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A Palestinian’s failed bid to become mayor of Jerusalem highlights his community’s challenge

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks down a street littered with campaign posters Sunday in Jerusalem, two days before municipal elections. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Aziz Abu Sarah’s bid to become mayor of Jerusalem was doomed from the start.

A Palestinian businessman and activist born and raised in the city, Abu Sarah was not only breaking a 50-year taboo within his own community — he also faced a legal battle because he is not an Israeli citizen. 

Yet even he was surprised at the intense pressure, from Israelis and from Palestinians, that upended his campaign.

Municipal elections take place across Israel on Tuesday, but few cities are being watched as closely as Jerusalem, whose contested status and polarized population have made the race for city hall particularly dramatic — even drawing in rare Palestinian candidates. 

Five candidates are vying for the coveted job of mayor as incumbent Nir Barkat steps down. They include a right-wing government minister, a secular Jewish deputy mayor and a rabbinically endorsed deputy mayor. They represent the city’s main Jewish sectors — secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox. 

None of them represent Jerusalem’s sizable Palestinian population, though. 

Israel’s election was fought along class and religious lines

Abu Sarah had hoped to address that. 

“I don’t feel a failure. I do feel disappointed,” he told The Washington Post on Sunday. “But I think we succeeded in stirring the water. We got people to talk about the problems of Jerusalem.” 

Palestinians, who make up roughly one-third of Jerusalem’s 865,700 residents, face a predicament. Traditionally, they reject Israel’s rule over Jerusalem. They see the city, or at least its eastern sector, where the majority of Jerusalem’s Palestinians live, as illegally occupied and remain hopeful that it will become the capital of a future Palestinian state. 

Additionally, they largely boycott municipal elections, denying themselves a political voice and a say in improving their lot. As a result, their communities are neglected and receive a much smaller share of the budget than neighborhoods on the western, mostly Jewish, side of the city. 

Abu Sarah’s short-lived bid to become mayor, in addition to a fellow Palestinian contesting for a place on the 31-seat city council, aimed to address that and challenge the status quo.   

“There are about 170,000 potential voters in East Jerusalem. If Palestinians were to go out and vote, then we would be able to change everything,” Abu Sarah said, speaking in English. “Until now, our strategy has always been letting others speak for us. We’ve had no real leadership right here in Jerusalem.” 

An Israeli leader wants to put Jerusalem’s Arabs on the other side of new walls

But after Abu Sarah’s submitted a petition in the Supreme Court to run for mayor without citizenship, his Jerusalem residency came “under review.” 

Days after he formally announced his candidacy and his 11-member party, al-Quds Lana (Arabic for Jerusalem is Ours), his team started receiving threats. Abu Sarah alleges the intimidation campaign was directed mostly from the Palestinians’ de facto capital, Ramallah, with Palestinian journalists told not to interview him and representatives of Palestinian factions in Jerusalem sent to warn him to back down.

“One of my candidates, a student at al-Quds University, was forced to enter the campus at the back gate and have someone accompany her to class,” Abu Sarah said. “It was very scary.” 

“At some point, you have to ask yourself — if I can’t even run legally, is it worth putting people’s lives at risk?” he said. 

Ramadan Dabash, head of a separate all-Palestinian party, is continuing with his bid for a place on the city council. 

“It is important to run, not for me personally but for the 380,000 Palestinians who have been deprived of municipal benefits and services for years,” he said Monday. “Running for the municipality has no political affiliation — we just need voices inside the city hall to help our community.” 

Dabash said he, too, has been harassed and called a Zionist and collaborator. 

“Someone tried to kidnap my son, another person tried to run me over, but none of this will stop me,” he said. 

Sufian Hamada, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, said: “Why is it treason to have a well-educated Arab person in the Jerusalem municipality? I’m going to vote tomorrow because we need someone in the municipality to represent us.”

But not everyone feels that way.

Mahmood Ahmad Ali, a 50-year-old resident of the Shuafat refugee camp, which sits within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, said that as a Palestinian, he could not “recognize the illegal municipality that only serves the Jewish right wing.” 

Sufian Taha in East Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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