April 16, 2024


Occupied East Jerusalem –  Munir Nuseibeh has the right to vote in Jerusalem’s upcoming municipal elections, but he refuses to do so. The 42-year-old Palestinian doesn’t want to legitimise Israel’s occupation and annexation of the city’s east.

“This election will not liberate us. It will – at best – give Palestinians [in East Jerusalem] a few more services,” Nuseibeh, a legal expert, told Al Jazeera.

“But why should we integrate ourselves into an apartheid machine, as opposed to working on the real goal which is to dismantle the apartheid regime?”

Ever since Israel captured East Jerusalem and other Arab lands in the 1967 war, Palestinians in the city have collectively boycotted these elections for the same reasons as Nuseibeh.

There are about 362,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, most of whom have residency status but are stateless. That means they can participate in local elections — like the municipal vote in Israeli cities on February 27 — but not national ones.

Despite the acute racial discrimination, some Palestinians argue that their people should back a single Palestinian candidate – or list – in a bid to acquire significant representation in Jerusalem’s municipality. That way, they can lobby for better provisions and Palestinian rights.

But their advocacy has stirred debate over whether participating in municipal elections would advance those goals, or whitewash Israel’s systematic discrimination against Palestinians.

“Those who are [running in these elections] are selling us a dream,” said Nuseibeh. “Let’s imagine that we all do vote for a single candidate in these elections. The next morning, the Israeli government and Knesset will change the boundaries of Jerusalem.”

Controversial step

In May 2023, Sondos al-Hoot took the bold move to campaign for one of the 31 seats in Jerusalem’s local municipal council. She joined a list that includes Palestinians and left-wing Jewish candidates.

Sitting in a cafe drinking latte, she told Al Jazeera that most Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem don’t support her. However, she’s still motivated to run since Jeruslaem’s $3.8bn municipal budget goes almost entirely to Jewish residents of the city.

“I see this kind of oppression and I’m not able to remain quiet,” al-Hoot, 33, said.

Al-Hoot added that her main goal is to improve East Jerusalem’s water pipes, roads and rubbish collection. She would also like to improve education for Palestinian children and combat violence against women.

Her greatest fear is that the team behind Jerusalem’s far-right deputy mayor, Arieh King, will eat up most of the municipality seats unless he is challenged.

For years, King has tried to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem and push Palestinians out. This has resulted in the Jerusalem municipality expediting the destruction of Palestinian neighbourhoods and homes.

The municipality claims that most homes are demolished because they were built illegally. But local and international rights groups say that the authorities make it nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits.

In 2023, a total of 140 Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem, marking a 60 percent increase from the year before.

Ahmad Muna, a Palestinian bookseller in East Jerusalem, believes King isn’t the issue. He said Israeli institutions – including the municipality – are designed to discriminate against Palestinians.

“Even Palestinians in the Knesset can’t stop the demolition of homes inside Israel or stop the government from funding and building new Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

“That’s why I will not vote in the municipal elections and it doesn’t really matter if I vote or not. Israeli laws discriminate against Palestinians,” he told Al Jazeera.

Disillusioned

In 1993, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The accords launched a peace process with the aim of creating a separate Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza – lands that Israel captured and still occupies since the 1967 war.

While Palestinian leaders envisioned East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, many Palestinians have grown disillusioned with the peace process due to Israel expanding Jewish settlements and cutting off Gaza  – geographically, economically and politically – from the West Bank. Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank have soared, often enveloping Palestinian neighbourhoods, cutting them off from each other and leaving even the viability of a future Palestinian state in question.

Walid Tayeh, a 69-year-old Palestinian lawyer from Nazareth and a resident of Jerusalem, came to believe that a one-state solution might be better for Palestinians.

That view prompted him to campaign for municipal elections last year.

“I wanted to use the municipal elections as an example. I thought that if Jews and Palestinians could live together in one town, then there would be no reason that we can’t live together in one democratic state from the river to the sea,” he told Al Jazeera.

But Israel’s response to Hamas’s deadly attack on Israel on October 7, in which 1,139 people were killed and 240 abducted, changed Tayeh’s view.

In the first two weeks of Israel’s war on Gaza, Israel forcibly uprooted about a million Palestinians from the north of the enclave to the south. The Israeli army then proceeded to raze entire neighbourhoods and make northern Gaza uninhabitable, according to rights groups and the United Nations. Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza.

“I’m now convinced that the Jewish Israeli state wants to ethnically cleanse us,” he told Al Jazeera. “They want the entire land just for them.”

Boycott expected

Tayeh wasn’t the only one horrified by Israel’s reaction to October 7. Palestinians in East Jerusalem ceased speaking about whether to participate in or boycott municipal elections. Every conversation in homes, cafes and barbershops was about the suffering of their people in Gaza.

“The state of Israel elevated its level of brutality and aggression against Palestinians. That does not invite [those in East Jerusalem] to vote in elections,” said Muna, the bookseller.

Al-Hoot said she stopped campaigning for weeks following the October 7 attacks by Hamas. She told Al Jazeera that she couldn’t dare pitch herself as a candidate in Israeli elections at a time when hundreds of Palestinians were dying every day in an enclave just 76km (47 miles) from East Jerusalem.

She later decided to resume her campaign after seeing the far right use the war to rally voters against Palestinians across Jerusalem.

“Before the war, there was lots of Jewish racism towards Arabs, but it was implicit. When the war started, the mask came off and the racism became so much more explicit. They would say that they will evict all the Arabs to Jordan and that all Arabs are with Hamas,” she told Al Jazeera.

Despite al-Hoot’s aspirations, several Palestinians believe that most of East Jerusalem will boycott the municipal elections, again. This time, they fear legitimising Israel’s mass killing in Gaza – which may amount to genocide – as well as its annexation of East Jerusalem and apartheid in the West Bank.

“All of Palestine, including Jerusalem, is under apartheid,” said Nuseibeh, the legal expert.

“Palestinians have to resist – even if we resist silently – by not participating in municipal elections.”



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