Not Rocking the Vote in Jerusalem

In terms of legal status, Israeli-controlled territory comes in essentially three varieties. On the one hand there’s the pre-1967 internationally recognized borders of Israel. The Arabs who live there are generally Israeli citizens formally on a par with Israel’s Jewish citizens. On the other hand, there are the occupied territories whose Arab residents are stateless people. But on the proverbial third hand there are the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, territory Israel claims to have annexed despite the international community’s lack of recognition of the claim.

Those Arabs have an ambiguous form of legal status in which they’re deemed “permanent residents” of the country, paying taxes in Israel, allowed to work in Israel, and entitled to social welfare services in Israel but without citizenship. But in an interesting wrinkle, permanent residents are allowed to vote in municipal elections. In practice, however, they refuse to do so operating under the ideological theory that voting would grant legitimacy to Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the territory.

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This in turn has the predictable results of ensuring that municipal services are uniformly provided in an inferior manner in East Jerusalem. The basic dynamic of a poorer section of a city having less political clout and thus inferior schools, inferior roads, inferior transit services, and a less responsive police force should be basically familiar to the residents of any American city. Even the element of de facto ethnic segregation tracking the divide is not uncommon. But you have a very severe case of the illness here in Israel.

I’ve tried to push several Israelis and Palestinians alike on the question of what they thought would happen if the city’s Arabs — who constitute about a third of the population — were to choose to become politically active. Essentially nobody wants to bite at that apple and everyone assures me that it’s unthinkable, is never going to happen, and that they’re not really interesting in rehashing this issue with a foreigner.

So fair enough. But it’s my blog and I’ll rehash if I want to, so I think it’s worth pointing out that the Irish Nationalist movement offers a template for action that’s between non-participation and recognition. In contemporary Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has members stand for election to the UK parliament and when they win seats they refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen and thus don’t actually serve in parliament while still being able to exist as focal points for representation and political action. What’s more, in pre-independence Ireland I believe the First Dail actually constituted itself by winning seats in the UK parliamentary election and then getting together and proclaiming themselves to be the legitimate government of Ireland.