East Jerusalem blues
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
Beyond the debate over Arab Jerusalem's voting status lurks a population focused on more mundane issues, like preserving the blue ID's that make them semi-Israelis.
Since 1967, the vast majority of Jerusalem's 200,000 Arab inhabitants have boycotted elections for the Jerusalem Municipality under the pretext that they don't recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem.
"This municipality does not represent us and it is forbidden to participate in the municipal elections," the late Faisal Husseini, who was the PLO's man in Jerusalem, once explained. "Participation of the Arabs in the elections would be interpreted as recognition of Israel's sovereignty over united Jerusalem."
At least 90 percent of Jerusalem's eligible Arab voters heeded the call and boycotted 10 successive mayoral elections, thus depriving themselves of the right to representation in the municipality council. For some Israelis, this was a sign that the overwhelming majority of the Arab population in Jerusalem does not want to live under Israeli rule.
But a different picture emerged in 1996, when Israel announced that Jerusalem's Arabs would be allowed to participate in the first elections for the Palestinian Authority's parliament. Then, too, fewer than 10 percent of the voters showed up at the ballot boxes stationed in Israeli post offices in Arab neighborhoods. It was a massive show of non-voting with the feet that was seen at the time as a serious embarrassment for the PLO leadership in general and for Husseini in particular.
The Palestinian leadership later tried to save face by attributing the low turnout to "strict security measures" imposed by Israel in the vicinity of the voting centers. Moreover, some Palestinian officials explained that Arab residents stayed away from the ballot boxes because they were afraid Israel would confiscate their Israeli-issued ID cards and expel them to the West Bank.
The fear of losing the blue Israeli ID card is a nightmare that has haunted almost all Jerusalem Arabs for many years. Holders of the Israeli ID card are entitled to all privileges and rights enjoyed by Israeli citizens, except the right to vote for the Knesset.
They have freedom of movement and receive free medical treatment and education, as well as the social and economic benefits which all Israeli citizens are entitled to.
According to the law, the Arab residents of Jerusalem are entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship, but only a few thousand availed themselves of the opportunity. The main reason for this was a ban issued by the PLO, which warned that violators would be considered traitors.
A few weeks after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, officials at the Interior Ministry noticed a sudden rise in the number of Jerusalem Arabs applying for Israeli citizenship. Hundreds of people queued outside the ministry offices near Damascus Gate every morning. Ministry officials who interviewed the applicants were stunned to hear from many of them that they were afraid that Israel would hand their neighborhoods and villages over to the PA.
"Most of the people told us they prefer to live under Israeli rule in Jerusalem and not under Yasser Arafat," recalled a former senior Interior Ministry official. "You can say we were both surprised and not surprised."
Ironically, Israel has since been trying to halt the trend by putting many obstacles in the way of those seeking citizenship. In recent years, only a handful of Arab residents managed to obtain Israeli passports, and that was mostly achieved after hiring lawyers or petitioning the High Court.
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"Today many people are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for an Israeli passport," said an Arab lawyer from east Jerusalem. "The Israeli passport is your insurance policy that Israel will not hand you over to the Palestinian Authority. It also makes your life easier because you can travel freely and without trouble."
Ahmed Ayyad, a retired school teacher from Silwan, said he was one of the first Arabs in the city to receive Israeli citizenship. "This was back in 1972, when I realized that Israel had no intention of leaving Jerusalem," he added. "Like most Arabs in the city, I had a Jordanian passport, and I had no problem giving it up."
ACCORDING TO Ayyad, what happened in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the PLO returned from Tunis in 1994 further convinced him that he had made the right decision.
"I would have been happy to relinquish my Israeli citizenship and live under Arafat, but what we saw in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip in the past 10 years is not encouraging," he said. "There is no law and order there and the [Palestinian] government is very corrupt. It's not different from what we have in the rest of the Arab world."
This is perhaps why Arafat's death was received with a certain degree of apathy in the city's Arab neighborhoods. The thousands of worshipers who converged on the Temple Mount for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan dispersed quietly, failing to stage even a small march in honor of Arafat. Again, Palestinian officials in Ramallah blamed the heavy police presence and the severe restrictions on the entry of worshipers to the Temple Mount. This argument may be partially true, but it still does not explain why thousands of people in the Arab neighborhoods did not take to the streets upon hearing the news of Arafat's death.
"People here have mixed feelings about Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," said Ayman al-Haj, a 26-year-old university student from the Shuafat refugee camp. "On the one hand, we belong to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but on the other hand most people would like to stay under Israeli rule. We don't like the Israeli occupation, but we still prefer it to an Arab dictatorship."
Asked if he was planning to vote in the Palestinian elections, he replied: "I see no reason why I should vote. What has the Palestinian Authority done for the Arabs in Jerusalem? Absolutely nothing! We have seven representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council, but they only care about themselves. What have they achieved for Jerusalem?"
Ishaq Kawassmeh, the only Jerusalem Arab to announce his intention to run in the elections for the PLC, disagreed.
"Maybe it's true that the current Jerusalem legislators haven't done much for the city, but that's because Israel does not allow them to operate here," he argued.
"When one of them, Hatem Abdel Kader, opened a small office at his home in Beit Hanina, the Israeli authorities forced him to close it down. Today our representatives operate from offices in villages surrounding Jerusalem, and it's not easy for people to go there because of the checkpoints."
Kawassmeh, 51, a photographer with the daily Jerusalem Times, nevertheless criticized the legislators for not doing enough for the sake of their constituents.
"There's a lot you can do to help your people, even if you are sitting in Ramallah or Cairo," he said. "I believe that our legislators have failed in their mission and that's why we need fresh faces. East Jerusalem is an integral part of the occupied territories and the future capital of the Palestinian state. If we don't want to lose the city, we must work harder to strengthen its Arab and Muslim character."
Judging from the reactions on the street this week, it seems unlikely that the majority of Arab residents would take part in the Palestinian elections. Even those who said they were planning to vote stressed that they would make a final decision only after they see who the candidates are.
"If Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], Abu Ala [Ahmed Qurei] and Muhammad Dahlan are running, no one will vote for them because the people despise them," said a senior Fatah activist in the city. "The Palestinians want to see new faces. They are fed up with the corrupt officials who have been in power for so many years."
In his view, the indifference of Jerusalem's Arabs is largely attributable to the fact that most of them are disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership.
"I'm afraid that even if Israel allows the Arabs to participate in the elections, we will see only a few hundred people coming to the ballot boxes," he said. "This will be exploited by Israel to tell the world that the Palestinians in Jerusalem don't want the Palestinian Authority."
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