing” eastern Jerusalem and depriving it of its Arab character.
Indeed, during the term of Mayor Nir Barkat, municipal services improved in several Arab neighborhoods in northern and southeastern Jerusalem. The Israeli government also substantially increased budgets for eastern Jerusalem in spheres such as roads, education, employment, welfare, public institutions, etc. In most cases, these budget increases were welcomed by the Palestinian side. The pragmatic neighborhood leadership usually sought to maximize the benefit from these budgets, and demonstrated understanding of the importance of participation in the municipal political game. This leadership and the silent majority behind it constitute a large proportion of the 58% who supported taking part in the elections in the above-mentioned survey.
At the same time, these budgets and investments were also received with great suspicion by a substantial proportion of the Palestinian public, which wanted the Israeli authorities to disclose the “hidden” agenda behind these investments. Arab suspicions focused on two main items: education and land.
In education, the extension of the Israeli matriculation program in place of the Palestinian one (the “tawjihi”) was perceived as part of the “Judaizing” trend. Increased distribution of books by the municipality with the inciting content removed was perceived in the same way. Where land was concerned, the decision by Jerusalem Mayor Barkat and Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked to promote land regulation in eastern Jerusalem and orderly land registration in the Arab neighborhoods was perceived as a fundamental element of the Zionist effort, including “depriving” the Palestinians of their land and “nationalization” of the land.
These measures led PA supporters in eastern Jerusalem to begin an aggressive campaign against any step constituting “normalization” with the “Zionist occupation authorities.” Dr. Dabash was described as an agent of the normalization trend, and his campaign in the elections was regarded by the militant groups in Fatah as the spearhead of the normalization process. A campaign was therefore conducted against him, including threats to him and his family, and against anyone exercising his democratic right to vote. Residents of eastern Jerusalem surrendered to their fear of these groups, even though they realized that they were missing an historic opportunity to change their situation.
Nonparticipation in the election indicates that the position of eastern Jerusalem Arabs on the Palestinian national axis, which moves between the PA Arabs and Arab citizens of Israel, is still closer to that of the PA Arabs.
Jerusalemite Arabs are refraining from any open political act that could express participation in the Israeli political system, despite the fact that they are assimilating into Israeli society, studying for Israeli matriculation certificates, and even, to a degree, demanding Israeli citizenship. (Note that eastern Jerusalem Arabs are residents of Jerusalem/Israel, but not citizens of Israel).
There are limits to pragmatic and constructive attitude of Jerusalemite Arabs. They still adhere to the Palestinian side of the identity axis, preferring to avoid crossing the line to the Israeli side.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.