Palestinians abstained from participating in the November 10 elections for the Israeli municipal council in Jerusalem. Only 6.5% of the eligible voters (i.e. some 4,500 people) cast their vote in the Palestinian East Jerusalem ballots, far less than the average Jerusalem voter participation of 40%. Since ballots used by Israeli settlers in the Old City are included among those listed “East Jerusalem ballots” in the official Israeli election statistics, a major portion of the 2,250 East Jerusalem votes for Olmert are likely to be not Palestinian, but Israeli settler votes. This brings actual Palestinian participation down to 3.3% (some 2,000 persons) which is the lowest voter turnout in East Jerusalem since 1967.
Election Boycott - a last minute symbolic victory
The 30 year old Palestinian boycott of Israeli municipal elections was maintained once again. Palestinian national unity around the total rejection of Israel’s occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem was confirmed for the next five year period. “An Opinion Poll Against the Occupation” was the headline of Al-Ayyam newspaper on the day following the elections, a headline which well expressed the sense of relief and joy among all those who continue to hold that a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be based on international law and provide for Palestinian national rights also in 1967 occupied East Jerusalem. Joy yes, but why relief? Relief, because unity and consensus apparent in the election results were not given or guaranteed in the period preceding these elections. The Palestinian community in Jerusalem and its leadership were in fact involved in a heavy debate in which Palestinian participation in the Israeli municipal elections was - for the first time - considered a legitimate option by many, and not marginalized, Palestinian leaders and opinion makers.
A sense of indecision, division, and defeat had clouded the atmosphere over Palestinian Jerusalem in the pre-election period - while Israel seemed more than ever united and determined to complete and expand its East Jerusalem settlements in order to secure its claim on the city. For long, the Palestinian leadership had failed to respond decisively. The successful candidacy of an Arab List headed by Moussa Alayan, a Palestinian resident of Beit Safafa, exposed a host of inconsistencies and questions concerning Palestinian unity on the issue of Jerusalem. Moussa Alayan’s campaign for city council in East Jerusalem on a fully Arab list had raised only a murmur of dissent from the Palestinian political factions. In fact, according to Moussa Alayan, prior consent was given to his candidacy by leading members of Fatah, the Islamic Council, and Feisal Husseini. Al-Quds newspaper refused to publish statements by the Lobby for Human Rights in Jerusalem, a coalition of nine Palestinian NGOs, that denounced Alayan’s campaign as strengthening Israeli sovereignty on Jerusalem. Instead Al-Quds, a major Palestinian newspaper, ran a series of pro-Alayan statements and candidacy advertisements.
Moussa Alayan presented his candidacy as being non-political and concerned only with the civil right of receiving municipal benefits that Palestinian residents pay for through the municipal (Arnona) tax. Alayan argued that there was no connection between his candidacy and the future political status of Jerusalem. Instead Alayan, a victim of land confiscation himself, believed that his candidacy would strengthen democracy and Palestinian rights in Jerusalem.
It was only a few weeks before the elections that the Palestinian leadership was finally able to formulate a clear and public position against Palestinian participation. In a press conference held at the Orient House on October 19, Faisal Husseini stated that, “Although Moussa Alayan is an Israeli citizen from 1948 and holds an Israeli ID card, I called on him not to run.” Jerusalem PLC member Hatem Abdel Qader made clear that, “The Palestinian position on Jerusalem is an absolute boycott on the elections, both in voting and candidacy.” Only then was there a green light for the Palestinian political factions in Jerusalem and their activists to prepare a commercial strike and rally for the election boycott which eventually brought about a result of unity and consensus.
From symbolic unity to a united struggle?
Only a few days have passed since the elections, relief and satisfaction are justified: the boycott held and the Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem was able to prove that it still exists and is able to impose its influence. The future of Palestinian Jerusalem, however, will not be decided by symbolic victories, but by the question of whether the Palestinian leadership will be able to develop a new strategy for the struggle against the Israeli occupation and expansionism in Jerusalem. Such a strategy must involve the Palestinian community and return its faith in the leadership and the possibility of a Palestinian victory over the Israeli machinery which has so successfully combined overt and administrative violence for so many years. Timing and conditions for a new Palestinian endeavor for Jerusalem are favorable: The municipal elections have not only shown that the Palestinian community will remain a united front in opposition to all Israeli occupation plans and policies, but established a new Israeli municipality which is more than ever polarized and divided between Israeli secular representatives (Labor, Meretz with 9 seats) and representatives of the orthodox Jewish community (with 15-16 seats in the 31 member city council). Internal Israeli municipal strife may yet give Palestinians a chance to re-group and get back on their feet.