By Khaled Diab
Despite the dogmatic reactions from the politically orthodox, Aziz Abu Sarah’s aborted mayoral bid is the latest manifestation of the Palestinian struggle’s shift towards a civil-rights movement.
Friday 5 October 2018
It has been over 40 years since East Jerusalem had a Palestinian mayor (Ruhi al-Khatib) and nearly three-quarters of a century since a Palestinian mayor (Mustafa al-Khalidi) governed Jerusalem as a whole.
But one Palestinian is on a mission to change this reality. Aziz Abu Sarah, a Jerusalemite Palestinian peace activist, journalist, social entrepreneur and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer has announced his candidacy for mayor in the upcoming elections at the end of October.
“I want to inspire hope,” he told me. As someone who lived for years in Jerusalem, I can vouch that hope is one commodity that is in extremely short supply among the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They live under Israeli rule but are largely disenfranchised. Their precarious legal status as “permanent residents” means they have little protection or recourse against the mushrooming Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, evictions, home demolitions, or even being stripped of their residencies.
In addition, hemmed in by the wall, East Jerusalem has become cut off economically from the rest of the Palestinian West Bank, and maintaining social and cultural ties is a one-way process, seeing as West Bank residents cannot visit Jerusalem without a difficult-to-acquire Israeli entry permit.
Nevertheless, the legal, political and social barriers standing in the way of Abu Sarah are substantial and formidable, which led me to wonder whether his candidacy was more a protest action than an actual political campaign. “I want to win. This is serious,” insisted Abu Sarah, who is part of al-Quds Lana (Jerusalem is Ours), a Palestinian-run list for seats on the city council.
The most immediate hurdle is a legal one. Abu Sarah is not technically entitled to run for mayor, as Israeli law stipulates that only an Israeli citizen may become mayor of Jerusalem, which effectively means that the vast majority of Palestinian Jerusalemites, excepting the minority with Israeli citizenship, are permitted to vote in municipal elections but not to run for office. Abu Sarah says he has hired a lawyer to make his case as a candidate before the Israeli courts, but he admits that “my chances are low of getting approved”.
“If I am approved, then I have 180,000 potential voters in East Jerusalem. This is way more than I need to win the mayoral position,” Abu Sarah asserts.
However, there is one major glitch in this optimistic view: the support Abu Sarah is counting on is notional. Since Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, there has been an official voter boycott of the municipal elections in place. “I do have an uphill battle, though, convincing Palestinians to vote, making sure Israel has enough polling stations, making sure people are not afraid from the ‘anti-normalisation’ threats,” acknowledges Abu Sarah, who had eggs thrown at him by unidentified protesters when he launched his bid.
Given that boycotting the elections for city hall has been the orthodoxy for the past half century, it is unsurprising that Abu Sarah’s campaign has provoked controversy and opposition, with representatives from the Palestinian political establishment and activist communities harshly criticising the hopeful mayoral candidate for allegedly normalising the occupation and some going so far as to accuse him of being part of an Israeli conspiracy to get Palestinian Jerusalemites to accept the occupation, i.e. a veiled (and sometimes not-so-veiled) accusation of treason.
The Mufti of al-Aqsa Muhammad Hussein hinted that participating in the elections, either as a voter or a candidate, was tantamount to heresy and whoever did so removed himself or herself from “the religion, the nation, and the homeland”, while the PLO’s Saeb Erekat suggested that any form of participation in the ballot would “serve to aid Israel in the establishment of its ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project”.
This kind of rhetoric not only places Abu Sarah’s safety and well-being at potential risk, it is also unfair. People may disagree with the strategy pursued by Abu Sarah and like-minded Palestinians but accusing them of being cowards and sell-outs is not only defamatory but also betrays a lack of imagination. “It pains me a lot that our state of dialogue within the Palestinian community has reached such a level,” Abu Sarah confesses. “I invite them to talk to me, argue with me and convince me that I am wrong. I say openly that if anyone does, I would withdraw from the elections but never due to threats,” he adds courageously.
Boycotting the municipal elections in the early days of the occupation made sense because Palestinians of Jerusalem had the hope and expectation that Israeli rule over them would not last long. Half a century on and with no end in sight, this strategy has not aged well and sticking to these outdated orthodoxies and dogmas has actually become self-defeating, as it gives the Israeli authorities a carte blanche to make life as difficult and unbearable as possible for Jerusalemite Palestinians.
“[Critics] argue that Israel wants us to vote but, in reality, that’s not true. If Israel wanted us to vote, they wouldn’t have only three or four polling stations in East Jerusalem while they have dozens in West Jerusalem,” argues Abu Sarah. “Israel doesn’t have an interest in having Palestinians know what’s happening behind closed doors or how the budget gets divided or how permits to build new areas happen.”
Despite all this, a growing number of Palestinians in Jerusalem believe that political involvement is a necessary way to safeguard their presence in the city and to keep alive their struggle, which has been abandoned by the international community and Arab world. Abu Sarah expects that up to 30% of eligible Palestinian voters will cast a ballot – a low turnout by any ordinary measure but a revolutionary jump compared with the minuscule 2% or so who voted in the previous election.
The opposition of the Fatah-led PLO to a new cadre of young leaders emerging who challenge its domination of political power and its Oslo illusions is understandable. Less clear are why Palestinian activists who favour a democratic binational state of equal citizenship for Arabs and Jews would also oppose such an initiative. Surely, voting in elections and running for office are, alongside grassroots activism and civil disobedience, vital components for achieving such an outcome.
It is both odd and contradictory that running for the Knesset and voting in Israel’s general elections is accepted when it comes to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but taking part in local elections are a huge no-no for Palestinian Jerusalemites, who have lived under Israeli control for only 19 years less. This is in spite of the fact that, if combined, the potential political clout of these two groups of Palestinians living under direct Israeli rule would, as I have long argued, be formidable.
On the Jewish side of the city, Abu Sarah’s candidacy is being met with hostility from the ultra-nationalist and religious right, even though they are the ones most vehemently opposed to the partitioning of the city. “Israeli nationalists are terrified of Palestinians voting… They are terrified of the potential. One political group already asked the government to disqualify us,” Abu Sarah says.
Despite the hostility, Abu Sarah’s groundbreaking campaign has gained him the admiration of a significant number of Jews. “While I can’t vote in the Jerusalem municipal elections, I admire, respect and trust Aziz Abu Sarah, and I think what he’s doing is very important for Jerusalem,” says Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a writer based in Jerusalem. “It’ll be a travesty and a stain on the holy city and all of Israel if he is not allowed to run.”
I sense that Abu Sarah is likely to garner some votes from the shrinking progressive, leftist liberal Jewish communities of Jerusalem, who would vote for him both as an expression of goodwill towards their Palestinian neighbours and as a protest against the domination of the city’s politics by the ultra-nationalist and religious right.
“I feel like he represents me more than the other candidates I’ve seen so far, on the issues that matter to me most,” believes Gil Elon, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem who intends to vote for Abu Sarah if his candidacy is approved. “Also, I think he won’t have the same type of corruption and other problems that leave other candidates vulnerable to thuggish influences.”
Although Aziz Abu Sarah, under pressure from the Israeli establishment and Palestinian authorities and activists, has since this interview announced his withdrawal from the mayoral race, his and disruptive daring move carries enormous symbolic significance for the long term. It is the latest high-profile manifestation of the long process I have been observing for years, in which the Palestinian struggle is being reinvented as a civil rights movement for equality – what I call the ‘non-state solution’.
This article first appeared in the New Arab on 25 September 2018.