Once again Palestinians living in Jerusalem have made a powerful political statement about the future of the holy city. Israel's leading daily newspaper Yediot Ahranot made it clear that Palestinians avoided the elections of what is called by Israelis the united city of Jerusalem. "Less than one percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem voted in the Jerusalem municipal elections, "admitted Yediot on its Ynet website.
The absence of participation in neighborhoods such as Sur Baher, Beit Hanina, Shufat, Issawia Abu Tur as well as the old city of Jerusalem is not new. Since the 1967 occupation of the city and its unilateral annexation, Palestinians have publicly opposed participation in the municipal elections which combined West Jerusalem to that of East Jerusalem. Municipal elections in Israel include voting for both mayor and city council. Running for the Israeli mayor were three candidates mostly representing right wing, ultra right wing and Jewish religious candidates. City council elections include 31 seats city wide. City council members are not elected by neighborhoods or location but based on political party wide slates. Usually one or two council members are elected on the left wing Mertez party with the majority council is divided between Likud, Labor and Jewish religious parties. Usually no Arab parties or candidates run for the elections of Jerusalem.
Palestinians and most of the world are supporting the creation of a Palestinian state on all areas occupied in 1967 which includes East Jerusalem considered by Palestinians as their future capital. US President Bill Clinton had suggested during and after the Camp David summit in 2000 that Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem be part of the Palestinian state while Jewish ones belong to the state of Israel. Both parties publicly agree that the city shouldn't be divided but fail to explain how that will exist in reality if two independent and sovereign states are created. The Clinton parameters that are widely seen as the closest suggestion for sharing the city of Jerusalem call for unhindered access to the holy places especially those in the old city of Jerusalem.
The absence of Palestinians from the ballot boxes does send a powerful message to negotiators which according to US Secretary of State John Kerry have stepped up their talks. Apparently out of the 13 face to face meetings held in secret by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators three meetings were held in the last week.
The present talks are meant to deal with all outstanding issues including the status of Jerusalem. No leak or commentary has mentioned any discussions yet of Jerusalem or its future. Most of the leaks from the talks have focused on the status of the eastern borders of the future Palestinian state. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently is opposed to withdrawing Israeli troops from the Jordan Valley while Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas has insisted that not a single Israeli soldier should be allowed to stay in the area of the Palestinian state including the Jordan valley.
While the political showing of Jerusalem's Palestinians gives a big boost to their negotiators, the absence of Palestinians from city hall does little to ease the living situation in the city with more than 250,000 Palestinians. City budgets, city plans and educational programming is all decided by the entirely Israeli Jewish city council with little or no consultation or attention to the lives of Palestinians. Even symbolic institutions in East Jerusalem that acted as a meeting point for Palestinians have been closed by Israeli orders.
This includes the Orient House which acted as a launching point for the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks and the Palestinian chamber of Commerce. Israel has used emergency laws to justify the closure of Palestinian civil societies. Last spring Israeli police closed for a week the Palestinian national theatre because of a children's puppet festival was funded by the Norwegian government through the Ramallah-based Palestinian government.
The leaderless Palestinian population in Jerusalem has had to create local national committees that are largely aligned with the PLO and the various Islamic movements. These leaders are often arrested and their travel is restricted but they are still very powerful when it comes to making decisions about the future of the city. The PLO and other movements as well as local nationalist committee all issued statements weeks ago calling on the Palestinian population not to participate in the municipal elections held on Tuesday. The absence of 99% of the population is due largely to the power and effectiveness of these groups.
Life however goes on in the city with the population generally feeling abandoned and helpless. For now the big struggle is not about municipal elections but on Israeli attempts to change the status quo on the Haram al Sharif area that includes the Al Aqsa Mosque the third holiest mosque in Islam and the Dome of the Rock which Israeli Jewish groups and leaders are demanding a right to pray on those premises which Jews call the Temple Mount. Israeli officials including Prime Minister Netanyahu have stated as late as last week in a congratulatory message on the occasion of Eid al Adha that the religious status quo in Jerusalem will not change. Few Palestinians believe Netanyahu's position but for now they feel that they have made a strong position by abstaining from the Israeli run municipal elections.