By order of the Israeli Supreme Court, Nazareth will reconduct its mayoral election on March 11. The city is once again the site of an acrimonious political battle.
Municipal elections were held in Nazareth, along with the rest of the country, on October 22, 2013. The first tally showed ‘Ali Sallam unseating the incumbent, Ramiz Jaraysi, by a razor-thin margin of 22 votes.
Jaraysi has been mayor since 1994, representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), a joint Arab-Jewish party established in 1976 when the Communist Party unified with non-Communist Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews. Sallam is the former deputy mayor of Nazareth and a former DFPE member, who left the Front to establish a non-party list, My Nazareth.
The DFPE appealed to the District Court on the grounds that the votes cast at one of the polling stations had not been counted. (There were, in fact, two stations involved in the dispute, both for groups with special needs: one for people with disabilities, the other for volunteer Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli military, who were permitted to cast their ballots on their bases.) The DFPE demanded a recount at both stations but backed down from its insistence on including the soldiers’ votes on the grounds that the party objects to Palestinian service in the first place. The count of the contested ballots of disabled voters showed Jaraysi to be in the lead by nine votes. Sallam appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered a new election, citing irregularities. As Justice Daphne Barak-Erez explained, holding a new election would be a bother, but “not voiding the results, and allowing an election shrouded in suspicion to stand for five years, could also cause hardship.”
In most places, the contest to head a local bureaucracy charged mainly with the provision of basic services would not merit much attention. But Nazareth is no ordinary municipality. A religious and administrative center during the British Mandate period, Nazareth is the unofficial capital for Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948. It is the only all-Arab city that survived the nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe, and the political and economic heart of the predominantly Palestinian Galilee.
Each party — the DFPE and My Nazareth — claims that it will act more effectively than its rival for the public good. But, off-camera, both parties have been rallying support on the basis of sectarian and family loyalties (Sallam is Muslim and Jaraysi is Christian). Class tensions have also come to the fore: The DFPE has stressed its Communist-inspired support for the working and popular classes, accusing Sallam of prioritizing the interests of capitalists, who would be given control of the city to advance their interests at the public’s expense. Sallam, for his part, accuses the DFPE of neglecting the city over the past decades, citing, for example, inadequate roads and infrastructure, low success rates in high schools, and lack of public transportation.
The candidates’ relationship with Upper Nazareth, the Jewish settlement established on land confiscated from local families in the 1950s, has also played a prominent role in the campaign. Mayor Shimon Gapso is an unabashed champion of the racial purity — or “Jewishness” — of Upper Nazareth and the country at large. He has grown louder lately because several Palestinian families have moved to his town. This week, DFPE supporters circulated a digital leaflet reminding voters of Gapso’s support for Sallam during the campaign in October. “Gapso is my friend,” Sallam is quoted as saying. Gapso, for his part, is quoted regarding the eruption of the second intifada at the mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “Al-Aqsa is for Jews…. Had I been there in October 2000, there would have been many more Arabs killed.”
The connection between municipal power and the national conflict in Israel-Palestine has been a factor in Nazareth politics since the British Mandate, but it deepened after 1948. Soon after Israeli troops occupied the city that summer, local and national Communist Party leaders demanded democratic municipal elections on the grounds that the existing local council, appointed during the Mandate, lacked popular representation. In response to inadequate services, an increase in local taxes and the imposition of military rule, a grassroots campaign to reiterate this demand expanded in the early 1950s, particularly as it became clear that Israeli authorities feared that the introduction of political representation in Israel’s most important Palestinian locale. The insistence of Nazareth residents on equality and freedom posed a challenge to the pillars of Jewish privilege in the spheres of land, labor and immigration.
The authorities finally caved to public pressure in late 1953, but not without doing everything to rig the elections in favor of their preferred candidates. The national contest to control Nazareth’s municipality continued unabated over the next two decades. The 1976 electoral victory of veteran Communist Party activist Tawfiq Zayyad, who campaigned under the banner of Palestinian national rights in Israel, set a new tone in the city until he died in 1994. Notably, both parties this year have made rival claims to Zayyad’s legacy, stressing their commitment to serve the “national interest.” (In the case of the DFPE, this stance includes their objection to a current — and underreported — government campaign to extend Israel’s military draft to include Palestinian Christian citizens.)
That the question of democratic representation and Palestinian rights play such a central role in the current campaign can only be understood in light of the discursive and organizing strategies developed by activists in those early years after Israel’s conquest of the Galilee, strategies which helped protect and maintain a Palestinian national identity along with strong claims to citizenship and rights within the state.