Oct 24 2013

Palestinians again boycott Jerusalem municipal polls

Published by at 12:45 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

This appeared in today’s Jordan Times.

Palestinians again boycott Jerusalem municipal polls

By Daoud Kuttab | Oct 23, 2013

Once again Palestinians living in Jerusalem have made a powerful political statement about the future of the holy city by staying away from the municipal polls. Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that Palestinians avoided the elections of what Israelis call the united city of Jerusalem. “Less than 1 per cent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem voted in the Jerusalem municipal elections,” the daily said on its Ynet website.

The absence of participation in neighborhoods such as Sur Baher, Beit Hanina, Shufat, Issawia Abu Tur as well as the old city of Jerusalem is not new. Since the 1967 occupation of the city and its unilateral annexation, Palestinians have publicly opposed participation in the municipal elections, which combined West Jerusalem to that of East Jerusalem. Municipal elections in Israel include voting for both mayor and city council. Running for mayor were three Israeli right-wing, ultra-right-wing and religious candidates. City council elections include 31 seats and members are not elected by neighborhoods or location but based on political party slates. Usually one or two council members are elected from the left-wing Meretz Party, while the majority council is divided between Likud, Labor and religious parties. Usually no Arab parties or candidates run for the Jerusalem municipal elections.Palestinians and most of the world support the creation of a Palestinian state on all areas occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, which is considered by Palestinians as their future capital.

Former US president Bill Clinton had suggested during and after the 2000 Camp David summit that Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem be part of the Palestinian state while Jewish areas belong to the state of Israel. Both parties publicly agree that the city shouldn’t be divided but fail to explain how that will exist in reality if two independent and sovereign states are created. The Clinton parameters, which are widely seen as the closest suggestion for sharing the city of Jerusalem, call for unhindered access to the holy sites, especially those in the old city.

The Palestinians’ nonappearance at the ballot box sends a powerful message to negotiators, who have stepped up their talks, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry. Apparently three out of the 13 face-to-face meetings held in secret by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators took place in the past week. The ongoing talks are meant to deal with all outstanding issues, including the status of Jerusalem. No leak or commentary has mentioned any discussions yet on the holy city or its future. Most of the leaks from the talks have focused on the status of the eastern borders of the future Palestinian state. Apparently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to withdrawing Israeli troops from the Jordan Valley while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that not a single Israeli soldier should be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, including the Jordan Valley.

While the political showing of Jerusalem’s Palestinians gives a big boost to their negotiators, the absence of Palestinians from city hall does little to ease the living conditions in the city, which houses more than 250,000 Palestinians. City budgets, city plans and educational programming are all decided by the entirely Israeli Jewish city council with little or no consultation or attention to the lives of Palestinians. Even symbolic institutions in East Jerusalem that acted as a meeting point for Palestinians have been closed by Israeli orders. This includes Orient House, which acted as a launching point for the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks and the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce. Israel has used emergency laws to justify the closure of Palestinian civil societies. Last spring, Israeli police closed the Palestinian national theatre for a week because a children’s puppet festival was funded by the Norwegian government through the Ramallah-based Palestinian government.

The leaderless Palestinian population in Jerusalem has had to create local national committees that are largely aligned with the PLO and the various Islamic movements. Their leaders are often arrested and their travel is restricted but they are still very powerful when it comes to making decisions about the future of the city. The PLO and other movements, as well as these committees, issued statements weeks ago calling on the city’s Palestinian inhabitants not to participate in the municipal elections held on Tuesday. The no-show of 99 per cent of the population is due largely to the power and effectiveness of these groups. Life goes on in the city, however, with its Palestinian residents generally feeling abandoned and helpless. For now the big struggle is not about municipal elections but Israeli attempts to change the status quo in the Haram Al Sharif compound that includes Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest mosque in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock. Israeli groups and leaders are demanding a right to pray on these premises, which Jews call the Temple Mount. Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have stated — as recently as last week in a congratulatory message on the occasion of Eid Al Adha — that the religious status quo in Jerusalem will not change. Few Palestinians believe Netanyahu’s position, but for now they feel that they have made a strong statement by abstaining from the Israeli-run municipal elections.

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