November 6, 2008 / 10:46 AM / in 9 years

Palestinians boycott "useless" Jerusalem mayoral vote

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Arab residents of Jerusalem say their choice is clear in an Israeli election next week for mayor of the holy city -- they will again opt to boycott the poll.

“I voted in the past but it brought me nothing. I don’t believe in their (Israeli) democracy,” said Fawziyeh al-Kurd, a Muslim Arab born in Jerusalem 56 years ago.

Some 260,000 Arabs, most of them Muslim, live in Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move that has not won international recognition.

As residents of what Israel terms “united” Jerusalem, Arabs in the city carry Israeli identity cards, giving them access to welfare and health services, and freedom of movement denied to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. But few have taken up the possibility of full Israeli citizenship.

Arabs in East Jerusalem can vote in the mayoral contest -- in which only Jewish candidates are running -- but few have in the past and most will probably heed renewed calls by the Palestinian Authority to boycott this year’s November 11 election.

Hatem Abdel Khader, an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said that by refusing to vote, Palestinians would demonstrate their opposition to Israeli occupation of the city.

“We cannot pay a long-term political price in return for short-term municipal services,” said Khader, responding to some local Palestinian leaders who say participation in the election is the only way to secure equal rights in Jerusalem, which the war of 1948 left divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The status of the city is a main stumbling block in current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

HOMEFRONT

For Kurd, the political battle hits close to home.

She and her husband are fighting in an Israeli court against a ruling that says they do not own the patch of land where they built their house 50 years ago. They face possible eviction.

Nestled on a hill in East Jerusalem, Kurd’s one-storey dwelling is surrounded by hostile Jewish settlers who moved into homes whose Arab owners are dead or considered by Israel as having forfeited property rights because they live abroad.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a leading civil liberties group that also deals with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, said Israeli authorities have expropriated some 6,000 acres from Arabs in East Jerusalem.

Since 1967, the group said, Israel has built some 50,000 housing units for Jews in the expropriated areas while denying many Palestinians building permits in East Jerusalem.

“The municipality has no housing plan for East Jerusalem, which means it is practically impossible to build there,” said Orly Noy of the Israeli Ir Amim, or City of Nations, rights group, founded in 2004 to advocate equality in Jerusalem.

Although Palestinians make up 34 percent of Jerusalem’s 740,000 residents, only 10 percent of the annual municipal budget is funnelled to Arab areas, Noy said.

The problems facing Palestinians in the city have been compounded by a barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is meant to prevent suicide bombers from reaching its cities.

Sections of the barrier have cut off several Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem, making it impossible for some Palestinians to work or visit relatives in Israeli-ruled sections of the city.

Palestinians say the barrier, as well as Israel’s policies in Jerusalem, are designed to drive them out and cement its hold on the city.

While Jews from around the world are welcomed by Israeli officials, Arabs can find themselves stripped of their right even to return to visit families in Jerusalem if, for example, they go abroad to work or study for a time.

PALESTINIAN CANDIDATE

Zohair Hamdan, a local leader from the village of Sur Baher, had planned to become the first Palestinian to run for Jerusalem mayor under Israeli rule. He withdrew his candidacy last month, citing what he called technical reasons.

“I regret the decision by the Palestinian leadership to boycott the municipal election. There are 260,000 Arab residents in Jerusalem and they have rights which they can get through active participation in the election,” said Hamdan.

“The Palestinian Authority, with all due respect, should let Jerusalem’s Arabs run their own affairs,” he said of President Mahmoud Abbas’s administration a few miles away in Ramallah.

Amir Cheshin, an Israeli who served as an Arab affairs adviser to the Jerusalem municipality in the 1980s and 1990s, said only about 5-10 percent of the city’s Palestinian residents vote in the mayoral election held every five years.

“I’ve told them (Palestinians) that they are making a big mistake,” Cheshin said. “They do not have to recognize the unity of the city under Israeli rule but they can nevertheless get their rights by voting Arab councilmen to the municipality.”

Additional reporting by Roleen Tafakji in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Editing by Charles Dick

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