Jerusalem Arabs have mostly boycotted municipal election since 1967, and low participation was seen in both voting and candidacies. Ramadan Dabash of Sur Baher wants to break the taboo and sit at the city council table after the October 30 election.
Sitting in the modern community center building at the entrance to the neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, looking over the Armon Hanatziv, Arnona and all the way to Mount Scopus to the north, Dabash said he hopes to be the voice of 40% of the capital’s residents, who so far refrained from taking part in the democratic process, as part of their struggle against the “normalization” of ties with Israel.
Some hold that participating in the election is equal to accepting the Israeli control of east Jerusalem, and thus Arabs residents rarely vote.
But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Dabash said that representation in the city council is not “normalization,” but rather a necessary tool to achieve equal rights and services from the municipality. Without a voice at city hall, Arabs are missing out on their rights basic, and no is looking after them.
“The Israeli authorities did not fulfill their responsibilities in east Jerusalem,” he said. “In education, construction, infrastructures, everything.
“And it is not a coincidence – it is easy to ignore the weakest group in society. We have no representatives, and they do not feel accountable. They used that political situation to ignore us,” he continued.
East Jerusalem suffers from poor infrastructure, including damaged roads and bad sewage systems, and from lack of a proper education system. Dabash jokes that when the Israeli authorities wanted to exercise their sovereignty in the area, they sent traffic police to hand out reports and fines, “but first we need to pave the roads.”
Dabash, 52, has a PhD in civil engineering and served for the past three years as the elected head of Sur Baher’s community administration, and as the 40,000 residents’ mukhtar (a traditional title for the head of a village, as it was prior to 1967).
As community administration head, Dabash followed his Realpolitik philosophy that disconnects national feelings from political needs.
Dabash is known for his good relations with the Jerusalem Municipality. In an interview with the Post in November, Mayor Nir Barkat said that the Sur Baher community administration in an example of a good coordination between the municipality and the local leadership.
In the past three years, with Dabash in office, the municipality assigned names and numbers to streets and houses in Sur Baher. It also established an ambulance point and trained drivers from the neighborhood.
In the past, Dabash expressed support for the Likud. However, he’s now distancing himself from this, saying that it was done for practical reasons, not ideology
“The Likud is the strongest political movement in Israel these days,” he said. “I thought that by joining the party, I could raise awareness of the issues and the needs of the residents of east Jerusalem.”
Dabash said that a part of the problem is the Arab representatives at the national level, who forgot about the residents of east Jerusalem.
“The Arab Knesset members are too busy infighting, in showing who is ‘more Palestinian’ or who is more racist, so they forgot about us. And our Jewish counterparts took advantage of this lack of representation by ignoring our needs,” Dabash said.
However, Dabash does not deny his Arab and Palestinian identity, nor he asks anyone to do so.
“I ask no one to convert to Judaism here, but we are at a point where we understand that this is a unique situation – we know that there are basic things that we need in our day-to-day life, and in order to get them we need to be inside [the political system] and demand them,” he said.
“We are not looking for political games, we just want to live our lives,” he added.
But it is not so easy to establish a party in an anti-Israel environment. Dabash said he has received threats ever since he announced his intention to run several months back. He was approached not only by residents but also by the Palestinian Authority security system, which wanted to know what he’s doing.
“Anywhere you’ll go you’ll find negative people,” Dabash said. “They assault and attack – but look, it’s already more than 50 years [since Jerusalem was unified], and they have done nothing to change the situation.”
Dabash explained that from the Palestinian point of view – endorsed by the PA – taking part in the election is accepting the fact that “united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”
“But this is not the deal here,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about that – I look at the facts. Since 1967, Israel controls both west and east Jerusalem, and we pay taxes to an Israeli authority, so at this point, we want to get what we deserve.
“This is why I’m saying over and over: We are not politicians. Let them [the politicians] negotiate and decide where do we belong, but in the meanwhile, we have to live our lives,” he said.
When the PA asked him about his contacts with the Israeli authorities and his role as a municipality-run community administration head, he said that he is doing so to advance the interests of the community.
“This is a center for culture and sports. We provide assistance to residents there with communicating with the municipally,” he said.
“Some people gave the PA wrong information about us. They told them that we are collaborators. But we explained that this is not the situation.”
The party will be called “Jerusalem for the Jerusalemites.”
Dabash said that he is in contact with representatives of people from all the other Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and they will make up the party’s candidates’ list. He also said that the two portfolios that he wishes to receive at city hall are education and construction.
While he does not rule out cooperation with Jewish parties, he said that at this point Jerusalem for the Jerusalemites will not have Jewish members. Dabash suggested that his people might not be ready for such cooperation, and it might give some of them an excuse to keep boycotting the election.
“I stress that it is only at this point,” he said.
“I was invited in the past to be a part of Jewish lists, but out of concern for a situation where Jewish people might not vote for a party that includes Arabs, I resigned. So this time it is the opposite, the Arabs would not vote for a party that has Jews in it. Some might also take as an excuse not to vote in the municipal election.”
When asked whether he thinks people will actually vote this time, Dabash admits it is a gamble, but he bets they will participate.
“I think that at this point, people are changing their mind [about the boycott]. They will come out and vote,” he said, adding that he believes that he will get two or three seats (out of 31) in the city council.
“We can even get more than that, and it would be an answer to everyone – Jews and Arabs, and to the PA... We will finally have someone who demands equal rights for east Jerusalem residents,” he said.