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Frustration and apathy in East Jerusalem on election day

Oct. 22, 2013 11:03 P.M. (Updated: April 28, 2015 8:22 P.M.)
By: Alexa Stevens
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- At 2 p.m. at the Municipal Girls School of Ras al-Amud in occupied East Jerusalem, there isn't a student in sight.

Bored elections workers congregate outside a polling station, waiting to see if any East Jerusalem residents will turn out for Tuesday's municipal elections.

Empty classrooms filled with official elections posters and vacant voting booths are the only signs that Oct. 22 is election day in this East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Fahid, a polling station worker from Shuafat, says that of the roughly 2,000 people eligible to vote in the neighborhood, only six or seven people showed up to cast their ballots.

Even as a poll worker, Fahid says he won't participate.

"We have a problem with the people who are responsible for Jerusalem, for they don't help the Arab sector as they should. Secondly, we maintain the decision to boycott the elections until the Arab sector enjoys support."

The PLO has called for a boycott of municipal elections since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, and it urges that no Palestinian from there should participate in the elections either by voting or running for a seat.

"Participating in these elections will be considered normalization with the Israeli occupation authority, which means legitimizing the annexation of Jerusalem."

The boycott generally enjoys support within the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem whose residents are neither citizens of Israel nor under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

Wisam, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, says the boycott of the municipal elections is a "just decision."

"They have to boycott the elections because no one considers the Arab minority in Jerusalem and they receive no support," he says.

In the last municipal elections, in 2009, only 2 percent of the residents of East Jerusalem, which make up about 37 percent of the entire municipality, voted.

Kamil, a driver from East Jerusalem, cites the boycott as the primary reason that he isn't voting. He also stresses anti-Arab racism and a lack of respect toward Islamic holy sites as important reasons for his lack of participation.

He also cites continuing frustration with Israeli institutions that do not provide services for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, or even basic protection for Islamic holy sites.

"I am not going to vote for a person who wants to remove the call to prayer, who wants to demolish Arab homes and impose taxes specifically on the citizens of Jerusalem," he says.

"There is indescribable racism inside Jerusalem."

Najwa Darwish, director of the Bethlehem-based Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, agrees that the idea of an occupied population practicing democracy in its occupier's elections is unthinkable.

"An occupying power can't ask the indigenous people who they are occupying, who they using discriminatory practices against, to vote in elections and practice democracy under the undemocratic procedures they are living under."

She also says that "They (Israel) have to comply with international law and implement international standards, and then we can sit and speak about elections and democracy."

Of all the Palestinians willing to speak to Ma'an, only one, a lifetime East Jerusalem resident named Hussein, was planning on voting in Tuesday’s elections. It was to be the first time he ever casted a ballot in a municipal election.

"I will vote in the elections because I am a member of the Municipal Driver’s Union," he explains.

As a part of the union of municipality workers, Hussein says it is expected that he will vote.

"The Israelis ask for (our) help in elections and in return they don't offer (us) anything. I participated with the Israelis in the driver's union elections, but they did not help us with anything," he says, except "empty promises."

Adi, a Beit Hanina resident and lecturer at Al-Quds University, says none of his friends or family voted in Tuesday's election, but that Palestinians should consider alternatives to a complete boycott.

"I think that East Jerusalemites should get more involved ... As long as we decide to boycott municipal elections we will have no one fighting for our interests," he says.

"If they participate now it doesn't mean that it will end the peace process now or prevent East Jerusalem from being the capital of a Palestinian state in the future."

Outside the polling station Tuesday, Israeli forces were monitoring the Ras Al-Amud Municipal Girls School.

Presumably providing protection to East Jerusalem voters, poll station workers said the security forces were there in case local residents launched protests to show their rejection of the elections.

The sense of apathy among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem around the municipal elections is palpable. When asked where the nearest polling stations were, locals consistently pointed towards Jaffa Street, in Jewish West Jerusalem.

Boycott or not, Palestinians' frustrations with discrimination by Israeli municipal authorities paint a bleak portrait of East Jerusalem's future under Israeli municipal control.

Charlie Hoyle in Bethlehem contributed reporting.
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