Aziz Abu Sarah’s bid to become mayor of Jerusalem ended much like it began, with the threat of violence.
- Aziz Abu Sarah withdrew from the mayoral race after he and other candidates were threatened
- He says Interior Ministry is also threatening to revoke his Israeli residency
- Mr Abu Sarah still feels he has succeeded despite being forced to withdraw
His campaign launch was derailed by two protesters who threw eggs at him, threatened to attack him and accused him of supporting the Israeli occupation of the eastern half of the city.
The protesters were people Mr Abu Sarah wants to represent: Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which Israeli forces seized in the war of 1967.
“Look, some people see me as a hero, some people as a traitor,” Mr Abu Sarah said.
“I understand that, but change doesn’t happen with comfortable decisions.”
Three weeks in to his campaign, Mr Abu Sarah withdrew from the mayoral race after he and his fellow candidates were threatened again.
“People in my list and myself were threatened by those who claim to be representing the Palestinian leadership,” he said.
“All kinds [of threats] from ‘we will spread rumours about you’, ‘we will physically hurt you’.”
Israel using legal means to restrict East Jerusalem residents: Abu Sarah
Mr Abu Sarah is also facing a different threat from the Israeli Government.
He said the Interior Ministry is threatening to revoke his Israeli residency, alleging “the centre of his life is not in Jerusalem” because he runs a travel company and is frequently out of the country.
“Israel uses the legal means and they have all these laws that restrict people in East Jerusalem to do anything,” he said.
That means Mr Abu Sarah also has to withdraw his application to Israel’s High Court of Justice, where he was arguing that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem should have the same democratic rights as Israelis.
“If Israel really claims to be a democracy then how is it that 40 per cent of a city cannot hold the most important job?” he said.
In 1980, Israel’s parliament passed a law declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s “complete and united” capital.
But that law and Israel’s continued control of East Jerusalem breach United Nations Security Council resolutions, which require Israel to return territories occupied in conflict and make no changes to the status of the city.
Most of the estimated 370,000 Arab residents do not have Israeli citizenship and the right to stand for election as mayor (although they can run as councillors).
They have traditionally boycotted the municipal elections in protest at their treatment and the Israeli occupation.
Palestinian Authority says Abu Sarah is increasing suffering
Mr Abu Sarah wanted to get Palestinians interested in the vote in the hope he could secure more services for neglected Arab neighbourhoods, which human rights groups say receive significantly less municipal funding than Jewish areas.
Some parts of East Jerusalem, such as the ghetto-like Shuafat Refugee Camp, are separated from the city by a high concrete wall and a heavily-manned security checkpoint.
Shuafat is one of many places where residents complain of neglect and indifference from municipal authorities.
Earlier this year the Israeli Government recognised the disparity and announced a huge funding boost for Arab neighbourhoods.
But Palestinian groups would prefer Israel was not managing those neighbourhoods at all — they want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future, independent Palestinian state.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers the surrounding West Bank, has appointed its own governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Gaith.
“We tell Aziz Abu Sarah, if you want to become the mayor of Jerusalem, you should wait until Jerusalem becomes the capital of the Palestinian State,” he said.
“We tell any citizen who is contributing to the consolidation of the occupation on this land, that he is increasing the suffering of the Palestinian people”.
‘My goal is to energise Palestinians’
Some Palestinians, like 27-year-old Ahmad Muna, are intrigued by Mr Abu Sarah’s candidacy and had been considering voting for the first time.
“I think it is pretty brave that somebody is willing to put themselves on the firing line and and say ‘I want to change the status quo’,” Mr Muna said.
That makes Mr Abu Sarah feel he has succeeded to some degree.
“Even since I decided to withdraw I got messages from somebody who said my nephews were feeling hopeless in the city in Jerusalem and now they are energised and they feel there’s hope and they can make a difference,” he said.
“That’s my goal, is to energise Palestinians — especially young people — to realise that they can do something, that we don’t have to accept everything that’s dealt to us.”