Jerusalem’s Arab residents and the upcoming municipal elections

Young Palestinians at the community center in Sur Baher

Update from AIJAC

Update 08/18 #04

Today’s Update features two articles on Jerusalem’s upcoming municipal elections – focussing especially on the role of the city’s Arab minority, which has traditionally boycotted municipal elections or been intimidated into doing so by terror groups.

We lead with a story about one Palestinian who is trying to change that reality – Ramadan Dabash, a community leader in the outlying neighbourhood of Sur Baher. Written by veteran reporter Matti Friedman and published in the New York Times, the piece makes clear that Dabash is determined to flout the traditional taboos in the east Jerusalem Palestinian community in the name of improving services for residents there and their neighbourhoods – something he has already had some success at doing. Even more interesting are the factors that appear to be providing a wind at his back – changes that have seen Arab and Jewish Jerusalemites integrating like never before, and polls showing changing Palestinian attitudes towards voting in the municipal elections. For this hopeful look at signs of change in Jerusalem, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a more pessimistic view provided by Nadav Shragai, an Israeli journalist and author who specialises on research on Jerusalem and its recent history. He reports on the pressure that terrorist groups already are placing on east Jerusalemites, issuing threats via an open letter, as well as the response of dissidents like Dabash. He also reports on some polls and other signs that suggest that more of the 31% of Jerusalem’s eligible voters who are Palestinian will vote this time – though probably still not enough – provided Israel can provide the security to make it safe to do so. For this more historic and broader look at the problem of getting Jerusalem’s Arab residents to engage politically, CLICK HERE.

Finally, in a related story, Israeli columnist Smadar bat Adam reacts to protests from Israel’s Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group for Israel’s Arab minority, alleging Israeli racism and even “apartheid.” Bat Adam documents that, contrary to perceptions, the Israeli governments since 2009 under current PM Binyamin Netanyahu have helped oversee unprecedented advances in equalising funding and services to the Arab sector, and encouraging integration. She discusses vastly improved funding and services to Arab municipalities, large-scale efforts to encourage higher education among Arabs, funding boosts for infrastructure and economic development, and rising numbers of educated Arab professionals taking part in many key sectors of Israeli society – from healthcare, to the courts, to high-tech. For all the details of the case she makes, CLICK HERE.

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The First Palestinian in Jerusalem’s City Hall?

Ramadan Dabash doesn’t care if you call him a collaborator

By Matti Friedman

New York Times, Aug. 10, 2018

Ramadan Dabash, 51, a social activist and community leader in Sur Baher, a Palestinian neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of East Jerusalem, Israel. (Credit – Photographs by Corinna Kern for The New York Times)

JERUSALEM — Western observers interested in Jerusalem can be forgiven for thinking the most politically significant building in this city is a low limestone edifice featuring American flags and Marines — the embassy opened in May by the Trump administration to international fanfare and criticism. But anyone attentive to the fate of this place in the summer of 2018 would be advised to look past the embassy to an obscure structure a half-mile to the south.

This building has no flags at all. Instead there are Arabic books on a wheeled shelf in the lobby, a few boys with soccer haircuts and girls with hijabs, and a modest sign welcoming you to the community center of Sur Baher.

It’s there, in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher — a four-minute drive from my Jewish Israeli neighborhood of Talpiot — that you can find Ramadan Dabash, the center’s chairman, who’s running a renegade campaign for a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council.

In a city where more than a third of the 860,000 residents are Palestinian, there should be nothing strange about Mr. Dabash’s candidacy. But a victory in the Oct. 30 election would make him the first Palestinian representative at City Hall — and the personification of a political shift that isn’t making headlines.

Mr. Dabash, a civil engineer, was born in Sur Baher a few months before Israel captured it in a war with Jordan in 1967. Unlike the West Bank, which was placed under military occupation pending a peace deal with the Arab world, East Jerusalem was declared by Israel to be part of Israel proper.

That meant people here, including the Dabash family, were given residency status and access to Israel’s systems of universal health care and social welfare. They were allowed to apply for citizenship and vote in municipal elections. But nearly no one in East Jerusalem did either of those things, seeing them as an unacceptable “normalization” of Israeli control.

For the past 51 years, Mr. Dabash and the other Arab residents of Jerusalem have lived an ambivalent and disadvantaged political existence. In the last election in 2013, according to City Hall, not even 2 percent of them cast a ballot.

This has helped keep Jerusalem’s Palestinians in limbo and has contributed to a gap that’s clear to anyone who spends time in the city’s Arab neighborhoods, which are neglected, crowded and unsafe. Eighty-three percent of children in East Jerusalem are poor, according to Israeli government statistics, twice the rate in the city’s west.

That reality, Mr. Dabash says, is why he’s flouting his community’s political taboo to run.

“Fifty-one years is enough,” Mr. Dabash told me a few weeks ago in one of the classrooms at the community center he helped found four years ago. “We can’t be left hanging between heaven and earth.”

The Palestinian Authority, based in nearby Ramallah, sees participation in Jerusalem elections as a form of collaboration. Last month a council of Islamic clerics banned any involvement. Mr. Dabash says he has faced backlash in the form of hostile phone calls and messages on Facebook and WhatsApp groups, where he’s tarred as a “traitor” or a “collaborator” — epithets that carry a threat of violence.

But he’s determined to forge ahead, armed, perhaps, with the striking results of a poll released this year, that found 58 percent of Jerusalem Palestinians support voting. Just 14 percent said they were opposed.

About 7,000 votes are needed to win a seat, depending on turnout. Because Jewish residents here are split acrimoniously between mainstream Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, if Palestinians have even a few seats, they’ll control crucial swing votes. But pundits who’ve predicted Palestinian turnout in previous elections have been wrong. History and national sentiment mitigate against it, and there’s a big difference between supporting the idea of voting and actually showing up on Election Day.

Mr. Dabash is not a leftist. He quoted the Quran throughout our conversation and spoke warmly of his 12 children and four wives. (Polygamy is illegal in Israel but permitted by Islamic law, and authorities often turn a blind eye.) He didn’t seem like someone who’d be comfortable at a coexistence conference funded by European N.G.O.s, but rather like a guy you’d want to run your union — a blunt operator who’d give an opposing negotiator a hard time.

To explain why he’s running, Mr. Dabash pulled out his smartphone to show me photos of a nearby kindergarten overrun with mice and cockroaches. He pointed out the window toward Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which has the kind of facilities that Palestinians can only dream of. In all of Arab Jerusalem (he slammed the table for emphasis) there isn’t a single municipal pool. They need teachers, classrooms and jobs.

The way Mr. Dabash sees it, the chances of a peace deal are nil. With Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State and the Syrian war all within a three-hour drive from here, an Israeli pullout isn’t happening anytime soon. To get things done, Mr. Dabash has been willing to play ball not just with Israelis but with the Israeli right, the only real political force in this conservative city. Last year, he even went so far as to briefly join the Likud party. The political cost of this approach is high: The closer he gets to Israelis, the more suspect he becomes in the eyes of his potential voters.

Mr. Dabash, seated in white shirt, meets with members of the Jerusalem governmental offices, such as the ministries of education and health.

He points to the community center, which is funded by Israel, as proof he can work the system and get results. “Israel says it’s Jewish and democratic,” he said. “I say, O.K., show us your democracy.”

Imad Matoq, from the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat, tends to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish customer, at left, in a supermarket in Talpiot, an Israeli neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.

Over the past five years or so, watching from west Jerusalem, it’s been clear that remarkable changes are afoot in the city’s human landscape. Not long ago, it was unheard-of to see Palestinian salespeople in Israeli stores. Now it’s commonplace. Palestinian enrollment at Hebrew University is up dramatically, as are requests for Israeli citizenship. The number of East Jerusalem wage earners employed in West Jerusalem is now estimated at close to 50 percent. The trend is driven not by good will but by economic interests: by demand for labor in Jewish Jerusalem, and by a lack of better options for Palestinians.

The city remains unequal, there are periodic acts of terrorism, and there’s no reason to be sanguine about the future. But at the same time, worlds that have long been distinct are moving closer together. All this helps explain why dark predictions of violence at tense moments, like the embassy opening, have failed to materialize.

It was against this backdrop that the community center opened in Sur Baher, a place where many residents have traditionally had ties to Hamas. The center’s birth was telling. Shortly after the opening ceremony, attended by Mayor Nir Barkat, residents opposed to normalization set it on fire. Others then repaired the damage. These days it draws a few hundred people every week.

The community center also marks a trend on the Israeli side, namely a willingness to invest in Arab residents. In May, the government allocated $560 million to projects in East Jerusalem. If all that money gets where it’s meant to go, it will be the largest single investment in Palestinian Jerusalemites since Israel took control a half-century ago.

Following all of this makes you more aware of the peculiarities and paradoxes on which the city rests. One, for example, is that the movement on the Israeli side is coming not from the conciliatory left but from the nationalist right. The left traditionally hoped that one day East Jerusalem would be transferred to Palestinian rule and wouldn’t be Israel’s problem — hardly an incentive to invest. The right, on the other hand, believes the whole city must remain under Israeli control, and thus has an interest in making a united city more viable.

An election poster for Zeev Elkin on a bus in Jerusalem.

The new investment, for example, was passed with the backing of Zeev Elkin, a hard-right Likud politician who’s also the most likely candidate to become Jerusalem’s new mayor on Oct. 30. Mr. Dabash says he’s happy to work with Mr. Elkin, or with “anyone who’ll help us.”

When I toured Sur Baher and adjacent neighborhoods with an Israeli municipal manager, he showed me a site where a 140-classroom school complex is under construction. He was proud to tell me that the city got the project approved with the cooperation of the local Palestinian P.T.A., which is associated with Hamas. When I raised my eyebrows, he shrugged. If you’re willing to do business only with friendly liberals, you won’t find many in Jerusalem, on either side.

No one was signing a peace agreement. Everyone just wanted the kids to have a school.

Matti Friedman (@MattiFriedman), a journalist, is the author of the memoir Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War.


Palestinian Leaders Threaten Jerusalem’s Arabs on Eve of City’s Municipal Elections

Nadav Shragai,

August 22, 2018

Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs,
Institute for Contemporary Affairs Vol. 18, No. 24

  • The Arabs’ “Israelization” trends will not be enough to undo the traditional boycott of Jerusalem municipal elections. What is lacking in east Jerusalem is a feeling among the city’s Palestinian residents that they are protected against the Islamist-nationalist threats from Hamas and Fatah and that their physical safety is ensured.
  • Many east Jerusalem Palestinians seek to become part of the municipal establishment so that they can wield influence and channel budgets into services and infrastructures for the Arab neighborhoods.
  • Public letters have circulated in the city’s Arab neighborhoods warning, “Whoever takes part in the elections is a traitor who harms all the Palestinian values.”
  • Will Israel be able to create a sense of security that will enable east Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections?

Ten weeks before the local elections in Jerusalem on October 30, 2018, terrorist organizations are increasing the pressure on east Jerusalem residents to stay away from the voting booths and maintain the boycott of Jerusalem’s municipal elections as in the past. While the pressure grows, this time surveys and some new, different voices reflect a desire among many Arab east Jerusalemites to participate in the elections. They seek to become part of the municipal establishment so that they can wield influence and channel budgets into services and infrastructure for the Arab neighborhoods.

An open letter appeared in various Arab media outlets calling on Arab Jerusalemites to boycott the city’s municipal elections. It was translated for the first time on the Facebook page “View from East Jerusalem – 0202” under the heading: “The Islamic nationalist forces in Al-Quds the occupied capital.”

The letter states: “We regard anyone who takes part in the elections, supports them, or deals with them as someone who is cut off from the nation and will be seen as one of the mechanisms of the occupation and its helpers.” The letter further asserts: “Whoever takes part in the elections is a traitor who harms all the Palestinian values.”

This public letter was preceded by a religious ruling by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, which also states that whoever takes part in the elections is a traitor and that “whoever among the Jerusalem residents takes part in the local elections will be defined as someone who has left the fold of nationhood, the homeland, and the religion.” A few weeks ago, the PLO Executive Committee took the same stance, warning the east Jerusalem population not to have anything to do with the elections. The committee, which is headed by Mahmoud Abbas, warned that “participating in the elections could signify de facto recognition of Israeli rule and sovereignty in Jerusalem.”

Candidate Ramadan Dabash on the Threats: “I’m a Traitor? They’re Traitors!”
Yet, despite the growing tensions in the east Jerusalem street and the attempts to terrorize the population, “Mukhtar” Ramadan Dabash, chair of the community administration in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, has announced his intention to head the faction, “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” that will run in the elections for the Jerusalem City Council. Dabash also said he intended to do so in collaboration with Palestinian entrepreneur Aziz Abu Sarah and left-wing Jewish activist Gershon Baskin.

The initiative for the Jewish-Arab list, however, apparently ran aground, and Baskin will not be included in the party. Surveys indicated that a joint list of this kind would perhaps add a few hundred Jewish votes, but would lose thousands of Arab voters who oppose collaborating with the Jewish Left in the electoral framework. Therefore, Dabash’s list will include only Arabs.

Arab Jerusalem candidate Ramadan Dabush at a recent visit to Israel’s Knesset. (Arutz 7 screenshot)

The main objective of this new faction is to wield influence through municipal representation on the allocation of municipal resources and budgets in the spheres of infrastructure and services. Dabash, for his part, is not deterred by the Mufti’s religious rulings or by the threats that have been directed at him. He made clear that he opposes the division of Jerusalem. He said that if a referendum were to be held among the east Jerusalem Arabs, “they would vote to keep living in a unified city even if it entails recognizing both its western and eastern parts as the capital of Israel.”

“I’m a traitor? They’re traitors,” Dabash asserted recently in a conversation with me. “These elections are a municipal affair. Fifty-one years in which we have no father and no mother. Fifty-one years in which Hamas and the PLO sat like onlookers from the side and did not help us, neither in construction nor in education, nor in many other municipal matters.” He added: “Islam is a religion of life not of death. The Mufti is wrong when he says that we’re traitors. We want to give the east Jerusalem residents a chance to live like human beings. I want to have clout from the inside, to get more resources allocated to the Arab residents.”

Arabs Are 31 Percent of the Voters
About 630,000 Jerusalemites are eligible to vote. Some 200,000 of them – 31 percent – are Arabs. (Arabs constitute 41 percent of all Jerusalem residents, but many are children and teenagers too young to vote.) In the 2013 municipal elections, only one percent of the city’s Arabs voted. Dabash estimates that at least 40 percent of them want to vote, but do not know what they will ultimately do if two days before the elections – as in previous election campaigns – Hamas threatens their lives. According to Dabash, “I think this time it’s more widely understood that a change is needed. I myself am not afraid. One can’t remain silent any longer. One has to stand up and vote.”

Dr. David Koren, Arab-affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, said recently in a conversation published in Israel Hayom that, indeed, “many more of the east Jerusalem Arabs will vote than in the past, but still not enough.” Koren thinks there will be voting blocs in places such as Wadi Joz, Beit Safafa, and Sur Baher, but he is not convinced that there will be enough ballots cast to pass the minimum threshold of votes.

“The east Jerusalem residents are still threatened and intimidated by terror and extreme nationalism,” Koren observes. “The Palestinian Authority’s ability to stick labels on them as ‘Zionist agents and collaborators’ still exists. And it has a deterrent effect.”

Part of a small minority to vote, an East Jerusalem man shows his Israeli ID card to vote in the Jerusalem mayoral elections in 2008 (Daniel Dreifuss/ Flash90)

Koren’s impression is that “the number of courageous people who are freeing themselves from the threat is growing. You also hear from the private person who will tell you, in a conversation in a closed room, that he prefers to keep living in one city under Israeli sovereignty but with equality, something he will never say on the outside. But a vote is another step forward, and I am not convinced that the general public is ripe enough for it. What is completely clear to me is that from a security standpoint, the police and the security establishment must give the east Jerusalem population a sense that it is safe to go out and vote, and I am convinced – in light of conversations I held with the police – that they are completely aware of the issue.”

“Does the Jewish population have reason to fear Arab representation on the City Council?” Koren was asked. He replied: “Whoever wants to see Jerusalem divided with two different municipalities has no reason to support it. Whoever truly understands what is entailed by a united city has to know that as part of the processes of ‘Israelization’ and becoming citizens that a considerable portion of the east Jerusalem Arabs is undergoing, they will in the future become part of the political and municipal game.”

A Disconnect between the Local and National Arenas

Early this year, a wide-ranging survey of east Jerusalem Arabs by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 60 percent think they should take part in the Jerusalem municipality elections at the end of October, that they should try to exert influence from within, and that after the protracted boycott, the time has come to take part in the “municipal game.” (The survey was commissioned by the Hebrew University to gauge Arab attitudes after President Trump declared U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.)

The survey results were not a surprise. They again showed that alongside trends of Islamization and religious radicalization in east Jerusalem society, the Israelization trend among many east Jerusalem Arabs is also continuing and perhaps even gaining steam.

The survey results also indicated the strength of the reality for Jews and Arabs after 50 years together in a single city without borders. Today, many in the Arab community seek parity of services and infrastructures between the eastern and western parts of the city by securing clout on the City Council. The survey findings suggest that this interest is stronger than the interest in the Palestinian national narrative about Jerusalem pushed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Those two entities, each in its own way, view any cooperation with Israel – and particularly in Jerusalem – as “treason” against the “supreme goal” of “establishing Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.”

The survey apparently shows that a considerable part of the east Jerusalem residents is prepared to set aside the “supreme goal” of the Palestinian leadership. Instead, they wish to distinguish between the local, municipal arena and the Palestinian national objectives, which for now appear unachievable. The poll also suggests that many more east Jerusalem residents now understand that obtaining a larger stake in the municipal budgets – which have been flowing mainly to west Jerusalem for many years – requires political clout on the City Council.

Seeking Ballot Boxes, Not Bullets

And yet, just months before the October 30, 2018, elections, the atmosphere in some parts of the east Jerusalem street is one of fear, and it is not clear whether these trends, which have been mounting for several years, will be translated on election day into east Jerusalem Arabs heading to the polling stations. That also appears to depend on the activity of the Israeli security branches and on whether they can give east Jerusalem residents a sense of security. Part of the answer lies in a sufficient dispersal of the ballot boxes. In the previous elections, only 13 voting booths were provided in the eastern part of the city, making it much more difficult for the few residents who wanted to vote.

In previous municipal election campaigns, the terror organizations were able to torpedo any significant participation by east Jerusalem Arabs and Arab parties with the exception of the 1969 elections. Only a few percent of those eligible to vote came to the polls, and terror triumphed. Over the years, these tiny numbers conveyed a Palestinian national message of not formally recognizing Israeli rule and unification of the city.

Israel, for its part, failed to create a sense of security that would have enabled more east Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections. The threat to their safety was too tangible. It is still well-remembered in east Jerusalem that in the past the Arab public who wanted to take part in the local elections and well-known figures who wanted to run for a seat on the City Council, were threatened and sometimes even subjected to the violence and terror of Hamas and Fatah. For example, Hanna Siniora, the former editor of the newspaper Al-Fajir and who wanted to run for the City Council, had two of his cars set ablaze. Local initiatives in Beit Safafa and Sur Baher met a similar fate.

East Jerusalem editor Hanna Siniora had two of his cars set on fire when he tried to run in the Jerusalem municipal elections in 1988.

This time, will Israel be able to create a different atmosphere and different conditions? At the moment, the picture is still unclear, but the terror threats do not augur well. The Israelization trends by themselves will not change the electoral map in the eastern part of the city. What is lacking there is a feeling among the residents that they are protected against the threats made by terror groups and that their physical safety is ensured. However, feelings of safety and security are much harder to impart.

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years.   His books include: Jerusalem: Delusions of Division (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015); The “Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie (Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, 2012); the ebook Jerusalem: Correcting the International Discourse – How the West Gets Jerusalem Wrong (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb (Gates for Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Temple Mount Conflict (Keter, 1995); and the essay: “Jerusalem Is Not the Problem, It Is the Solution,” in Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav, ed. (Carmel and Florsheimer Institute, 2005).


What apartheid?

Smadar Bat Adam

Israel Hayom, Aug. 21

Israeli Arabs hold a Palestinian flag during an Aug. 14 protest in Tel Aviv against Israel’s controversial nation-state law, organised by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee. (Photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Despite what the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee would have you believe with its decision to organize protests against Israel’s “racism” and “apartheid,” ever since 2009, the right-wing governments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have led to unprecedented advancements in the quality of life of the country’s non-Jewish citizens. This important process is still in full swing. That is a fact.

The urban legend that holds that sewage flows freely through the streets of Arab towns and cities has long been a lie. While it is true that in the past, outdated cesspools typical of the unplanned construction common in the Arab sector did not contain the sewage, by the 18th Knesset, which governed from 2009 to 2013, the sewage infrastructure in the sector had been replaced, thanks to unprecedented government funding and loans.

Once the new sewage infrastructure was set up, sidewalks, traffic circles and vegetation were quick to follow. All Israeli citizens have a right to the infrastructure their communities require. Yes, up until the last decade, the state was to blame for the neglect of the Arab communities, but so too were the Arab community leaders, who for their own reasons, chose not to collect property and water taxes from their constituents.

In May, Israeli financial daily The Marker interviewed the recently retired head of the Administration for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian sectors Aiman Saif in a piece headlined “Bibi [Netanyahu] is good for Arabs.” In the interview, this senior Arab official spoke of Netanyahu’s work to increase the state budget for the Arab sector. He lauded the government’s 2015 decision to allocate between 12 billion and 15 billion shekels [$3.3 billion to $4.1 billion] to Arab communities. While Saif did note that many in the Arab sector were uncomfortable with what they said were offensive comments from members of Israel’s coalition government, including from Netanyahu, Saif said that at the end of the day, he left his position “with a deep sense of satisfaction that here, the government is acting to integrate Israeli Arabs [into society].”

One need only look at the numbers to understand the vast efforts to bring about civil equality: The government has allocated 350 million shekels ($96 million) toward assisting weak students, with a comparable amount going toward the Druze sector, which as a result now has the highest matriculation rate in Israel. In Arab communities, the matriculation rate has increased from 57% in 2015 to 65.9% in 2017. A decade ago, there were very few community centers in Arab communities; now, there are dozens. Also a decade ago, billions of shekels were allocated toward multiyear plans for the development of Arab Bedouin, Druze and Circassian communities, and billions more were allocated for the economic and business development of those sectors, including to improve transportation and roads as well as create tourist infrastructure. All of this information can be found online. All one needs to do is look and more importantly, want to see it.

Israel is in the midst of a sweeping and natural process of integrating young Arabs into Israeli society; in hospitals and pharmacies, the information technology sector, academia and in our courts and government offices.

One can understand why the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee would want to conceal the truth. Those who accuse Israel of apartheid naturally fear that once exposed, the truth will prove their allegations as at best empty at and at worst incitement. What is difficult to understand is why, alongside the enactment of the nation-state law, the government has not published the data on the realization of civil equality in the Arab sector.