Alban Maginness: How election of a Palestinian mayor could transform life in deeply divided Jerusalem
A peace activist who ran for the position last time around was forced to stand aside, but he broke the mould and another Palestinian candidate is likely in 2023, says Alban Maginness
Jerusalem is a beautiful and intriguing city, oddly built on a large plateau in the Judean Hills about 3,000 years ago. It is regarded as a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims and is a magnet for pilgrims of all three great religions. All revere the city as a sacred site to visit and to give prayer and thanksgiving to the God they all hold in common.
But like Belfast, it is a deeply divided city. This division is a sad and disappointing aspect of such a great and inspirational city.
The division arose from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which arose out of the proposed United Nations partition of Palestine. The Israeli forces took western Jerusalem and the Arab forces, under the Kingdom of Jordan, took the eastern side of the city, including the Old City.
Up until the 1967 Six-Day War, the city was physically partitioned between the Israelis and the Jordanians, with virtually no movement between the two parts. In that war the Israelis captured the eastern part of the city and thereafter proclaimed the city to be one and indivisible under Israeli sovereignty.
This assertion was not recognised by the United Nations, nor the international community. It was also deeply resented by the Arab world, especially the Palestinian people that lived in east Jerusalem. Even to this very day, some 52 years after the war, they do not recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The contrast between both parts of the city is stark, with the eastern part being run-down, neglected and lacking in basic infrastructure, such as proper roads, water, sewage, open space and play facilities.
There is also a serious shortage of schools, although there is a commitment by the Jerusalem municipality to invest substantial sums in education over the next few years.
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East Jerusalem residents are also subject to paramilitary-style policing and are denied easy passage to their hinterland of the West Bank by the presence of a very high concrete wall.
Going to Bethlehem, for example, which is only a few miles away, can be an onerous and lengthy journey, passing through military checkpoints. It's as if Lisburn was cut off from Belfast by a huge security barrier.
About 300,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, accounting for about 40% of the overall population of the municipality.
Many of them work in west Jerusalem and are entitled to health care and social security benefits.
They are not regarded as citizens of Israel but are granted a residency permit, which can be subject to arbitrary change.
Significantly, they are allowed to vote in municipal elections for the mayor and the council.
However, only a handful of Palestinians voted in the last election in 2018, because they still do not recognise Israeli rule.
Just prior to that municipal election, a young peace activist, journalist and social entrepreneur, Aziz Abu Sarah, indicted that he would run to become the first Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem.
While some Palestinians gave him their support, others accused him of being a traitor.
The Palestinian Authority, a notoriously corrupt gerontocracy which administers the West Bank and claims authority over east Jerusalem, condemned his initiative.
They argued: "If you want to become mayor of Jerusalem, wait until Jerusalem becomes capital of the Palestinian state."
Despite substantial opposition, Aziz Abu Sarah gathered significant support among younger Palestinians and even some support among young Israelis, including most surprisingly Orthodox Jews.
However, his campaign to become mayor failed due to intense pressure from the Palestinian Authority, which did not like his imaginative initiative, and Israelis, who viewed his challenge with concern.
The Israelis indicated to him that if he continued his campaign, his residency could be revoked.
They also cited a law which barred non-citizens, such as himself, from running to become mayor.
In response, Aziz Abu Sarah threatened to bring a legal challenge.
He argued: "If Israel really claims to be a democracy, then how is it that 40% of a city cannot hold the most important job." His novel initiative ended in September 2018, when he dropped out of the race.
However, by suggesting his own candidacy as mayor, Aziz Abu Sarah broke the taboo around Palestinians running for office in Jerusalem.
There is no doubt that his idea is not dead. Come the next elections in 2023, there will be a Palestinian mayoral candidate who, with organised Palestinian support, could win the mayoral contest, given the divisions among the Israeli parties.
Now, wouldn't that be a moment for the Palestinians to savour? A Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem. An achievement that could deliver justice and peace to that beautiful, yet divided city.