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Palestinians debate Jerusalem ballot boycott

Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem most Palestinian residents ignore municipal elections, but that might be changing.

Last Modified: 21 Oct 2013 12:51
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Some Palestinians say participation in Jerusalem's elections could lead to 'little victories' [AFP]

Most Palestinian Jerusalemites have boycotted municipal elections since Israel conquered and annexed the eastern part of the city in 1967. But in the lead up to this year's vote, questions about the logic of a boycott are being raised, and one candidate is running to become the city's first Palestinian elected official since the annexation.

Palestinians account for 37 percent of Jerusalem's population, and could be a major player in Tuesday's municipal elections - if they participate. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) recently released a statement calling on Palestinians to refrain from voting or running for seats. But not everybody is convinced.

Fuad Saliman, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is running for City Council as part of a coalition of the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties. He is hoping to persuade the estimated 180,000 Palestinian eligible voters their interests would be better served by taking part in the political game.

Saliman lived in East Jerusalem - home to 98 percent of the city's Palestinians - for more than 20 years. Today he resides in the west part of the city, where he works as a nuclear medicine technologist at Jerusalem's largest hospital. Saliman, 52, said he aches for the day when East Jerusalem is the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

But his view is that in the meantime, Palestinians need representation in the City Council in order to improve their living conditions.

Fuad Saliman aims to be Jerusalem's first elected Palestinian 

"Only 10 percent of the city's budget is allocated to development of East Jerusalem, even though 37 percent of the population lives there," Saliman told Al Jazeera.

"Being an Arab and an Israeli who has been living in Jerusalem for a long time, I can feel this population's pain and understand the problems. I will represent them and make sure they get the municipal services they are supposed to receive."

'Systematic discrimination'

Palestinians in East Jerusalem are heavily discriminated against by the municipality, according to figures published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel NGO. Education budgets in Palestinian communities are significantly lower and welfare services are scarce.

Non-Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem are short dozens of kilometres of sewage pipes and have only nine post offices compared with 42 in the mostly Jewish West Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Israeli land grabs are a constant threat to Palestinians. The municipality's planning policy for East Jerusalem is "infected by systematic discrimination against the Palestinians living there", according to a report by B'Tselem, an organisation documenting human rights violations in the occupied territories.

In the previous municipal election, an estimated two percent of Jerusalem's Palestinian residents voted. Saliman said he is confident if that number grows to 10 percent, his odds for winning a City Council seat would be high. But he is up against strong forces.

"Participating in the process merely gives [the Israelis] political cover," said Hannan Ashrawai, a member of the PLO's Executive Committee. "They want to ...create a reality where the Palestinians would participate in the occupation of their own country."

Ashrwai rejected the notion that living conditions in East Jerusalem would improve if Palestinians were represented in the City Council. She pointed to Arab towns and neighbourhoods in Israel that are neglected despite residents' participation in politics both at the municipal and state levels.

"They collect taxes but they don't deliver services," Ashrawai said. "It is not a question of wanting representation to be part of the occupation. We want to get rid of the occupation."

In recent years, Israel has increasingly approved settlement construction in violation of international law. East Jerusalem settlements - such as Pisgat Ze'ev in the north or Har Homa in the south - cut off Palestinian neighbourhoods from the rest of the West Bank, creating a state of economic dependency on Israel, thus the need to consider political participation.

Achieving 'little victories'

First term Mayor Nir Barkat - a heavy favourite to be re-elected according to polls - said recently any partition of Jerusalem as part of a future peace agreement with Palestinians will not work, insisting only a united city could function and thrive. While the mayor does not have authority on geopolitical issues, during Barkat's administration the municipal planning commission has repeatedly approved Jewish housing development in the eastern part of the city.

How can [Palestinian voters] trust any Israeli mechanism to work for their interest?

- Najwa Darwish, director of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

Saliman admitted he alone would not be able to stop settlement growth. But by being present in municipal committees, "little victories" could be achieved for East Jerusalem's Palestinians, he said.

Leading up to the elections he has spent most of his time talking with voters. He said he senses these elections will be different; people will come out and vote.

But Najwa Darwish, director of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights - an advocacy group that regularly works with community members - disagreed.

"There is huge rejection among Palestinians in Jerusalem on the participation in the elections," Darwish said in an email to Al Jazeera, adding those who say they will vote face harsh criticism in the community.

Darwish does not expect the number of voters to surpass the two percent that voted in the 2008 elections. She suggested the escalation in Israeli violations of Palestinians' rights, as well as the contribution of social media to raising awareness among young people, will cause less participation.

"How can [Palestinian voters] trust any Israeli mechanism to work for their interest?" Darwish wrote.

However, others suggest as the occupation continues and the prospect of dividing the city seem less likely, Palestinians in East Jerusalem are coming to terms with a bi-national reality.

Haaretz article noted a process of "Israelization" taking place in Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem - including an increasing numbers of applications for an Israeli ID card and greater enrollment in Israeli academic institutions.

It is not clear what kind of effect these trends will have on balloting in East Jerusalem. Even if the number of Palestinian voters rises compared to previous elections, a major change will not happen as long as Palestinian political leaders endorse the boycott. And a shift of the PLO's position anytime in the near future seems implausible.

"Changing policy on an issue that has such powerful political resonance domestically is never easy for any incumbent," said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "The Palestinian leadership is in an even weaker position in terms of facing domestic challenges to its legitimacy, and so bold policy initiatives are unlikely."

Saliman said he is not discouraged but fears that "hothead" leaders of different factions will be on the streets on election-day, threatening those intent on breaking the boycott calls.

"We know each one of us is internally conflicted about voting," he said. "But I am working with community leaders to get them to calm activists down. All we ask is that whoever wants to vote will vote, and whoever doesn't want - won't."

Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner

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Al Jazeera
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