Why Jerusalem Arabs have no voice

There is a very simple reason why Arabs in Jerusalem have no voice, and it's not the fault of Israel

All in it together
Nick Gray
On 21 October 2013 18:32

The Arabs of east Jerusalem hold “permanent resident” status within Israel. They are not Israeli citizens but enjoy many of the benefits of citizenship; excellent healthcare, access to jobs in West Jerusalem, the freedom to shop throughout the city, an Israeli-supervised education system, access to places at Jewish universities... and the right to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections.

Except that only a tiny percentage is ever brave enough to do so. In fact, today is the day when Jerusalem’s population will exercise that right and elect a new mayor for the city.

Five years ago the successful candidate was the secular tech millionaire Nir Barkat, a born and bred Jerusalemite. In five years, he claims, he has achieved many things for the city, including slowing down the exit of zionists, improving life for the ultra-orthodox, raising educational standards and staging more cultural events.

He has also made efforts to do something about the lower standards of living and infrastructure for some of the Arab neighbourhoods. In December 2011 the city opened a post office and allocated street names and numbers in the Arab area of Isawiyah near Mount Scopus.

“So what”? you might ask. Well, in an area where many houses are illegally built and have an uncertain future, where do you put a post office and how do you number houses that might not be there next year? This was, therefore, a big step forward for infrastructure services in Arab east Jerusalem.

Barkat has also made a point of engaging personally with Arabs living in illegal houses (i.e. no municipal planning permission), assuring them of replacement (legal) dwellings if theirs have to be demolished. This is a particularly sore point in Silwan, an area where the city wants to open a new tourist zone and where there is already tension between Arab dwellers and Jewish incomers. 

So east Jerusalem’s Arabs have a vote in who serves on the city council and who their next mayor is. But the Palestinian Authority has long upheld a boycott on these same municipal elections because, it says, it legitimises the “occupation” and helps to “normalise” relations between Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish populations. 

What the PA is actually afraid of is that east Jerusalemites with a healthy stake in their city’s council will not want to divide the city and give a future Palestinian state a capital there.

This leaves the population of east Jerusalem in a desperate corner. The only way their public services, infrastructure, schools, transport and housing will improve is if they have a strong voice on the city’s Council. But in previous elections extremists have used threats and various ways of intimidating the people into continuing to boycott municipal elections, including discouraging any Arabs from standing as candidates.

Today, however, there is one Palestinian Arab candidate in the elections, the first since 1967. Fuad Sliman says that he hopes east Jerusalemites are now so fed up with their circumstances and lack of a voice that they will stand up to the boycott and vote for him. The unfortunate reality, however, is that very few of his supporters will dare to vote and he is only fourth on the list of one of Israel’s smallest political parties.

Two percent of east Jerusalem’s population voted five years ago, but Sliman is hopeful many more will do so this time, driven by desperation and a sense that the division of the city as part of a two-state peace solution is looking less likely the longer the conflict drags on.

Still, it doesn’t look good for east Jerusalem’s Arabs again, once more left with no voice and no political clout in the city in whch they live. Someone, please persuade the PA to lift its pointless boycott that only harms ordinary families’ lives, and let the people vote.

Nick Gray is Director, Christian Middle East Watch, a British organisation dedicated to objective and factual discussion of Middle Eastern issues, especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nick blogs at cmewonline.com

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