Arab East Jerusalemites Fear
(Most would Prefer Israel Stays)
By Baruch Kra
Ha'aretz 28 December 2000
The Al Aqsa Intifada, and Israel's response to it, have caused untold damage to Abed al-Razak Abed. The 30-year-old Silwan resident has five children, and his wife is pregnant. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has stopped him from going to work: He's been unemployed for months as the drop in tourism led to cut-backs in the West Jerusalem hotel where he had worked. He also has no way of claiming unemployment.
East Jerusalem's Employment Service bureau shut down when the violent clashes started, and one of two local National Insurance Institute branches (a site where two Israeli security personnel were murdered) has also been closed for weeks.
But the worst is probably still ahead. If there's anything that might further aggravate Abed's personal woes, it could be a hasty, head-long consummation of the PA-Israel peace deal now being discussed. "They don't care about people," Abed says, referring to his own people's leader, along with the prime minister of the country in which he lives. "They're only interested in land, and their own power."
Though most Arab residents in Jerusalem aren't Israeli citizens, their status as Jerusalemites entitles them to the social benefits Israelis receive. Much criticism has been leveled against the shabby, bureaucratic treatment meted-out by National Insurance Institute branches in East Jerusalem, and by the Jerusalem Municipality's welfare bureau. Nonetheless, social services are provided to East Jerusalemites. "Who can promise me that such services will be provided under the Palestinian Authority?" Abed asks.
"Look at what's happening in Ramallah, Hebron and the Gaza Strip. Are residents well off there?" "People are in a panic," says Husam Watad, director of the Beit Hanina community council. "Statistics show that more than 50 percent of [East] Jerusalem residents live below the poverty line, and you can imagine how the situation would look if residents did not receive National Insurance Institute payments. "Many social service professionals, Arabs and Jews, believe that if authority over East Jerusalem neighborhoods is transferred to the Palestinian Authority in a manner that pays little heed to social realities, thousands of local residents could literally go hungry. In contrast to residents in the territories, who lacked rights and were subordinate to army rule, Jerusalem residents experienced the "luxury" of social entitlements, reflects Husam Watad. True, he says, East Jerusalemites suffered from discrimination. Their neighborhoods were inadequately developed, and sewage in their communities was allowed to flow through the streets. On the other hand, he notes, local residents had the small consolation of knowing that they wouldn't go hungry, because of social service entitlements. "It's no wonder," Watam adds, "that many [East Jerusalemites] are afraid of the Palestinian Authority."
Trust in Israeli medical services East Jerusalem residents tend to dismiss sentiments expressed by Zohar Hamdan, a Mukhtar in the Tsur Baher village. Unlike other East Jerusalem public figures, Hamdan warns openly that putting local neighborhoods under PA control will cause misery to Palestinian residents. In Arab communities, he is a pariah figure, both because of his political opinions and because of his reputed lack of moral fiber. Off the record, however, many in East Jerusalem concede that Hamdan has it right this time.
"Were someone to conduct a secret poll, it would clearly show that most residents prefer the continuation of Israeli power," says "A," an academic and social activist who lives in Umm Tova. And "T," a physician who works for the Kupat Holim Clalit health maintenance organization, says that "most of my patients still want me to send them to Hadassah [University Hospital] Ein Karem, rather than... Augusta Victoria. Residents here have more trust in medical services provided by Israelis."
Hamdan isn't the only one who is willing to cite for the record the East Jerusalemite preference for continued Israeli control. "This is a paramount subject today," says Hisham Gol, a member of Ras al Amud's neighborhood council. "As the situation stands now, I prefer Israeli control." Though he is furious with Israel's government, claiming that it has discriminated against Arabs, Gol is no less livid about the Palestinian Authority. "They should stop showing contempt for our intelligence," he says, referring to the PA leadership, "by saying that they're engaged in a peace process, while, on the other hand, they do everything they can to destroy the process and decimate the lives of Palestinians."
Aspirations for sovereignty have stirred anxieties among white-collar professionals. "I met a teacher this morning," Watad relates, "and he asked me: 'What's going to happen to me? Today I earn NIS 4,500. Should power be transferred to the Palestinians, my salary could drop to NIS 1,000."
If their worries applied only to the inevitable growth pains endured by a state-in-the-making, East Jerusalemites say, that would be bearable. But their fears concern more substantive irregularities and abuses: corruption, lack of justice, the over-turning of fundamental democratic rights. "There [in the PA], money goes exclusively to those who have power," says Abed."Here [under Israeli control] I at least know that I'll receive what other unemployed persons get. Here I can at least articulate complaints. Over there, if I were simply to open my mouth, they'd put me in prison."
Abed doesn't think that Arab Jerusalemites will oppose plans to transfer control of local neighborhoods to the Palestinians. But some East Jerusalemites say wistfully that it would be best were the transfer of control to be symbolic, not substantive. Striking this chord, Maum Tova hopes that "symbols of the Palestinian people fly over every house and institution in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, while Israelis continue as the ones who administer them." At any event, he adds, the only thing that matters to leaders is symbols - caring about people is, for them, an irrelevant nuisance.
Hisham Gol expects East Jerusalemites who have nothing to lose to adopt a hard-line nationalist position. As happens in the territories, these indigent residents are the first to join every Palestinian struggle, he notes. For instance, residents of the Shuafat refugee camp, the only such camp located entirely within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, think that stone-throwing is a viable pastime, he says. In contrast, residents of the Shuafat neighborhood, where living standards are higher, prefer to stay inside their homes, and watch the violent clashes on television.
Requests for citizenship papers "It's no accident that one of the most recent terror strikes in Jerusalem occurred at a National Insurance Institute branch," says "I," an Arab social worker who lives in East Jerusalem. "The fundamentalists know that [NII services] are the most powerful source of Israeli power." He thinks that Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two groups which boast about the social welfare networks they operate, know that they can't provide low-income residents the same gamut of services which the Israeli establishment offers.
"There was a Saudi proposal," Watad says, "whereby they [the Saudis] would attend to the social welfare needs of Palestinians, after power is transferred. But I find it hard to believe that this will happen." Since local residents began to grasp that an agreement could be in the offing, he says, they've descended upon Israel's Interior Ministry, asking for citizenship papers. Many such requests have been turned down.
Residents suffer in a period of limbo. Apart from the closure of NII and Employment Service branches, residency investigations have stopped during the last three months. These inquiries are designed to confirm that persons who seek social service entitlements aren't actually residents of the territories. Such investigations last eight months, and until they are completed, local residents aren't eligible for unemployment payments and other social services.
"I don't harbor any hopes about a new future," says Abed. "Instead, I have despair. I know that the situation is bad now, and I know that it will get worse when the Palestinians take power." Everything might have been better, he adds, had the state of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality attended to the dignity and needs of East Jerusalem residents. "Nobody would have joined the uprising" against Israel, Abed says, "and nobody would want a change of rule," had Israel been more forthcoming and mindful toward East Jerusalemites.
(c) 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved