Palestinian Elections: will they happen in Jerusalem?

 May 19 has been set for the election to the Palestinian Authority parliament, but much remains unclear, including whether it will actually take place at all. Theoretically, east Jerusalem Arabs will vote through their neighborhood post offices.  

Most polls predict a clear Hamas victory with a low turnout of Arab Jerusalemites – if Israel allows east Jerusalemites to participate at all. 

“Voter participation will be low,” says Adv. Moien Odeh, a city resident currently working on his doctorate in Washington. “A Hamas victory is pretty certain, not because Hamas is so popular or desired, but because the level of corruption inside the PA has dissuaded too many from supporting them again.” 

Sources say the Arab Jerusalemites who do participate – and will likely vote for Hamas – belong to the older generation, who remember when Israel wasn’t yet sovereign. They have so far been resisting the “Israelization” (normalization) process taking place among the younger generation. 

“They hate Fatah and the PA,” adds Odeh, “their corruption, the fact that in these elections no fewer than three lists will run under the label of Fatah, and above all, their feeling that they have been totally abandoned by the PA. So they will vote Hamas, like they did in 2006, not because they support Hamas – but because they want to punish Fatah.” 

Asked how this could jibe with their objection to Hamas’s policies in the Gaza Strip, Odeh says, “They can vote for Hamas, since it does not represent any serious threat to their present life. Even if Hamas wins this election, what impact will it have on their daily life in Jerusalem under Israeli rule? Zero influence.”

FOR THE past two years or so, the improving situation in the city’s Arab sector has heralded a change of attitude of Arab residents toward the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, at least among the younger generation. 

Ibrahim, a teacher at a public school operated in the east side through the Jerusalem Municipality education administration, says that most of his 11th- and 12th-grade students don’t publicly admit they are adapting to the Israelization process, “but this is exactly what is going on.”

About three years ago, a government decision to invest an unprecedented NIS 2.5 billion in the east side marked the beginning of these tremendous changes. Investment in infrastructure, sanitation, streets, sidewalks, lighting and more upgraded several neighborhoods on the Arab side, with a special emphasis on the Old City, which has become completely accessible to the disabled. 

But the largest investment and change has been in the education system.  

“One hundred thousand students in all grades and in different streams make the Arab education system of Jerusalem the largest Arab education administration in the country,” says Aviv Keinan, head of the Jerusalem Education Administration (Manhi).

This figure is roughly divided into two streams: the public, under the supervision of the municipality, and the private – mostly religious – associations offering education. 

“This is the result of deplorable neglect over 50 or so years, which left parents no other choice than to send their children to these private schools. But now the municipality is investing in developing this field and the situation is totally different.”

If until three years ago, the municipality would build only two or three classrooms per year, Keinan says, today the rate has risen to 200 to 300 new classrooms annually. Moreover, even those who continue to study in the private system have access – free of charge – to many enrichment opportunities proposed by Manhi, which even include kayaking with Israeli children in Bat-Yam, but also, and primarily, Hebrew lessons, which have become a big hit. 

“They have access to afternoon programs on technology, preparation for academic studies, Hebrew and more,” notes Keinan.

Ben Avrahami, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies and a former consultant for the Arab side at the municipality, agrees that these crucial changes have altered the political picture. 

“No one says the Arab residents of Jerusalem have become ardent Zionists, but they understand on one hand that they are not at the center of PA interest and on the other hand, they want as normal a life as possible. Education, access to the academic colleges and especially the Hebrew University are the goals they seek. There is a dramatic rise in the number of east Jerusalem Arab students in all of the city’s Israeli colleges – instead of the universities of Ramallah or Shechem.”

Some of the most dramatic figures can be found in the number of Arab students who move to the Israeli matriculation instead of the Tawugie (the Jordanian and Palestinian matriculation) – which shot up dramatically from 20 to 30 such students per year to 13,000 to 14,000. 

Consequently, observers believe most Arab Jerusalemites will not participate in these planned elections, that it will be more a declarative step than a tangible choice for their future. As Ramadan approaches, many Arab Jerusalemites are more focused on preparing for a month of fasting followed by festivities – with the pandemic and its terrible effects of sickness, death and economic difficulties – in the background. 

“The toll of the coronavirus among the Arab population in the city was heavy,” adds Ibrahim, “but everybody sees the difference between how it was handled by authorities here, compared to what is going on in PA-controlled territory or Gaza.” 

Odeh affirms:

“People are not thanking Israel and they do not forget that they are under ‘occupation,’ but these elections, if they take place at all, will provide a risk-free opportunity to tell the corrupt leaders in Ramallah what they really think of them.”






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