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City Elections Highlight Battle Between Secular, Orthodox Jews

Israelis are casting ballots in municipal polls. In Jerusalem, the mayoral race has highlighted a battle between secular Jews and the Orthodox who are gaining influence over the Holy City. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's landscape has been changing in recent years, with more Orthodox Jewish families moving into neighborhoods in both traditionally Jewish West Jerusalem and in settlements in Arab East Jerusalem.

For the past five years, the city has been run by an ultra-orthodox mayor Uri Lupolianski who has sought to expand the influence of conservative, observant Jews who favor giving fewer concessions to Palestinians.

Jerusalem is home to about 750,000 people, roughly a third of them Arabs. Thousands of Arabs are allowed to vote in these elections, but few say they want to do so.

Jerusalem's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Husein, issued a call ordering Palestinian Muslims to stay away from the polls. He tells VOA that to vote is to validate Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem.

He says his fatwa is based on the belief that no Muslim should accept or assist a non-Muslim occupier. The cleric says Palestinian Muslims can never recognize the sovereignty of a non-Muslim occupier.

But a few Arabs defied the order and went to the polls. This man in East Jerusalem who asked not to be identified says this is his first time voting. He says violence has failed to resolve the everyday issues facing Arab families.

"We need for my street to be cleaned. We do not have any of those things for a long time. Because, I need to be safe. I need to be happy in my home," he said. "I am not a visitor. I live here and I want change."

The candidate who has been most visibly courting Arab voters is Arkady Gaydamak, a wealthy, Russian-born, and controversial billionaire who faces trial in a French court over the smuggling of weapons to Angola in the 1990s during its civil war. He says he would push for better city services and granting more building permits for Jerusalem's Arab residents. At the same time, he tells VOA he supports the agenda of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"They are the keepers of our Jewish traditions and today, unfortunately, a big part of the Jewish people are very far from our traditions," he said. "And that is why we should do everything to provide unconditional support to the ultra-Orthodox community."

Representing many ultra-Orthodox Jews is Rabbi Meir Porush and his religion-based Agudat Israel party. Another top candidate is wealthy businessman Nir Barkat, also a rightist, but one who favors secular policies and wants to attract more young people and investment to the city.

The main candidates oppose efforts to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem, which Arabs want as the capital of a future Palestinian state.