After announcing his daring campaign to become the first Palestinian to contend for the seat of mayor in Israel’s municipal elections in Jerusalem scheduled on October 30, Aziz Abu Sarah, 38, announced on Tuesday that he has been forced into withdrawing due to mounting pressures put on his campaign from Israel and Palestinian political factions.
“It seems that entrenched political interest groups on both sides [Israel and the Palestinian political factions] hope to maintain the status quo, and will stop at nothing to prevent forward progress,” Abu Sarah said in a Facebook post.
“After seeking advice from friends and legal counsel, we have therefore made a difficult decision: to withdraw from both the mayoral and city council races,” he wrote.
Abu Sarah, a resident of the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, announced his intent to run for mayor earlier this month as part of the Palestinian-run Al-Quds Lana– “Jerusalem is Ours”– list.
However, there was a significant obstacle in his way: Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem are prohibited from running for the seat of mayor because they are not considered Israeli citizens.
In response, Abu Sarah decided to sue the Israeli government in Israel’s High Court over the law, which prohibits Palestinians, who make up some 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population, from holding the office.
While Palestinians in Jerusalem are permitted to run and participate in municipal elections, they are barred from voting in Israel’s national elections.
Following Israel’s occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem more than a half-century ago, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were issued Jerusalem residency IDs, and were not given citizenship in Israel. Israel can revoke the residency IDs for a variety of reasons. According to Human Rights Watch, almost 15,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem IDs revoked since 1967.
Palestinian residents in Jerusalem must consistently prove to Israel that the center of their life is in Jerusalem or Israel, or face the revocation of their IDs, which would strip them of their rights to live in the city, their right to work in Israel, and their access to social services and healthcare.
Abu Sarah told Mondoweiss that when he went to renew his travel documents at Israel’s interior ministry, he was notified that his Jerusalem residency status was under review, owing to his frequent trips abroad for his work.
“It’s very suspicious,” Abu Sarah said. “I have been living this same way for a long time, where I am traveling a lot for work, and they have never told me that my residency is endangered before.”
Dan Miodownik, director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University, told Mondoweiss it was “not a big surprise” that now Abu Sarah’s Jerusalem residency is being threatened.
“You have someone visible who seems to be making some noise around a place like East Jerusalem, and then this issue [of residency] pops up all of a sudden. It’s not surprising.”
Miodownik said that the mere threat that Israel would revoke Palestinians’ Jerusalem status would have “serious behavioral ramifications” on those Palestinians being targeted.
“This becomes a very efficient instrument of controlling a population,” he noted, adding that Israel uses its power to revoke Palestinians’ right to live in Jerusalem as a means of forcing the population to behave.
“It’s absurd,” Abu Sarah said. “Because the law says that if you’re a Palestinian from East Jerusalem you cannot hold a job that requires travel […] Basically they [Israel] wants Palestinians to be poor, uneducated and unsuccessful.”
“They are saying that you [Palestinians] are only allowed to work for us.”
Abu Sarah added that he believed this was an Israeli attempt at “scaring” Palestinians in Jerusalem from participating in the elections.
“The fact that this law can cancel our residency makes it so we [Palestinians] are living in continuous fear,” he said. “If you’re a Palestinian in Jerusalem, you know at least one person who has lost their residency. It’s not even a threat they [Israel] makes, this is a reality for Palestinians in Jerusalem.”
He continued: “As an Israeli Jew, meanwhile, you can live outside the country for twenty years and return a few months before the election, and you’ll be able to run without a problem.”
“This is obvious discrimination and inequality.”
On top of the pressure originating from Israel, Abu Sarah says he has faced an escalating intimidation campaign by Palestinian political factions, who staunchly oppose Palestinian participation in Israel’s municipal elections in Jerusalem because they believe it “legitimizes” and “normalizes” Israel’s annexation of the territory.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem have boycotted the municipal elections in Jerusalem since 1967, when Israel seized the territory. Palestinian political factions, meanwhile, are known to threaten and intimidate Palestinians who attempt to vote or run in the elections.
Abu Sarah noted that during the last several weeks, the threats against members of the Al-Quds Lana list became “more substantial.”
“They [Palestinian nationalists] were escalating their threats, even threatening families. They were basically saying ‘we will stop at nothing, even if we have to take you down,’” Abu Sarah told Mondoweiss.
“It’s sad,” he added. “The only reason you would do this is if you don’t have any legitimacy.”
But despite being forced to withdrawal, Abu Sarah tells Mondoweiss he believes he has succeeded in “planting some fear in both the Israeli and Palestinian governments” and starting a conversation “to push people to think about alternatives in Jerusalem.”
He noted in his statement that the campaign was focused on three issues: 1) the taxation of Palestinians by Israel’s Jerusalem municipality while denying them local representation, the revocation of Jerusalem IDs, and the lack of basic services in Palestinian neighborhoods; 2) challenging the more than half-century-long boycott of elections in Jerusalem, which Abu Sarah said “has failed to preserve (and has even jeopardized) the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem”; and 3) to encourage “young Palestinians to make their voices heard, by voting and seeking representation on local councils.”
Abu Sarah says he believes that his campaign has achieved these goals.
“I’m excited about the young people who have contacted me, especially Palestinians, who have told me that this has energized them and given them hope,” he told Mondoweiss.
“It’s not over. I’m meeting with these youths to see how we can keep this fire going, even outside of the municipality, and come up with new ideas.”
He has continued to encourage Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to get out and vote.
Another Palestinian list Al-Quds Baladi (“Jerusalem, My City”) has continued its run in the elections. The list is headed by Ramadan Dabash, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is running a “nonpolitical” campaign focused solely on increasing municipal services to East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Mondoweiss sat down with Abu Sarah before he was forced to withdraw from the elections, in order to learn more about his campaign and his hopes of disrupting the status quo in the occupied city.
You can find the full interview below:
Mondoweiss: Explain the political realities you face in occupied East Jerusalem being Palestinian. What are the most significant issues you hope to tackle if you were to be voted into city council?
Abu Sarah: The political reality in Jerusalem is very difficult. We are facing a continuous policy of discrimination starting from canceling the residency of thousands of Palestinians since 1967 to limiting our ability to build legally in Jerusalem.
As a result of the housing crisis, thousands of Palestinians are moving to the West Bank or Jerusalem areas beyond the separation wall, such as Kufr Aqab. Others have decided to build their homes without an [Israeli] permit and risk having their houses demolished [by the Jerusalem municipality].
Finally, the municipality often ignores the basic services it should provide in East Jerusalem such as trash collection, creating public spaces and parking spots, and paving roads. I want to address these issues and push for a new zoning plan for the Palestinian neighborhoods so people can receive [building] permits.
I want to direct more money towards East Jerusalem, which receives today less than 12% of the budget — even though almost 40% of the city’s residents live there. I want to fight against discriminatory policies, stop the demolition of houses, and invest in education.
Mondoweiss: Can you explain your run for the seat of mayor and your attempts at suing the Israeli government? Why did you decide to make this a center of your campaign and what do you hope to achieve?
Abu Sarah: Despite Israel’s claims of being a democracy, [East] Jerusalem’s residents pay taxes, yet are legally not allowed to hold the most important job in the city. Having spent a lot of time in Washington D.C, I am reminded of the saying “taxation without representation”.
I believe we have to demand our rights, and even though we are under occupation, we still have rights. I want to challenge the discriminatory policies and I also want to give Palestinians a reason to vote. Right now, only one percent of Palestinians vote in the municipal elections. I believe that part of the reason is because people don’t have someone to vote for.
If I succeed in my court case against the Israeli government, I believe I will be able to inspire many Palestinians to get out and vote. But even if I fail, I think my candidacy is already inspiring thousands of Palestinians to think about new strategies of how to engage in activism and politics in our city.
Mondoweiss: Another Palestinian party, Al-Quds Baladi, headed by Ramadan Dabash is also running in the elections this year. However, Dabash’s campaign strongly differs from your’s, owing to his emphasis on being “non-political.” Can you respond to this and explain why engaging with the political realities in East Jerusalem is important for your campaign?
Abu Sarah: I believe that the reason I am not receiving my rights is because of my identity. I am a Palestinian. We cannot ignore the political reasonings behind the discrimination of the Jerusalem municipality against the Palestinian residents.
We are squeezed from every side. We pay high taxes and then our taxes are taken to build settlements in our own neighborhoods. This is political. Arieh King, who represents the interests of the settlers, sits on the city council and has successfully advocated for building more settlements. It’s political.
The proposal to detach Kufr Aqab and Shufat refugee camp from Jerusalem and thus getting rid of 140,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem is political. So, I don’t know how you could separate politics from [the lack of] municipal services.
Mondoweiss: Why do you believe it is important for Palestinians to run and vote in the municipal elections? How do you respond to those who say that Palestinian participation in the elections is “normalizing” and “legitimizing” the Israeli occupation?
Abu Sarah: I believe that saving Jerusalem is the most important thing for us in Jerusalem. Israel is planning to disconnect Kufr Aqab and Shuafat refugee camp from Jerusalem. This would disconnect over a third of the East Jerusalem population. Yet there is no response or a strategy on how to confront this. I don’t believe that slogans about freedom are enough to save Jerusalem. It’s time for us to take charge and try to do something to stop the discrimination against us.
We’ve boycotted the municipal elections for decades with no results. Palestinians today work in the municipality in almost all jobs, so why not be in the level of decision makers? While we boycotted the elections, Israel built settlements, refused to develop our neighborhoods and collected taxes without offering services.
Perhaps refusing to join the municipality thirty years ago was right, but we have to review what we have achieved and ask ourselves what we can do better. Repeating the same action and expecting a new outcome is not a strategy.
Those who oppose participating in the elections say that my candidacy makes Israel sovereign over occupied East Jerusalem, but that’s not true in international law. It’s also not true historically. Raghib al-Nashashibi was the mayor of Jerusalem under the British mandate in a British government and that did not legitimize the British occupation.
Mondoweiss: You have spoken a lot about your views on Palestinian participation in Jerusalem’s elections being part of the “national struggle.” Can you explain this? How can participation in Israeli elections be part of the Palestinian struggle?
Abu Sarah: Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, the Palestinians in East Jerusalem have suffered tremendously. We’ve lost connection with the West Bank where people used to come and shop in Jerusalem. Over 70 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem live in poverty. One third of all settlers in the West Bank live in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority negotiated a peace agreement 25 years ago, but the Jerusalem that I know and grew up with has been disappearing. I remember protesting the Har Homa settlement when I was 17 years old, and today there are 25,000 people living there.
On the other hand, tens of thousands of Palestinians are leaving the city since they can’t find housing or can’t afford living in it. I believe keeping Jerusalem residents in Jerusalem is the most important action to take right now for the Palestinian struggle. Israel has succeeded in driving Palestinians out of the city and I haven’t seen any successful strategy on how to combat that.
I believe we have failed to fight this discriminatory system from outside and we should try to fight the system from inside. I agree that there are no guarantees that we will succeed, but it’s worth a shot.
Mondoweiss: Palestinian candidates in Israel’s Jerusalem elections oftentimes face serious backlash from Palestinian nationalists who staunchly oppose Palestinian participation in the municipal elections. Have you faced any pressure to withdraw, and, if so, how have you responded to it?
Abu Sarah: Yes, all of those on our list have faced pressure to withdraw, and some have decided to give in to those threats. At our press conference we had a couple of young Palestinians throw eggs at us. It was sad that they chose to throw eggs instead of speaking with us and explaining why they disagree with our initiative.
My response is simple: give me an alternative to what we are doing. Arguing that this is a mistake without outlining an alternative plan that could help the residents of Jerusalem is being defeatist.
Mondoweiss: Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem don’t often turn out for elections. Less than two percent of Palestinians voted in the last municipal elections. What reactions have you received from other Palestinians during your campaigning? Are more Palestinians willing to vote now than in the past? Or have you discovered that most continue to be against the idea?
Abu Sarah: Five years ago, I believe just about one percent voted in the elections. However, this is partially because there was no Palestinian ticket that they could vote for. I would say that about half of the people I meet are supportive of participating in the elections, while the other half are strongly against it.
I believe that tens of thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem support participating in the elections. However, there are a few hurdles from every side. There is a scare campaign by various Palestinian political groups to intimidate people and stop them from voting. On the Israeli side, even though we are six weeks before the elections, we still don’t know where the polling stations will be and people still don’t know where they should vote.
Mondoweiss: If Palestinians in East Jerusalem decided to turn out to vote, how would this move realistically affect the political climate in East Jerusalem? How do you think it would affect the everyday realities of the some 350,000 Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem?
Abu Sarah: If Palestinians in East Jerusalem vote in large numbers we will hold multiple seats in the municipality and could be part of important committees, and therefore part of the decision making in the city.
But beyond addressing all the issues I mentioned above, I think winning the seat of mayor — or even coming close to winning — would create an earthquake in Israeli and Palestinian politics. We will shift the paradigm. It will make many people uncomfortable and will change the conversation about the future of Jerusalem. We will be able to break the status quo.
I believe such a win will inspire hope and will send a message to people in East Jerusalem that we can’t sit idle while we lose our city. We can do something and we can succeed.