Local Israel

A unique voice from Sur Bahir

Zohair Hamdan may or may not seek a city council seat. But whom does he really represent?

A unique voice from Sur Bahir
Photo by: Ksenia Svetlova
There are no campaign posters or billboards of mayoral candidates Nir Barkat, Meir Porush or Arkadi Gaydamak in Sur Bahir. The east Jerusalem neighborhood's dusty walls are adorned with the usual variety of Fatah and Hamas symbols, verses from the Koran and old, yellowing photos of Palestinian politicians likely left over from the January 2006 stormy campaign. Despite the lack of publicity, everybody knows where Zohair Hamdan lives. Hamdan, 55, is a father of 18 and married to three women. He is a well-known figure in Sur Bahir, although half of the neighborhood dignitaries won't speak to him or give out his cell phone number. Today he is aiming for the position of Arab affairs adviser to the next Jerusalem mayor, may or may not run for city council, but insists that he will be ready to run as mayor in the next elections in 2013. "By then I will gain some experience in the municipality, will understand more what is going on and then make my move," he promises. Hamdan was born in Zarqa, Jordan, studied engineering in Beirut and ended up in Jerusalem in 1976, uniting with his family in Sur Bahir. Despite his Jordanian origins, he says that he is a pure Jerusalemite and that "Jerusalem runs in my blood." "Well, Gaydamak is of Russian origin, isn't he? It didn't stop him from running for municipal elections - and he doesn't even live here," says Hamdan, relaxing in his office, the walls covered by images of the Hashemite royal family and maps of Jordan. He isn't shy about his ongoing connections to or affinity for his homeland. "I maintain close ties with the Jordanian court - first with King Hussein and now with King Abdullah. They do not intervene in our internal affairs here in Jerusalem, unlike some other elements [referring to the Palestinian Authority, which he believes is trying to intervene in elections and pressure Jerusalem Arabs not to vote - K.S.]," he says. HAMDAN IS used to journalists. Since announcing his decision first to run for mayor, and after cancelling that, to run for city council, with the intention of running next election for mayor, Arab, Israeli and Western press have paid multiple visits to hear about the atypical east Jerusalemite candidate. But as of this Sunday, Hamdan had not submitted the necessary paperwork to run in the city council elections. It is possible that he will join forces with one of the Jewish candidates. Evyatar Elad, a spokesperson for mayoral candidate Nir Barkat, as well as local businessman Jacob Ner-David, who is the managing director of Jerusalem Capital and one of Hamdan's supporters, both said that they believe Hamdan will not run independently. And on Monday, he told In Jerusalem he was leaning toward endorsing and working with Barkat. In the meantime, Hamdan continues to elicit considerable public interest. Indeed, his slogan, "One Jerusalem for Jerusalemites," is arguably more right-wing than anybody else's. Sitting in his leather armchair, with a view of the West Bank security barrier from his window, Hamdan is not even willing to consider the division of Jerusalem. None of the current talks will produce something real, he says, mainly due to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, and his beloved city will stay united. "One Jerusalem for Jerusalemites" also means equity for its residents, he stresses. As a future mayoral candidate, Hamdan has been nurturing ties with the heads of Jewish neighborhood administrations in Jerusalem for a few years now. "Look at the streets of Sur Bahir. We pay arnona and taxes just like everybody else, but no one comes to pick up the garbage. When I enter the city council, first of all I intend to clean up the mess, meaning the actual garbage on the streets, and second, the mismanagement of our [Arab] neighborhoods," says Hamdan. "I also happen to know that some Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem suffer from discrimination, not only us in Sur Bahir, Jebl Mukaber or Ras el-Amud. Look at the streets of Rehavia and compare them with the Katamonim - the difference is visible immediately. We all live in Jerusalem, and we are all entitled to municipal services as Jerusalemites - no matter which side of the city we live in." Hamdan also says that his first move as an Arab affairs municipal adviser will be what he calls "the mukhtar [village elder] reform." Hamdan wants to fire all the mukhtars in addition to the neighborhood committees that were nominated many years ago, claiming that they are illegal and aren't fulfilling the needs of the community. "They just get huge salaries but actually do nothing for their people. For example, we, in Sur Bahir, have our own engineer. Can you imagine? Why the hell do we need our own engineer? All we need today is someone to clean up the garbage, then we will think about everything else," he says. UNSURPRISINGLY, HAMDAN'S positions, particularly on the division of Jerusalem, evoke angry reactions in much of the Arab sector. Indeed, Hamdan is boycotted by a significant part of the dignitaries in his own neighborhood. The local mukhtar, Sheikh Hassan Abu-Asle, declined to talk to In Jerusalem about Hamdan, while the manager of the local branch of Clalit Health Services, Fuad Abu-Hammad, said that not only is he against Hamdan's local political ambitions, but urges him to "put an end to the disgrace." For Abu-Hammad, like many from the Arab sector, participation in the local elections is a source of conflict because it is seen as giving legitimacy to the Israeli democracy. East Jerusalem Arabs are Palestinian, he says, and therefore it is inappropriate for anybody from Sur Bahir or any other Arab neighborhood to run for the municipal elections, let alone the mayoralty, as Hamdan is bent on doing sooner or later, since it harms the Palestinian cause. "The Israelis will use it against us, claiming that it's the most democratic country if there is an Arab candidate for a mayor of Jerusalem. But really, there is no true intention to change things in the eastern part of the town. I don't think that it's waiting for the Arab candidate to add more classrooms to our schools or to clean up the garbage in our neighborhoods. Therefore there is no use," says Abu-Hammad. Traditionally, only five to seven percent of the Arab sector participate in the municipal elections, yet Hamdan is certain that this time more people will decide to turn out, estimating upwards of 10-15%. Of course, not all those who come to the polling stations will back Hamdan or his favored mayoral candidate - in Beit Hanina and Ras el-Amud few people knew who he was. And Hamdan is concerned about the effect PA intimidations might have on his electorate. "No one is entitled to speak on behalf of Jerusalemites but themselves. We deserve our own representation and will not allow anyone to interfere with our life," he says, referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. "In previous elections, people were afraid to vote. Today they know already who Fatah is and who Hamas is and they want neither." Such provocative attitudes have not gone unpunished. In February 2001, Hamdan was shot by members of the Abayat family who belonged to Tanzim Bethlehem, and spent 19 days unconscious in the hospital. He attributes the attack to his talk against the division of Jerusalem, but nonetheless holds to his political positions. Although it may seem that Hamdan is not representative of political opinions in east Jerusalem, says Ner-David, actually a lot of people there relate to his agenda. "I do not know anybody from east Jerusalem who is interested in the division of the city," says Ner-David, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Baka and believes that coexistence in the city can only be built through a more active participation of east Jerusalemites in municipal affairs. "We all live together in this city and we must run it together. Otherwise, we cannot achieve any success in developing the tourism infrastructure and other ventures in the city," he continues. "Until now the east Jerusalemites were always waiting for something - before Oslo for negotiations, and then for some political change. Now I think it's clear that they have to wake from their sleep and take their destiny into their hands. It might be someone like Hamdan or somebody else, who is courageous enough, but things obviously have to change." MANY SEEM doubtful an Arab city councillor - be it Hamdan or anybody else - can make improvements in their sector. Zuhra Hamad, a student from Beit Hanina, doesn't believe that anyone, especially an Arab city councillor, can improve the situation for Arabs in Jerusalem. "If he is elected, it will just prove that he is an amil or collaborator," says Hamad. "There's no way Israelis will let any Palestinian nationalist into their city council, and if he won't fight for our cause, we don't need him." Indeed, in private conversations, many called Hamdan a collaborator, pointing to the shooting incident in 2001 and the fact that members of the Abayat family were killed by the IDF in 2002 - which some believe was revenge for the assassination attempt on Hamdan. Muhammad from the Old City suggested that Hamdan was being paid for expressing such outrageous opinions on Jerusalem. "We all know that there is a stalemate in the talks and that there is no progress as of today, but we all hope to see a Palestinian flag on Al-Aksa some day," he says. Ram, a fruit vendor from Shuafat, says that he prefers that the situation go back to the Seventies, when Jerusalem was open, people could trade and weren't obsessed with nationalism. "I didn't participate in the elections at that time either, as we regard this authority [Israel] as occupying, but until now there has been no alternative - certainly these guys in Ramallah aren't the alternative," says Ram. MERETZ LIST head Pepe Alalu, whose No. 4 and No. 7 candidates for the upcoming election are both Arab, says that Hamdan doesn't represent the population of east Jerusalem, and will not get any support beyond his own family circles. "He is well-known, and I really do not think that he represents anyone in east Jerusalem beyond himself." As for expected low voter turnout in the Arab sector, Alalu believes that no one there should be pressured for or against voting in municipal elections. "I meet with people and I have connections with them, but I believe that it's a very charged political issue and whether they should participate in the elections or not is their own business," he says. In response to collaborator accusations, Hamdan says that even Abbas is called a collaborator today. It's much worse that the Palestinian leader seeks Israeli permission to enter Jerusalem and goes though the Shin Bet security drill, than having an Arab Jerusalemite run for municipal elections to fight for his people's rights, he says. Although it still remains to be seen whether Hamdan will restrict his ambitions to a mayor adviser's post this time, it's clear that he has succeeded in gaining considerable political leverage and public attention. "The PA and Abu Mazen [Abbas] are trying to get Jerusalem through the political negotiations, while we, the east Jerusalemites, can do it through the election process. We can gain more power inside the municipality and make the change happen. I believe that this time we will see different results at the ballot box," he says.

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