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'I want to make history,' says Palestinian running in Jerusalem elections

Ramadan Dabash is not waiting for the messiah. He wants that much to be clear.

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Oren Liebermann
(CNN) — Ramadan Dabash is not waiting for the messiah. He wants that much to be clear.

He is tired of waiting, and the idea that religion will bring forth a solution holds little sway with the conservative Muslim.

And he's not waiting for peace between Israelis and Palestinians either. Given the state of relations these days, waiting for the messiah may be quicker.

The Palestinian Jerusalemite with a PhD in civil engineering is setting his sights on the last Tuesday in October.

"I'm trying to make history here," proclaims Dabash, unafraid of sounding egotistic.

Dabash is running for a place among the 31 seats on Jerusalem's City Council. If his party, called Jerusalem al-Baladi, meaning "Jerusalem -- Our Home," wins seats, Dabash will be the first Palestinian representative in City Hall.

One week before the US midterms become arguably the most closely watched elections of the year, Israel will hold its own municipal elections. At stake are the city councils and mayoral spots across the country.

"The Israelis keep talking about a united Jerusalem, but not a united budget," says Dabash. "That's why I decided to take the responsibility to help my people."

In a city of nearly 860,000 people, 37% are Palestinian, according to the city's population statistics, but they remain underrepresented in local politics.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say they are not represented at all. The vast majority of Palestinians boycott the city's municipal elections, viewing it as normalizing Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem. Most of the city's Palestinians have residency status in Jerusalem, but not full citizenship. They are allowed to vote in municipal elections and have access to health care and other services, but they are not allowed to vote in national elections.

Even so, few Palestinians participate in Jerusalem politics. In 2013, according to City Hall, less than 2% voted.

Defying a fatwa

A religious edict -- called a fatwa -- from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, forbids Palestinians from participating in the municipal vote, saying "there are many evils resulting from the participation of Palestinians in these elections."

"Elections are one of the means intended by the occupation to impose and legitimize its occupation," warns the fatwa, which is regularly issued before the city holds elections.

When I ask Dabash about the fatwa, it is the only time he becomes visibly annoyed.

"A fatwa that is getting involved in political issues is not from Islam," Dabash retorts. "The fatwa should find us a way to solve the home demolitions or how to deal with the taxes we have to pay. It is a false fatwa, because they used the Quran in favor of politics."

Dabash was born in Jerusalem, growing up in the neighborhood of Sur Baher, a Palestinian village a few miles south of the Old City. He has four wives and 12 children, despite Israeli laws outlawing polygamy. He speaks fluent Arabic and Hebrew, and he was once a member of the right-wing Likud party, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That makes him an oddity within an anomaly.

I meet Dabash at a nighttime gathering in the village of Um Tuba, very near to where he grew up. His team -- composed of some members of his newly formed political party and those curious to hear his message -- have set up a circle of plastic chairs on an empty patch of dirt. Nearby, Route 398 is a sharp dividing line between the Palestinian neighborhood and, across the road, the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa, which began construction 21 years ago and is considered an illegal settlement by much of the international community.

Har Homa's lights twinkle in the distance, reflecting off tall residential buildings built from reflective white limestone. A construction crane marks where new homes are being built. A warm glow emanates from the neighborhood.

In Um Tuba, the single-story homes line narrow, winding streets. Parked cars with their engines turning over and their lights on provide the illumination for Dabash's nighttime meeting.

'We want to live'

It is this stark contrast that Dabash wants to address.

"Our neighbors here in Har Homa," he says, pointing across the street, "they have everything they need, and we are only a street apart and we don't have any of that. We are not against anyone, not the Palestinian Authority.

"We are not against anyone Islamic or Christian or anyone. We want to live, and either they find us solutions, or we take destiny into our own hands."

This has the feeling of an underground movement. In a way, it is. Dabash has been the target of threats from fellow Palestinians who don't want to see one of their own participating in Israeli politics.

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian who was running to be the city's mayor, withdrew from the race partly because of those threats. Aida Qleibo, whose al-Quds Lana (Jerusalem is Ours) party, was running for city council, pulled out for the same reason. Dabash vows he will not be deterred.

"I do get threats, but they will not stop me," Dabash promises. "I'm not looking for politics, I'm looking for life."

Whether or not he's looking for politics, Jerusalem is an inherently political city. East and West. Temple Mount and al-Haram al-Sharif. Arabs and Israelis. Every decision made in the city draws international attention and, very often, criticism.

Dabash is steering clear of the city's hot-button political issues. The status of the embassy. The control of holy sites. The city's outcome in hypothetical peace negotiations.

Ask him about the issues he cares about, and he'll go on at length about the cost of housing, the lack of new homes for Palestinians, the need for better sanitation and more.

"We don't have good streets, many of the houses are not connected to sewage, we have many life and human needs that we need in construction, streets, education," says Dabash, ticking off a list of grievances rapid-fire.

Palestinians in Jerusalem are suspended between three different authorities: Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Israel claims a united Jerusalem as its capital, though no country has recognized Israeli sovereignty throughout the entire city US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but left the final borders of the city open for negotiations.

Lagging investment

Subsequent city governments have invested only a fraction of the budget in the city's Palestinian neighborhoods.

Right-wing governments have been reluctant to invest in East Jerusalem, seeing it as strengthening Palestinian claims to the city. Left-wing governments have been equally reluctant, seeing it as investing in somewhere they might need to give away to Palestinians in hypothetical peace negotiations.

The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state but realistically wields little to no power in the city. Jordan is in charge of the Islamic Waqf, the religious authority that governs the city's holy sites. That gives the Jordanians an important degree of religious and diplomatic power, but limited ability -- or interest -- to assist the city's Palestinian residents.

Dabash sees now as the right time for Palestinians to enter Jerusalem politics. For Palestinians to represent themselves in a city in which they live.

It takes between 7,000 and 10,000 votes to win a seat on Jerusalem's 31-seat city council, depending on voter turnout. Dabash may have reason to be optimistic about his chances of winning a few seats. Nearly 60% of Palestinians polled in East Jerusalem supported voting in their own representatives in municipal elections to promote their interests, according to a study earlier this year from Hebrew University and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.

But supporting the idea of voting and actually turning up at the polls are not the same. Social pressures, religious authorities and ingrained taboos may still keep many Palestinians away from the polls.

Dabash says his own surveys have shown his party will win four or five seats in the coming elections. He doesn't expect to be the biggest party, but with multiple groups represented on city council, those seats could become an important swing vote in deciding how and where budgets are invested.

"I say to all of the residents in East Jerusalem to vote for me and give me an opportunity to get you all your rights," Dabash proclaims.

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