Two and a half years ago, Mahmoud Awisat’s 5-year-old son was walking with his mother in Jabel Mukkaber. As on most streets in the East Jerusalem neighborhood, there was no sidewalk, and the child was hit by a car. The boy survived, but suffered a broken leg. Awisat, the chairman of the village parents’ committee, decided to fight to get a sidewalk built in that area near the school.
“I went to city hall; they told me the area didn’t belong to the municipality — it’s private property,” Awisat says. “I went to the landowner and asked him to agree to a sidewalk. He said he would donate the area to the village. I returned to city hall and to this day I’m waiting for them to build a sidewalk.”
The minor battle over the sidewalk is one of many by Awisat for the children of Jabel Mukkaber. They need new schools in a neighborhood needing 80 new classrooms. And the existing classrooms, some which were originally apartments, have to be improved. In the meantime, sometimes it's three kids to a desk.
Most of these battles end the same way. After voluminous correspondence with the municipality and Education Ministry, tours of the area and discussions with municipal employees and elected officials, Awisat receives nothing but promises.
Awisat is one of dozens of East Jerusalem neighborhood leaders striving to improve the situation. So they've broken a decades-old taboo against cooperation with the Jerusalem municipality and government ministries.
But their success is very limited. Often they receive sympathy at the municipality and among local authorities, but the huge budgets required to revive East Jerusalem, the opposition from right-wing politicians and simple bureaucracy quash most initiatives.
Mahmoud Awisat, who heads the parents' committee in Jabel Mukkaber. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
It’s hard to conclude on the precise reasons for the outbreak of violence in Jerusalem in recent months. But every Palestinian with whom I spoke said the humiliation of local leaders trying to solve problems and the continued discrimination didn’t help.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, East Jerusalem was fortunate to have united and charismatic leaders acceptable to most of the public; they enjoyed legitimacy both among Israelis and around the world.
The unquestioned leader was Faisal al-Husseini, who established a council in which all Palestinian political parties took part. His death in 2001 during the second intifada and the closing of the PLO's Orient House shortly afterwards crushed the Palestinian leadership in the city. These events heralded the beginning of East Jerusalem’s leadership crisis.
Since then the police and Shin Bet security service have been busy suppressing activities by Palestinian political organizations in the city. Any event linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Palestinian Authority — whether a briefing for foreign diplomats or a clown festival for children — is dispersed by the police, sometimes by force. Only last week the Fatah secretary in the city, Adnan Ghait, was arrested once again.
All this comes on top of the separation barrier surrounding Jerusalem, which has cut the city off physically and psychologically from Ramallah, and the boycott against participation in municipal elections. East Jerusalem Arabs have lacked any real leadership for a decade. Two groups have entered the vacuum — one is led by Islamic activists, some linked to Hamas.
The second group is represented by the neighborhood committees, parents’ committees, community-center heads and various local leaders who have tried to solve neighborhood problems by fighting or negotiating with the municipality and Israeli authorities. Most of these leaders have experienced frustration and despair. Many say the situation has strengthened the Islamists.
There is no shortage of examples. Activists in Isawiyah and A-Tur, in cooperation with the Bimkom rights group, drew up a new master plan for the neighborhoods. The plans were approved by the municipality and were meant to solve one of East Jerusalem’s worst problems — illegal construction. But the plans have been rejected or buried by the municipality. Instead, the plan for building a new national park on Mount Scopus was approved at extraordinary speed.
The park, which unlike other national parks lacks natural or archaeological features, takes land from an area where two neighborhoods could expand. The clear objective is to prevent the development of those neighborhoods. In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned the national park in his list of “prices” to be paid by the Palestinians for the release of security prisoners.
“I had no doubts about the plan,” says Hani Issawi, a member of the village committee and a former top official in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “I live in an occupied area, but I’m entitled to all rights under international law, and I’m not ashamed to demand them. But from the start we had no illusions about whether the municipality wants to push East Jerusalem forward.”
No burning anything
The residents of serene Beit Safafa have been deftly battling the building of a highway through the village. The campaign’s leaders have made sure to keep politics out of it.
“We thought we were like the residents of [neighborhoods] Rehavia and Katamon, who succeed in their battles without raising Palestinian flags or burning anything. But it didn’t work,” says Ala Salman, one of the leaders.
Their frustration grew not only because the judges and planning committees were aware of the planning and legal errors, but because the authorities responded as they do to disorderly conduct in other neighborhoods. This included detentions of protesters, the 2 A.M. arrest of the chairman of the school’s parents’ committee, and tax authority raids on businesses.
Ala Salman, a leader of the battle against the construction of a highway bisecting the village of Beit Safafa. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
Over the years the major construction plan in the Arav al-Swahara neighborhood became a symbol of attempts to solve East Jerusalem’s housing problems. It was the largest residential construction plan in the area in decades. Mayor Nir Barkat promised to promote the program but ran into harsh opposition from the right.
Because of this plan, the master plan for all Jerusalem was delayed for about two years by the previous interior minister, Eli Yishai. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians on the planning committee repeatedly got in the way. Two months ago, after years of delays, the plan was approved by the local committee, but construction is still a long way off.
“People are telling me ‘don’t try,’ because they know the outcome. They say the municipality employees are there to make you despair, so you’ll be frustrated. But I’ve decided to continue,” says Awisat.
Civic battles lead nowhere
As Darwish Darwish, a leader in Isawiyah, puts it, “A person lives on hope. We tried to do what’s good for the village, but every time they bring in politics. There’s no justice and no equality here.”
The newspaper Yedioth Yerushalayim has reported that in the A-Tur neighborhood posters have called for a boycott of the community administration and a demand that anyone who meets with the mayor quit his job.
“The failure of these struggles showed that civic battles lead nowhere .... The activists in these battles have become an object of scorn and criticism,” says Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the Ir Amim rights group.
“The activists in these battles chose the civic route instead of the nationalist one — they didn’t question Israel’s control of East Jerusalem and didn’t talk about the occupation, the settlements or the demand for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. They were simply citizens.”
The municipality could have depicted these efforts as East Jerusalemites’ recognition of its sovereignty. For example, people from Beit Safafa demonstrated in front of city hall and demanded an audience witih officials.
Also, the demand by A-Tur and Isawiyah to reduce the size of the national park is implicit recognition of Israel’s authority to declare a national park in the area.
Activists could have had it both ways — both a national park and development for A-Tur and Isawiyah. They could have had both a highway and a tunnel; the residents of Beit Safafa had asked that the highway pass beneath the village via a tunnel.
The municipality could have used these battles to achieve a revolution in relations with East Jerusalemites and convey a message that progress could be made while nationalism failed. But the municipality chose the opposite approach.
A key figure in the municipality’s treatment of East Jerusalem is the mayor’s adviser on Arab affairs, David Koren. He rejects the claim that pragmatic leaders on that side of the city are being humiliated. “All the work plans and budgeting are done in cooperation with the community administrators and local leadership,” he says.
In Jabel Mukkaber, 20 to 30 new classrooms have been added in recent years and another building is being acquired, Koren adds. In Isawiyah, the municipality pushed for the transfer of 10 acres from the national park. In Beit Safafa, the municipality promoted the idea to cover part of the highway through the neighborhood.
“We can’t accept every demand that comes up, but what filters down to everyone in the field is that these are the people we’re working with. The same leadership influences the work plans and the municipal and government budgets, and they’re partners,” Koren says.
“There are a number of people there I admire for holding up to pressure. In the end, the pragmatic groups will become stronger than the nationalist ones. While the latter are engaged in scaremongering, the pragmatic groups are bringing results.”