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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Palestinian Boycott of Jerusalem’s Municipal Political Process: Consequences for the Level of Public Services and Infrastructure

Filed under: Jerusalem, Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 21    March 23, 2003

  • The lower standard of municipal services in the Arab neighborhoods is a consequence of, not the cause for, the boycott of the municipal political process dictated by the Palestinian leadership.

  • Arab politicians could have made their mark in municipal politics just as ultra-Orthodox Jews have in Jerusalem, and as disadvantaged minority groups have done in democracies elsewhere.

  • The Arab residents of Jerusalem ought to question whether this decades-long boycott, imposed by the Palestinian leadership, has in fact served their interests.


Why Do Differences Remain in Public Services in Jerusalem Neighborhoods?

It is frequently pointed out that the level of public services and infrastructure in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem lags behind the Jewish sector, even after more than three decades under unified Israeli administration. Yet, scant effort has been made to understand precisely why the residents of the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem have been unable to obtain parity with the Jewish sector.

First, it is crucial to understand certain historical facts about the urban development environment, which was radically different in the Jordanian and Israeli-governed areas of the city prior to the 1967 War. Per-capita expenditures for public services in the western sector was almost five times that of the Jordanian administration in the Arab neighborhoods.1 Furthermore, the low-density pattern of housing in the Arab neighborhoods, reflecting Arab cultural preferences, increases the cost of infrastructure in those areas.2 The unchecked building of thousands of illegal, free-standing structures on open land that has occurred, dramatically increases the city’s costs in bringing electricity, water, paved roads, sidewalks, and parking to the dispersed living units.

The converse is also true. Building more densely, in compliance with modern planning priorities, produces economies of scale in furnishing public services. The inefficiencies inherent in low-density illegal construction become obvious if one juxtaposes the aerial photograph of the Jewish neighborhood of Har Nof with similar photographs of Arab neighborhoods like Um Tuba and Hod El Tabel. Yet, if the city does not connect the scattered, low-density living units to public services, the resident who built, purchased, or rented an illegal unit can claim he is the victim of discrimination. In actuality, the resident is reaping the consequences of living in an illegal unit.

Another critical factor underlying the lower standard of municipal services in the Arab neighborhoods is their lack of political influence. As the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill recognized, “All politics is local.”3 A prerequisite for influence in any city’s planning process is political clout. When Israel declared sovereignty over united Jerusalem in 1967, the overwhelming majority of Arab residents chose to remain citizens of Jordan, declining the offer of Israeli citizenship.4 In the years that followed, many engaged in various kinds of resistance to Israeli rule, ranging from non-cooperation, not voting in municipal elections, and evading municipal taxes, to occasional street violence. The Palestinian leadership has shown no interest in bettering the position of the Arab residents within the Israeli system. Instead, it seeks only to “liberate” them from their involuntary incorporation into Israel. Most importantly, the Arab residents of Jerusalem have refrained from pursuing the political power that would normally accrue to a minority comprising approximately a quarter to a third of the city’s population.


The Palestinian Policy of Non-cooperation

Due to the Palestinian leadership’s policy of non-cooperation or samud,5 Jerusalem Arabs do not present themselves as candidates for the City Council. Only a miniscule percentage vote in the municipal elections.6 Most refuse to cooperate with the Israeli municipal administration, either because they reject any act that might be construed as submitting to Israeli rule or because others have intimidated them.7 Indeed, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority strive to coerce Jerusalem’s Arabs to observe their policy of total non-cooperation.8 Consequently, the city’s Arab residents have abdicated any direct role in the democratic political process by which the city is governed.9

Meanwhile, other interest groups that do present themselves for election compete vociferously for the limited funds available. In any democratic system, it is not surprising that a group that chooses to absent itself from the municipality will stand to lose out when the budgets are allocated. This inevitably impacts on the level of services they receive.

Both mayors since 1967, Teddy Kollek10 and Ehud Olmert,11 have publicly encouraged Arab involvement in the political process. Indeed, many city officials have repeatedly urged the city’s Arabs to get involved in local government. Most recently, Olmert, who was elected in 1993 and re-elected in 1998, ran on a platform of improving the living conditions for the Arabs in Jerusalem. Despite this, there is a widespread belief among the Arabs that the municipality is disinterested in helping them on matters concerning neighborhood planning and building permits.

Yossi Cohen, the Jerusalem Mayor’s Advisor for Neighborhoods, has made inroads in addressing this long-standing problem with the help of neighborhood committees. Thus far, groups of residents from several Arab neighborhoods have turned to the municipality for assistance in completing the planning for their neighborhoods. The city heralds these contacts as demonstrating the Arabs’ interest in cooperating with the city by becoming involved in planning their own neighborhoods.12 This cooperation is an anathema to the Palestinian Authority. For example, a poster distributed by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction in the 1998 elections stated that, “not recognizing legitimacy of the Israeli occupation is more important than our day-to-day services….We in the Fatah movement call on our holy people to boycott the elections and to fight a war of existence and identity.”13 Inevitably, this premeditated refusal to participate in running the city inevitably impacts on the quality of public services in the Arab sector.

Over the past 35 years there have been two instances when daring individuals sought to run for municipal office. In 1987, Arab newspaper publisher Hanna Siniora considered running for mayor at the head of a list of Arab candidates for the City Council.14 Then-Mayor Kollek (1965-1993) warmly welcomed Siniora’s initiative, stating, “we have always wanted Jerusalem’s Arabs as our partners in running the united city.”15 Yet, after arsonists torched his two cars and his home was daubed with graffiti at the hands of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,16 Siniora withdrew his candidacy.

In the 1998 municipal elections, an independent Arab list participated, headed by insurance agent Mussa Alayan, an Israeli citizen and resident of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet Safafa. Alayan defied calls by Palestinian leaders to boycott the election, but received only 2,977 votes, falling short of the threshold needed to gain even one seat on the City Council.

Alayan filed a legal challenge against the results in Jerusalem District Court,17 alleging that Palestinian activists from Fatah and other PLO factions carried out an aggressive campaign against his candidacy. Alayan further claimed that his election workers were beaten and harassed. On election day, masked men obstructed access to the polls in Arab neighborhoods and the lives and property of Arabs who came to vote were threatened. Jerusalem Arabs were told that if they voted, they would be regarded as traitors to the Palestinian cause and would be punished with an iron fist. Such coercion has been a major factor in the very low turnout of Arab voters in every municipal election since 1967. Hence, the lower standard of municipal services in the Arab neighborhoods is a consequence of, not the cause for, the boycott of the political process dictated by the Palestinian leadership.


Political Empowerment in Jerusalem: The Case of the Ultra-Orthodox

It is instructive to compare Jerusalem Arabs with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the city, which is similar in population and socioeconomic characteristics.18 Former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti notes that while the ultra-Orthodox also reject the secular political system, since it is not based on Jewish law, most recognize that “without their participation in the never-ending haggling over public resources that goes on in the political arena, the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole and of each and every one of its individual members would be seriously compromised.”19 Benvenisti describes the compromise they make “between absolute principles and everyday needs” to assure their community’s “continued control of their physical space.”20

The Arab community, however, has not used the political process to obtain benefits for its members. This lack of influence is the direct consequence of a strategic decision by the Palestinian leadership to penalize any Arabs who openly cooperate with the municipality. Regardless of questions concerning their ultimate national allegiance, Arab politicians could have made their mark in municipal politics just as ultra-Orthodox Jews have in Jerusalem, and disadvantaged minority groups have done in democracies elsewhere.

Municipal politics is not an effective forum for national political issues. The Palestinian leadership’s myopia fails to capitalize on the essence of municipal politics – the building and funding of good schools, paving streets, furnishing public transportation, and allocating tax assessments. Instead, the day-to-day needs of the Arab residents of Jerusalem are subordinated to the Palestinian leadership’s attempts to import national issues, like sovereignty and borders, into municipal politics.

Imagine the influence that the Jerusalem Arabs, a bloc of some 25 percent of the eligible voters, could have exercised within the fractious coalition politics21 of the City Council.22 With their current population, assuming the same percentage of eligible voters cast votes as in the Jewish sector, Jerusalem Arabs could elect 7 or 8 members of the City Council. Such a bloc could well cast the swing vote on many issues. Juxtaposed with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which effectively uses the democratic political process to obtain benefits for its constituents,23 the Arab residents of Jerusalem ought to question whether their decades-long boycott of the municipality has really served their interests.


The PLO/PA Boycott of the Democratic Process in Jerusalem – Consequences

In accordance with democratic principles, as residents of the city, Israel has entitled Jerusalem’s Arab residents to cast ballots and seek office in the municipal elections. It would be legitimate for these residents, or their leaders, to use politics to demand a larger slice of the municipal budget. Yet, to this day, the Palestinian leadership maintains a boycott of the democratic process.

According to Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University and until recently the PA Political Commissioner for Jerusalem Affairs, who is generally regarded as a moderate, from the 1980s onward it “wasn’t possible” for a Palestinian to run for City Council. From a legal standpoint there is no impediment whatsoever. When asked whether an Arab could now run for the City Council, he equivocated, referring to it as “an academic solution,”24 implying that it would not work in the real world.

It is ironic that the Palestinian leadership places full responsibility on the city for not providing the Arab neighborhoods with equal public services, while enforcing an Arab boycott of the political process, year after year, even to the point of intimidating those who understand the unnecessary burden caused by their leadership’s boycott.25 The establishment of infrastructure and the distribution of public services are a product of democratic municipal politics. By ignoring Tip O’Neill’s wisdom and denying Jerusalem’s Arab residents the municipal representation to which they are entitled, the Palestinian leadership is throwing away their people’s voice in crucial city planning decisions and preventing their exercise of fundamental democratic rights.

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1. Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem 125 (1996).
2. Jerusalem Municipality, Report by the Committee for Analyzing Municipal Services in East Jerusalem 2 (November 1994).
3. Tip O’Neill and Gary Hymel, All Politics is Local and Other Rules of the Game (1994).
4. Michael Romann and Alex Weingrod, Living Together Separately: Arabs and Jews in Contemporary Jerusalem 21 (1991).
5. The Arabic word “samud” translates to “steadfastness” in English. Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 58.
6. For example, of the 100,000 eligible Arab voters in the municipal elections in the early 1990s, only 8,000 cast their votes. Meron Benvenisti, Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land 44 (1995); Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 206-08 (1991). Another report indicated that some 12 percent of the eligible Arab voters actually cast their votes in the municipal elections held in the early 1990s. Amy Klein and Mohammed Najib, “Leaflets Denounce Arab Candidate as Traitor,” Jerusalem Post, September 25, 1998.
7. For example, Hamas distributed leaflets during the 1993 elections that threatening violence against Arab Jerusalemites who cast ballots. Bill Hutman, “Hamas Leaflet Attacks Kollek, Threatens Arab Voters in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Post, November 2, 1993. Interestingly, during the 1998 municipal elections, a poll conducted by the Arabic-language Jerusalem Times newspaper found that nearly 54 percent of the Arabs in Jerusalem opposed participating in the election. Yet over 50 percent of those polled thought that the Palestine National Council should leave it up to the individual to decide whether to vote. Klein and Najib, “Leaflets.
8. Thus, during the 1998 municipal elections, pamphlets denouncing an Arab candidate were distributed in the Arab neighborhoods. The pamphlets referred to the candidate as a “traitor” and threatened to start a new intifada. Simultaneously, an editorial published in the pro-Palestinian Authority newspaper Al-Ayyam called on Arabs to boycott the elections. This intimidation persisted despite the fact that the candidate who was targeted, Mussa Alayan, stressed that his candidacy “has nothing to do with political issues like control of Jerusalem, which is all the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.” He added that his party intended to deal with “day-to-day issues, such as improving living conditions in Arab neighborhoods.” Klein and Najib, “Leaflets.” Although it is beyond the scope of this Issue Brief, one obvious reason behind the PLO/PA-imposed boycott is their fear that an alternative Palestinian leadership may emerge that is more pragmatic and effective.
9. The vacuum caused by their absence has, to some extent, been filled by certain Jewish members of the City Council who champion Arab rights (Tamar Hausman, “Down and Out in Our Eternal Capital,” Jerusalem Post, May 25, 2000); the mukhtars (Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 198-200, 206; Amir S. Cheshin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem 74-75 [1999]); the neighborhood committees (Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 241); the village committees; the Mayor’s Advisor for Neighborhoods; and the Mayor’s Advisor on Arab Affairs (now called ‘The Mayor’s Advisor on East Jerusalem Affairs’). Israel treats the mukhtars as VIPs. They are issued special ID cards with certain privileges and receive a small monthly stipend. They are also provided with a special stamp which, together with their signature, is required on virtually every document an Arab resident of Jerusalem submits to the Israeli authorities. Cheshin et al., Separate and Unequal 74-75. Nevertheless, various difficulties arose out of false statements some of them made to the authorities regarding ownership of particular parcels of land. Interview with Adrian Goldstein, Deputy Manager of Licensing Department of Jerusalem Municipality, in Jerusalem, December 6, 2001.
10. Kollek was Mayor from 1965 until 1993. He advocated “peaceful coexistence” as the goal for Jerusalem. Particularly during his early years, Kollek sought to “do everything possible” to reduce the inequalities in municipal and social services between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority within the framework of Israeli sovereignty over the city. Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 195-96.
11. See, e.g., Norm Guthartz, “City Officials Urge Palestinians to Get Involved,” Jerusalem Post, November 2, 1990.
12. Interview with Yossi Cohen, Advisor to Mayor of Jerusalem Municipality for Neighborhoods, in Jerusalem, April 18, 2002.
13. Poster entitled “A Message to Our Community and Our Public,” distributed by the Joint National Headquarters (of Palestinian nationalist organizations) in connection with the candidacy of Mussa Alayan for the City Council. Reprinted in Justus Reid Weiner, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003), Appendix 8F.
14. Norm Guthartz, “City Officials Urge Palestinians to Get Involved in Government,” Jerusalem Post, November 2, 1990.
15. David Landau, “Pro-PLO Journalist to Run for Jerusalem Council,” Toronto Star, June 5, 1987.
16. See “PLO Faction Claims Responsibility for Burning Siniora’s Car,” Xinhua Overseas News Service, June 21, 1987; see also Carol Rosenberg, “Arsonists Strike at Controversial Palestinian Editor’s Home,” UPI, June 22, 1987.
17. Election Appeal of Mussa Alayan v. Jerusalem Election Committee to the City Council, H.P. 662/98, Jerusalem District Court, Dec. 7, 1998; interview with Shalom Goldstein, Mayor’s Advisor for East Jerusalem Affairs, in Jerusalem, December 20, 2001.
18. See Tovah Lazaroff, “Poorest Cities: Bnei Brak, Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Post, December 11, 2001.
19. Benvenisti, City of Stone 181-82.
20. Ibid. 182.
21. The City Council is comprised of 31 elected members and the Mayor. See Cheshin et al., Separate and Unequal 29. In the most recent elections the voters chose between 25 different lists of candidates, offering a very wide range of issues and personalities. Jerusalem Municipality Internet Website, 1998 Elections of the City of Jerusalem, http// It took approximately 6,000 votes to elect a member to the City Council.
22. In Haifa, the northern Israeli coastal city, Arabs constitute 8.6 percent of the population, less than one-third of their presence in Jerusalem. Yet active participation in municipal politics has resulted in their achieving 9.7 percent representation on the City Council. Interview with Z. Uri Ullmann, Director of Division for Strategic Planning and Research of Jerusalem Municipality, in Jerusalem, April 8, 2002.
23. Currently, the ultra-Orthodox parties have 12 seats on the 31-member City Council. Tamar Hausman, “Down and Out in Our Eternal Capital,” Jerusalem Post, May 25, 2000,; Romann and Weingrod, Living Together Separately 231. The ultra-Orthodox further magnified their political clout by registering the highest election-day turnout (over 80 percent) of any sector of the city’s population in the 1998 elections. The turnout in the rest of the Jewish electorate was 40 percent. Only one percent of the eligible Arabs cast votes. See “Losing the People,” Jerusalem Post, November 12, 1998.
24. Interview with Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University and Palestinian Authority Political Commissioner for Jerusalem Affairs, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2002.
25. Independent Arab journalist Daoud Kuttab has voiced misgivings regarding the effects of the boycott of municipal politics. He stated, “What is needed to move forward is to depoliticize Jerusalem and to think of ways of making Jerusalem’s people a priority, rather than politics. Our leaders can do this without giving up our goals and aspirations.” Daoud Kuttab, “A Dilemma Avoided – This Time,” Jerusalem Post, November 5, 1998.


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Justus Reid Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and a member of the Israel and New York Bar Associations. He teaches courses on international and comparative law at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, serves as a Scholar-in-Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and publishes widely in leading law journals and magazines. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is adapted from the author’s book-length study Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003). For more information, see: