(Bloomberg) -- At Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, it was seen as a worrisome enough development for the preacher to send up an alarm. “Don’t try to change the identity of the holy city,” Ismail Nawahda exhorted.
What had so agitated the imam at Islam’s third-holiest shrine is the unraveling of the Palestinians’ half-century boycott of municipal elections in Jerusalem. Even as the U.S. transfers its embassy to Jerusalem on Monday -- a move that Palestinians say undermines their dream to build a capital in the city’s east -- there is also a growing recognition that the boycott has negative consequences.
This year, at least two groups of east Jerusalem Palestinians say they plan an unprecedented run for the municipal council in October, hoping for a forum to air Palestinian grievances and lobby for their neighborhoods in the city.
“We aren’t accepting the occupation, we aren’t accepting sole Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem in any way,” said businessman and activist Aziz Abu Sarah, the Palestinian co-head of the Palestinian-Jewish Al Quds-Yerushalayim list. “The way things have been going the past 50 years, the Arabs are losing more and more of Jerusalem, and 20 years from now there will be nothing to negotiate,” he said.
By having a hand in governing Jerusalem, Abu Sarah and the small number of other Palestinians who plan to run say they hope to improve living conditions in underfunded neighborhoods that are decaying, crowded, and sometimes ridden with drugs. They want to make life easier for Arab Jerusalemites affected by an Israeli barrier that ignores municipal borders, dividing families and making trips to jobs, schools and hospitals an obstacle course of checkpoints.
Palestinians have announced bids for the municipal council before, but were intimidated into dropping out by other Arabs who accused them of collaborating with the enemy. Neither Abu Sarah nor the second, all-Arab list, Jerusalem for Jerusalemites, paints their entry into Jerusalem politics as the seed of a political takeover.
The circumstances of east Jerusalem Arabs have been complicated by the embassy move and the Trump administration’s corresponding recognition of the entire city as Israel’s capital. Palestinians say the measures cement Israel’s claim to the entire city, and aren’t mollified by embassy’s location in west Jerusalem, or President Donald Trump’s assertion that he’s not signaling a U.S. stand on the city’s final status. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move that isn’t internationally recognized.
An estimated one third of Jerusalem’s roughly 900,000 residents are Arabs who traditionally have lived in the eastern sector, home to shrines sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Alone of the 2.9 million Palestinians living under Israeli rule, they carry Israeli identity cards that allow them access to Israeli social services, freedom of movement in Israel, and the right to vote in municipal -- though not national -- elections.
Although Israel has declared all of Jerusalem its unified capital, officials concede that Arab neighborhoods have suffered from neglect. While efforts have been made in recent years to improve services, the gaps with Jewish neighborhoods are stark. Roads are rutted with potholes, there aren’t enough classrooms, and land -- as well as permits -- to build homes are scarce.
Arab neighborhoods are no longer a coherent whole, either. They’ve been carved up by Israel’s West Bank barrier, erected after dozens of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings but perceived by Palestinians as a land grab because it juts into occupied areas they claim for a state.
Under these circumstances, Palestinian residents of the city have no choice but to become involved in city politics, said the 37-year-old Abu Sarah.
Public opinion polls suggest sentiments have shifted. A survey led by Dan Miodownik of the Leonard Davis Institute found that only 14 percent of east Jerusalem Arabs object to voting for Palestinians running for city council. Fifty-eight percent approve. The survey was taken several weeks after Trump declared the planned embassy move.
At least 7,000 votes are needed to win a council seat, Miodownik said.
“There is a sense that there will be some increase in participation, especially if the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah doesn’t vocally object,” he said, citing turnout of no more than 3 percent in previous elections. “But to say they will reach 60 percent, by no means. If they end up getting 10 percent participation, that will be a huge change.”
Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, disapproves. Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to authority President Mahmoud Abbas, warned that joining the Israeli political process “right now will look like we are surrendering.”
“Don’t do it!” he said.
Taking part in the elections is “legitimizing the status quo and the occupation” and taking part in “the unified Jerusalem game,” said Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab lawmaker from the Joint List.
Dabash, 50, of the Jerusalem for Jerusalemites list, says he’s spoken to Palestinian Authority officials about his plans. “They won’t say publicly that they agree, but they won’t oppose me,” he said.
“I’m not going to worry about threats” that made Arab parties back down from running in previous years, he added. “They say I’m allowing Israelization and I’m saying we live in the same pot with the Jews and we all have to live here.”
Council member Arieh King, who like many of his colleagues champions Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and the West Bank, said he expected that Jewish and Arab council members would cooperate if Palestinians are elected.
The embassy move makes Palestinian representation on the council all the more urgent, Abu Sarah said.
“What is our response to Trump’s decision, to the building of new settlements in east Jerusalem? All these facts changing on the ground, and not in favor of the Palestinians,” Abu Sarah said. “This is the only initiative I can think of that might make a difference.”’
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