Voting for Palestinian empowerment in Jerusalem

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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.

Photo: ©K. Maes

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.

His motivation?

“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.

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The Jerusalem embassy syndrome

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By Khaled Diab

The problem is not the new US embassy in Jerusalem. The problem is the reality which surrounds and underpins it.

All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.
Image source: US embassy in Jerusalem’s Facebook page

Friday 18 May 2018

Remember this moment, this is history,” Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged the high-flying audience at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, while less than 100 km away Israeli snipers were killing dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza and maiming hundreds more. “President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history.”

Netanyahu has set the bar for making history incredibly low. All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Arnona, West Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.

This is not unlike how Trump operated as an entrepreneur: plonk a sign bearing his name on a skyscraper or casino and, like a conjurer, give the illusion of change without actually changing anything of substance. With Trump, politics and business are all about branding.

The illusion that Trump has made history is aided not just by his cheerleaders but also by his opponents. This is partly because ‘The Donald’ is a dangerously foolish and foolishly dangerous man, but also because he presents a unique opportunity for his predecessors to cover up their own failings by blaming everything on him.

But Trump was not the one who stood idly by and watched as Israel annexed historical Jerusalem and large swathes of the surrounding West Bank and made it their capital. Settlement building in East Jerusalem did not start on Trump’s watch nor did the construction of the wall splitting East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, neither did the demolition of Palestinian homes and the eviction of their tenants. Moreover, the US has officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for nearly a quarter of a century, since the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, so Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is hardly news or new.

This partly explains why the inauguration of the US embassy met with a rather muted response from Palestinian Jerusalemites, not because they are indifferent to their plight but because this minor symbol does not change their situation beyond the symbolic, as a Palestinian colleague from Jerusalem explained. After all, the reality the inauguration represents is one they have been living since 1967 and in accelerated form since the Oslo process began in the 1990s.

Even what has been dubbed as the Great Return March in Gaza to mark seven decades of dispossession, though it was refocused on Jerusalem this week, is only ostensibly and symbolically about the holy city. The demonstrations on Monday, during which Israeli snipers killed at least 58 unarmed Palestinians and wounded hundreds more, were far more about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the destitution and despair it has created. And it is this massacre of protesters and the incarceration of an entire population which should be the main focus of our outrage.

The mounting death toll in Gaza is causing indignation and anger among Jerusalem’s Palestinians. “It takes unbelievable evilness and a wilful blindness to Palestinian humanity and rights to celebrate the opening of the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem while Israeli troops gun down unarmed people in Gaza,” reflects the prominent Italian-Palestinian journalist and author Rula Jebreal. “East Jerusalem mourns, Palestinian Muslims and Christians mourn their subjugation.”

While the rehousing of the embassy changes nothing of substance, Donald Trump’s presence in the White House and his ending of any pretence that America is a broker, let alone an honest broker, has galvanised Israel’s extremist government and Israeli extremists, who felt somewhat constrained under his predecessor, Barack Obama, despite his lopsided and ineffectual efforts to broker a deal and his staunch support, in words and deeds, for Israel.

Nevertheless, even during these dark and embattled hours, many Palestinian Jerusalemites clasp on to a sense of hope beyond the current despair. “I crave a peace plan where all communities live side by side as equals,” Rula Jebreal dreams.

Such a utopian future of equality is unlikely to come from the leadership, at least none that is currently on the horizon. “Have hope, and faith, not in governments, but in people,” Mahmoud Muna of East Jerusalem’s well-known Educational Bookshop wrote in a public post on Facebook. “Our freedom is not awaiting permission from no one, it is coming and without a knock on the door, it will just come.”

For many years, I have been advocating for a people’s peace achieved through a civil rights struggle for equality because the two-state solution is dead and because America will not bring peace, the Israeli government will not bring peace, and neither Fatah nor Hamas will bring peace. What will bring peace are the peace-lovers in Israel and Palestine joining forces. Only then will peace stand a chance.


An Italian version of this article first appeared in Corriere della Sera on 16 May 2018.

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A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.


This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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