Several dozen people, mostly elderly men, sit on plastic chairs in the al-Musrara coffee shop. Their arms crossed over their chests to brace themselves against the first chill winds of autumn, they drink fragrant mint tea as they watch the Al Jazeera satellite TV live broadcast September 23 of Palestinian Authority (PA ) President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly.
A popular coffee shop with a bright green neon sign, al-Musrara is located just outside the Damascus Gate in the walls surrounding the Old City, in the Musrara neighborhood that straddles the Green Line that divided Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem until 1967.
They sit with their backs to the Old City’s ancient historic walls, watching the events.
“I do not believe that anyone with a shred of conscience can reject our
application… and our admission as an independent state,” Abbas
Some 15 kilometers north, in downtown Ramallah, thousands gather in
Arafat Square, recently renamed in honor of the late Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafat. The PA has set up large screens to broadcast Abbas’s
speech and people of all ages wave Palestinian flags excitedly.
Life-sized posters of Abbas are everywhere, and the mood is festive, and
free. Officials report that the turnout in Ramallah is the largest it
has been since Arafat’s funeral in 2004.
But in Jerusalem the mood is restrained.
In accordance with the Oslo Accords, Israeli authorities have long
banned the flying of Palestinian flags and demonstration of other
symbols of Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, so no Palestinian
flags flutter here and no life-sized posters of Abbas beam down on the
The beefed-up Israeli police and army presence, deployed throughout the
city, only adds to Palestinian Jerusalemites’ subdued enthusiasm and
sense of caution.
The men at al-Musrara clap and whistle as Abbas approaches the podium.
Soon the atmosphere seems awkward and silence takes over. About halfway
through the speech, people begin chatting among themselves, having lost
interest in the speech.
Mohammad Basha, 27, from Shuafat in north Jerusalem, tall with sandy
blond hair, drops by al-Musrara to pick up a falafel sandwich. He stops
to see what the fuss is about. He tells The Jerusalem Report
didn’t know that Abbas was supposed to be speaking, but he stays to
listen as he munches his falafel.
“I’ve lost interest and faith in politics and politicians. They have all
lost touch with the truth and with reality,” Basha says between
Through the loudspeakers, the small crowd listens to Abbas as he
declares, “The occupying power also continues to refuse permits for our
people to build in occupied East Jerusalem, at the same time that it
intensifies its decades-long campaign of demolition and confiscation of
homes, displacing Palestinian owners and residents under a longstanding
policy of ethnic cleansing.”
This draws a round of applause.
“Finally, the Palestinian Authority acknowledges our suffering instead
of guilt-tripping us because of our Israeli ID cards,” says Jamal
el-Masri, also 27, a thin and slightly balding man, watching the speech
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, by the end of
2010 some 288,000 Palestinians lived in Jerusalem, comprising about 37
percent of the city’s total population of 789,000.
East Jerusalemites live in a special limbo, neither fully Israeli nor fully Palestinian.
They have residency status, which enables them to live and work in
Jerusalem and earn higher salaries, to travel abroad through Israeli
ports and airports and, most importantly, to receive Israeli health and
Residents of the West Bank, who carry PA issued IDs, are prevented from
entering Jerusalem and Israel by the Israeli authorities, and must
travel through Jordan in order to go abroad. Even for those who hold
permits to enter Jerusalem, the hundreds of checkpoints and the security
barrier make Jerusalem essentially off-limits most of the time and
confine them to their cities and villages.
But East Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens.
They may not vote in general elections.
They may vote in municipal elections but have almost universally chosen
not to, viewing participation in the elections as a tacit acceptance of
the legitimacy of the occupation.
They are regularly subject to security checks by the security
authorities, they receive few municipal services in their neighborhoods
and, in the past few years, they have been subject to evictions and
increasingly strident ideological Jewish settlements in heavily
populated Palestinian neighborhoods.
Dr. Ali Qleibo, head of the Department of Fine Arts at Al-Quds
University, in Abu Dis, tells The Report
that not only are there
significant sociological differences between East Jerusalemites and West
Bankers – there are also significant misunderstandings.
“The West Bankers think that Jerusalemites live in Israel and have an
easy life, but in reality, Jerusalemites are confined to East Jerusalem
in much the same way that they are confined to their cities and
villages,” Qleibo says. “West Bankers think that Jerusalemites make more
money, but they do not take into account that after taxes they end up
earning the same and they pay thousands of shekels yearly in arnona
[municipal taxes] which is more than they would pay for rent,” he says.
He then adds that East Jerusalemites think that the West Bankers have freer lives than they, but that too is an illusion.
West Bankers view residents of East Jerusalem as ‘sell-outs’ who benefit
from the Israeli government. To counter, East Jerusalemite Palestinians
point to their high rate of poverty; indeed, according to a report
released in 2010 by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI),
three out of four Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty
line. Due to Israeli limits on housing and public construction, there is
a dire shortage of housing and classrooms. Many Palestinian
neighborhoods receive no municipal services, such as garbage collection.
“I’m so sick of hearing about all these so-called benefits we get,” Faiza
Amr, 53, a resident of the Old City with short, brown curly hair says.
Amr, who has come to al-Musrara to listen to Abbas, tells The Report
that she doesn’t get much in return for the high taxes she
pays. “What about… the arnona, the higher cost of living. And with all
that, our streets are dirty, and our children go to overcrowded
Jerusalem, which once was the commercial, political and social hub for
Palestinians, has been replaced by Ramallah where all the governmental
buildings are located, and where all the money is.
“All the donations and money go to the West Bank and specifically to
Ramallah and not one shekel comes to Jerusalem,” says Fadwa Hazem, a
woman with stylish glasses who stops to put down the bags of fruit and
vegetables she is carrying to talk to The Report
“Where is all the money going?” asks Hazem, 34. “What about East
Jerusalemites? Do we not deserve any help?” “Every day is a battle,”
says Munira Zeitun, a 42-year-old mother of six who lives in Silwan, a
neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, where a small group of settlers
has taken up residence. In the past two years, her neighborhood has been
the site of almost constant violence. “Every day, we have to live with
the constant harassment of the settlers, and the vengeance of the army
on us and on our children,” she says, adjusting her headscarf.
“They have arrested three of my children on suspicion of rock throwing.”
Her son Mohammad, 13, was arrested twice, once on his way back from
school, the other when he went to the nearby grocery store and was
caught between youths hurling stones and Israeli soldiers.
“Our house permanently reeks of tear gas,” Zeitun says. Their house,
located next to the village mosque, is a flash point between soldiers
and stone-throwing youth. “No one will come visit us, everyone is
afraid,” she complains.
Adnan al-Husseini, the PA-appointed governor of Jerusalem tells The
, “Jerusalem highlights the very problem facing Palestinians
today. Jerusalem is under siege where prayers, celebrations,
expressions, everything is subject to Israeli control.”
“The battle for freedom and sovereignty in Jerusalem has not been easy,
and is not going to be easy, but Palestinians, and the PA will not give
up on their claims for Jerusalem,” al- Husseini says.
But reflecting the prevailing view that East Jerusalemites have been
abandoned by the Palestinian Authority, which would rather promote
Ramallah as its social and economic capital and pays little more than
lip service to the centrality of Jerusalem, Amr says sadly, “We are all
alone against an Israeli government that mistreats us and a Palestinian
Authority that ignores us.”
“East Jerusalemites are spectators,” Qleibo says. “Governments make decisions on their behalf but no one truly represents them.”
Hundreds of East Jerusalemites have moved to the West Bank, especially
to Ramallah, over the years. And though they receive lower wages, they
have cheaper housing, lower taxes and less Israeli control.
“Since I moved out of Jerusalem I feel so much more relaxed, so much
more at ease,” says Ahmad, a young man with dark hair and hazel eyes,
who refuses to give his last name.
“I don’t have to worry about Israeli police or army harassing me or
heavy taxes that eat away at me… My salary is much lower, but I have a
beautiful house and a much calmer life.” He adds, “It would be a shame
to lose my ID and my right to live in my ancestral city, but life in
Jerusalem is nearly impossible to handle.”
Young people feel that Jerusalem is ‘boring’ and are attracted to the
better night life in Ramallah and Bethlehem, with their coffee shops,
bars and nightclubs. Businessmen are reluctant to open businesses in
East Jerusalem, a place that no one can get to, apart from other East
Jerusalemites and the few Israelis that venture there.
“Jerusalem used to have three cinemas, it was the center for shopping
and entertainment,” says Anwar Zayda, 73, the owner of a store on
Saladdin Street, the main thoroughfare.
“Now it’s a ghost town, with no people and no prospects… Apart from the
Old City where people walk around, shop during the day, East Jerusalem
is ‘dead’ after 6 p.m.
Everybody goes home and locks the door,” Zayda says.
Yet East Jerusalemites also say that they enjoy their proximity to West
Jerusalem and have reservations about becoming part of a Palestinian
“Every Thursday I go to downtown West Jerusalem to party with my
friends,” says Raed Joulany, a school teacher. “I go to one of the
dozens of bars to let out some steam after a week of hard work.”
“I go with a group of friends, and we have a great time, drinking and socializing,” he says.
He adds that sometimes there are drunken Jewish youth who harass them,
but most of the time, provided they don’t speak Arabic loudly, they have
a good time.
With regard to a future Palestinian state, Majdi Murad, 32, a clothes
salesman in a store on Saladdin Street, tells The Report,
“If living in
East Jerusalem under the PA rule means not being able to access West
Jerusalem and Israel, I wouldn’t support that.”
Handing change back to a customer he adds, “I don’t think any
Palestinian in East Jerusalem would support that. A big chunk of our
lives and livelihood depends on having access to Israel.”
Two days after his historical speech Abbas returned to Ramallah for a
hero’s welcome. “The people want a Palestinian state,” they chanted.
His speech was interrupted several times by the thousands of cheering Palestinians.
But in Jerusalem, it was just another Sunday.
Israeli police were heavily deployed in the city, and Palestinians went about their daily business, cautiously.