Nazareth-born Palestinian is running for Jerusalem mayoral race

Nazareth-born Palestinian is running for Jerusalem mayoral race
No Palestinian has served on the municipal council board since Israel occupied the city's eastern part in 1967. Home demolitions, land grabs and high taxes may drive them to break decades of boycott and go to the ballots on 31 October.
4 min read
23 August, 2023
Walid Abu Tayeh, 69, is running for mayor in Jerusalem on 31 October. His chances of becoming mayor are slim but some think that may get a seat in the city council, 22 August 2023. [Ibrahim Husseini/TNA]

Walid Abu Tayeh, 69, moved from Nazareth to Jerusalem in 1979 to study at the Hebrew University and has lived there since. Today, he lives with his Jerusalem-born wife in Beit Hanina, north of the Old City.

No Palestinian has served on the municipal council board since Israel occupied the city's Eastern part in June 1967. Jerusalem, East and West combined, had Palestinian mayors till the latter years of the British mandate.

"I'm running because there's injustice, discrimination and ethnic cleansing", said Walid Abu Tayeh to The New Arab, noting the frequent home demolitions, land confiscations, and high taxes as some of the drastic measures the Jerusalem municipality takes against its Palestinian residents, often for political ends.

Palestinians account for some 40 per cent of the city's population but get a tiny share of the municipal budget, estimated in 2023 at 3.8 billion US dollars. Municipal elections are held every five years. Most Palestinians of East Jerusalem have a residency status but are not Israeli citizens, and consequently, they're allowed to participate in the local but not national elections.

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"They [the Israelis] don't want us to take part in the elections because they do not like to share the budget with the Arabs", he added.

Abu Tayeh's decision to run for mayor has raised eyebrows from Palestinians and Israelis alike. Traditionally, Palestinians have boycotted the municipal elections to protest Israel's occupation of the city. Out of demographic concerns, Israelis fear Palestinian engagement in the municipal elections. Palestinians in mass numbers at the polling stations could easily upset the calculations of the Jewish contenders and may put many Palestinians on the 30-plus member city council.

Hatem Khweis, a Palestinian resident of occupied East Jerusalem, believes influencing the municipality should come from the outside through specialised popular committees taking up issues like education, health, and land seizures with Israeli officials within the municipality.

"I am against participating in the elections, though there's a need for representation in the city", said Khweis, arguing that the municipal elections in Jerusalem are not just about services but "political" as well.

Many Palestinians worry about what Israel may perceive from Palestinian participation in the Jerusalem municipal elections.

"Taking part in the elections constitutes a political concession [to Israel] because al-Quds is the capital of Palestine", Khweis added.

Still, many estimate Abu Tayeh may very well upset the status quo and secure a seat or two on the municipal council.

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Thousands of Palestinians who work in the city and health services may opt to cast their votes on 31 October. In addition, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel originally from places like Haifa, al-Taybeh and Um al-Fahem have long been the city's residents. They, too, may support the former Nazarene, whose parent was a refugee.

Interestingly, the Palestinian Authority has passed a message to Abu Tayeh that "it neither green lights nor red lights" the move to run for mayor but cautioned him against engaging in "politics".

"Jerusalem's situation is complex. Consult Palestinians in al-Quds", the communique added.

Religious leaders, like Muhammad Hussein, the Palestinian Authority appointed Mufti, and former Mufti Sheikh Ekrema Sabri,  have recently denounced Abu Tayeh's intent to run for mayor. However, he remains undeterred.

"I'm against the occupation and [doing] this out of national considerations. This is a Palestinian list, and we seek rights", he said.

Abu Tayeh, who until recently practised law, told The New Arab that he intends to tackle at least four issues—home demolitions as a front issue. 

"I intend to demand a two-year freeze" on the policy while forming committees to study and resolve the matter. Long years of neglect, some argue deliberate, have left many parts of occupied East Jerusalem without planning, depriving the Palestinians of obtaining building permits.

Alongside a freeze on home demolitions, the mayor-hopeful wants the city to invest in education, reduce debts and increase available city jobs for Palestinians. In particular, he seeks to ensure that employment opportunities for Palestinians align with their proportional representation in the population.

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"We're seeking high positions in the city, such as lawyers and planners", he stressed.

City councillor Laura Wharton told TNA it's hard to gauge precisely how much the city spends in the eastern part, but she estimates it to be slightly more than 10 per cent of the annual budget.

Municipal elections are due in nine weeks. Incumbent mayor Moshe Leon intends to seek re-election for another five-year term.