‘This is how you change the status quo’: Rethinking the Palestinian boycott of Jerusalem elections

Aziz Abu Sarah withdrew his historic bid for Jerusalem mayor after Israeli and Palestinian pressures, but he hopes his short campaign ‘provokes’ new ideas on how to build stronger, younger Palestinian political activism in the city.

Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Less than a month after declaring his candidacy to become the first Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem, Aziz Abu Sarah – a 38-year-old activist, social entrepreneur, and former +972 contributor – announced that he and his slate of candidates, “Al-Quds Lana” (“Our Jerusalem”), would be withdrawing from both the mayoral and city council races, which are scheduled for late October.

In a post on his Facebook page, Abu Sarah cited two reasons for his decision. First, Israeli authorities recently informed him that his legal status as a resident of East Jerusalem was “being checked” due to his “travels and work abroad” with National Geographic and his own tourism company, MEJDI Tours. Abu Sarah, like other Palestinians in the city’s occupied east, does not have Israeli citizenship, and his Jerusalem residency can be easily revoked by Israel on various grounds (since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency status of more than 14,500 Palestinians from Jerusalem).

Second, some Palestinian groups who were vehemently opposed to Abu Sarah’s list participating in the local election, in adherence to a longstanding boycott of municipal politics by Palestinian residents, were “applying strong pressure on our candidates and their families” to end their campaign. Under these precarious circumstances, he believed it was best to step down.

Abu Sarah was never naïve about his motives for running for office, or the significant hurdles that he would face. Throughout his campaign, he was clear about his distrust of Israeli political institutions, which have entrenched the 50-year occupation of East Jerusalem and denied the Palestinian community their most basic rights. At the same time, he was highly critical of the Palestinian leadership’s inability to provide an alternative, practical political strategy for the city’s residents, who have felt increasingly abandoned and directionless. “I wanted to push Israelis and Palestinians to rethink their situation,” said Abu Sarah.

Despite its short lifespan, Abu Sarah’s candidacy has rekindled the controversial discussion, including among Palestinians, about the future of their politics in Jerusalem and whether they should maintain or end the boycott of municipal elections. +972 Magazine spoke to Abu Sarah in Jerusalem the day after he announced he dropped out of the race. The following interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Where did the idea to run in the Jerusalem municipal elections come from? Was this your personal initiative, or was it proposed by others?

“There were a few other young Palestinians who were thinking to run for the election at the same time. We met and decided that we should do it together. We debated whether we wanted a solely Palestinian list or a joint Palestinian-Jewish list, and decided that the former was better, because we believed that we first needed to represent our own community in Jerusalem.

The first reason I wanted to do it was that I could see how my family suffers under the current situation. My brother couldn’t find a house in Jerusalem, so he had to move to the neighborhood of Kufr ‘Aqab, which is on the other side of the [separation] wall and is now under threat of being completely cut off from Jerusalem. Second, through my life, work, and travels, I could see first-hand the many problems that the Palestinian neighborhoods face in the city. They’re not able to build new homes, they’re under threat of house demolitions, their garbage is not being collected. This made me think of running in the municipal elections.

People kept asking me why I would want to do such a thing – I have a pretty good life, and I get to travel around the world for my work. But the question I kept asking myself was: why not do it? If I didn’t do it now, then when? I’m from here, this is my city, I care about it, and it’s my responsibility to do what I can for it.”

When you announced that you were running, you expected major backlash from the Israeli authorities. Now, your residency status is being ‘reviewed.’ How did this happen?

“A few days ago, I went to the Interior Ministry to renew my travel document. The office I went to in East Jerusalem sent me to West Jerusalem, and the office in West Jerusalem sent me to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The employee went to the computer and said that I wasn’t showing up as a normal resident because I fly out of the country a lot. I said, ‘Yes, but I’m back here on a monthly basis. I split my time between work and home, and I don’t see what the problem is. Israelis do it all the time.’ The ministry employee replied: ‘Ah, but you are not an Israeli.’

The solution he gave was to get a tourist visa, which would mean that my Jerusalem residency would be cancelled. I called my lawyer, and they said that under this legal situation, I could not run for mayor.

This is the essence of my struggle: Israel still sees Palestinians here as foreigners. Legally, they have a right to revoke my residency – but legal does not mean moral. And everything I’ve gone through is legal – legal and ridiculous. These rules they design are meant to decrease the chances of success for Palestinians in Jerusalem. They force us to remain poor and uneducated, and when we do succeed, they kick us out. This policy is unjust. It is the responsibility of Israelis to push their government to change these laws.”

Israeli police stand guard as Jerusalem municipality workers demolish a residential building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, October 29, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Israeli police stand guard as Jerusalem municipality workers demolish a residential building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, October 29, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

How did you go about engaging with the Palestinian community for your campaign?

“I first held a big meeting in March, with about 40 or 50 members of my extended family, to talk about my idea of running. I knew my family would come under fire for my decision, so I wanted to know what they thought. I was quite surprised that they were very open to it. I expected that maybe only half of them would be in favor, but in fact, the overwhelming majority approved. They agreed that something had to be done.

I then started to meet with people who held influence in the Palestinian community, including members of Fatah and other political parties. I was looking for people who might want to join the list. Although there was a lot of support for the initiative, many said that they could not put their names on the list, mainly out of fear of the Palestinian backlash.

We realized early on that we could not copy the Israeli style of political campaigning in West Jerusalem, like holding public meetings or town halls; our hardline opponents in the community were following us at every event. We instead held or asked to join smaller meetings, such as with local committees or teachers’ groups, to discuss our initiative.”

Did you talk to PLO officials? What was their response?

“We did. Some of the people said, in the beginning, that they had reservations. Some said, off the record, that they supported us, but that they had to get approval from higher up. Most of them didn’t make any public statements. The one thing I kept asking was whether there would be a violent reaction, and they said ‘no way,’ that no one would use or threaten us with violence. The moment that the PLO leadership decided to go against our campaign, those people couldn’t say anything anymore.”

Did you talk to the ’48 leadership (Palestinian citizens of Israel), like the Joint List or Arab Higher Monitoring Committee? Why were they largely absent from the public conversation?

“We did, but they weren’t willing to engage with the issue. The impression we got was that they believed this was not their fight. I find this a bit strange. For example, the communist parties in both ’48 (Jabha, or Hadash) and ’67 (the PFLP) were against our initiative; but according to my readings of Marxist theory, this is inconsistent with their own ideology, which, among other things, suggests that you can use the institutions available for the advantage of the poorer classes and communities. You can’t claim to follow communism when you don’t even read your own materials.”

How do you think Jerusalemites view the leadership in ’48, as an example of Palestinians participating in Israeli political institutions?

“One opinion among Jerusalemites says that Palestinian citizens of Israel haven’t achieved anything by voting, they see their experience as a failure. The other opinion admires how Palestinian Knesset members can stand in the Knesset and tell Netanyahu and other government officials that they are racist to their face. They are able to expose so much of what is happening in Israel, and that in itself is important.”

You said that your candidacy received large support from Palestinians. What were some specific examples of that?

“I found that mainly young people were supportive, though we also had support among some older people. Some business owners who have suffered tremendously under the Jerusalem municipality were also in support. They are the ones paying the arnona [municipal tax], who are getting discriminated against, and who are suffering daily. The municipality does everything it can to make their lives miserable.

I also noticed a big difference in opinions between the Palestinian neighborhoods. The slightly better-off neighborhoods, like Beit Hanina and Sheikh Jarrah, were more opposed to us running. The worse-off neighborhoods, like Jabal al-Mukaber and Shu’fat refugee camp, were more supportive. If you live in Kufr ‘Aqab on the other side of the wall, you have to cross a checkpoint every day, you don’t have a paved road, and you’re worried you might lose your residency. The poorer and most vulnerable people aren’t as concerned about political ideology, they just want to live.”

What about the arguments over normalization, and the need to reject the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of the city?

“When people accuse me of normalization, my answer is that normalization is maintaining the situation as it is. And in the current situation, the Israeli occupation has the upper hand. One third of the Israeli settlers who live in the occupied West Bank are in East Jerusalem. The moment I announced my candidacy, Arieh King [a leader of the settler movement] announced a plan to build a new settlement right in Beit Hanina. That same week, four or five Palestinian houses were demolished.

That, to me, is normalization. We’ve become so desensitized that we no longer talk about what we can do to stop it. We’ll make a speech about how horrible it is, but a speech isn’t a strategy. We pay taxes, and if it isn’t invested back in our own neighborhoods, it goes to building the Jewish settlements next to us. If we’re not figuring out a way to remain in Jerusalem and build our communities, that’s normalization. Our existence is resistance, and if that should involve going to the municipality, then let’s do it. That’s true resistance.

A lot of young Palestinians are realizing that, when you live in Jerusalem, there’s a limit to how much you can boycott. Where does the boycott begin and end? Can you boycott the hospitals, the malls, the roads? Why should it stop at the municipality? I spoke with one Palestinian who was completely against us running in the election, yet his brother holds a high-level job in the municipality. He had no problem with his brother working for them, but he believed that what I was doing was a betrayal to Palestine.

This shows the schizophrenia in our politics. Palestinians in Jerusalem have always been told that participating in the local elections is wrong, but to a lot of young people, this doesn’t make sense anymore. We feel abandoned by Israel, by the international community, and by the PLO. Both Israelis and Palestinians like to come with their nationalist slogans – ‘Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel,’ or ‘Jerusalem will be the liberated capital of Palestine’ – but neither of them really care about us, neither of them are present here.”

What other dynamics do you think were at play in the opposition to your initiative?

“Those who opposed us injected religion into the political debate, and this was very disappointing. The mufti of Jerusalem, who is appointed by Palestinian political leaders, issued a fatwa against voting in the election, and church leaders took the same position. Some people I spoke to said that they supported our campaign, but that the mufti said it was haram [forbidden]. I first had to remind them that a fatwa is not a religious rule but an opinion; and second, I had to remind them that a religious figure who is politically appointed owes his allegiance to the appointee.”

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian activist, entrepreneur, and former +972 contributor who ran for mayor in the 2018 Jerusalem election. (Aziz Abu Sarah/TED)
Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian activist, entrepreneur, and former +972 contributor who ran for mayor in the 2018 Jerusalem election. (Aziz Abu Sarah/TED)

Did you expect to make it through to the municipality?

“I didn’t expect to win the mayoral race, but I expected to make it to the city council, at least. Our list could have won a few seats. We even had support from some Israelis, who told us that they finally felt they had someone to vote for.”

In your recent Facebook post, you mentioned that your three goals for running were to confront the injustice of the Israeli system, challenge the failure of the Palestinian municipal boycott, and provide a voice for the city’s Palestinian residents. It seems like, even if you could not succeed in winning seats, that you were trying to prove a symbolic point. Is that a worthwhile political goal in itself?

“I think the symbolism of our challenge is important, but it’s more about raising awareness. Many people in Israel and abroad don’t know that Palestinians make up 40 percent of the city’s population, and that we legally cannot run for mayor, because we are residents and not citizens. How can we constitute nearly half of the city’s population, but cannot hold the city’s most important job?

I wanted to push Israelis and Palestinians to rethink their situation, to imagine what would happen if a Palestinian did run for mayor. For the past 51 years, we’ve had Jewish mayors determining what happens in our community. What if someone like Ahmad Tibi [a Palestinian member of Knesset] moved to Jerusalem and ran for mayor, would Israelis and Palestinians be willing to accept that? I would even argue that I am more qualified than the other current candidates to be mayor: I speak both Arabic and Hebrew fluently – none of Jerusalem’s mayors spoke Arabic. My staff includes both Palestinians and Israelis. I’ve lived and studied on both sides of the city. I wanted to provoke these questions. This is how you change the status quo.”

You’ve helped break a longstanding taboo about municipal engagement. Do you think that this is sustainable? Will it grow in the years ahead?

“I think we’ve helped pave the way, and I think people will still vote for the other Palestinian party [a list headed by Ramadan Dabbash, which focuses strictly on social-economic issues]. Because we got a lot of heat for being so visible in the media, it may give them more space. Even if one person can get a seat, it could change the whole game. The status quo cannot continue – it will either get worse or get better.”

What other lessons or insights do you take from this experience? What needs to be done, realistically, to facilitate stronger Jerusalemite political activism?

“We’re very divided, and very quick to accuse those who challenge the status quo of being traitors. We need to be more open to dialogue and disagreements within our community. We need the participation of more than just top-down political leaders. I was an activist and organizer when I was 15-16, and at that age, we would rally to protest a settlement, or the construction of the tunnels underneath the Old City. I look at the youth today – they don’t think they have the ability to do anything like that, and it needs to change. It doesn’t have to be a protest, but it’s about community engagement. How do we get young people to believe in themselves, and to have hope? Leadership is meant to do that, but there’s no leadership.”

Do you see yourself entering politics again?

I’m open to it, but I don’t know for sure. I can only practice municipal politics here. If the Palestinians in East Jerusalem could ever participate in parliamentary elections, then maybe I can try that. Or I might try different paths, we’ll see. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do, and how I can take my role forward.