The Abna Al Quds Community Center is an unexpected oasis on the roofs of the Old City. Entering through Herod’s Gate, one makes an immediate right up the staircase and keeps winding right on a sloping ascent.
Through the stone archway, one comes upon 320 sq. meters of – just about – open space. There’s a soccer pitch with Suleiman’s 16th century walls as its sideline; a graduation ceremony of a first aid course is taking place in one of the halls; and boys and girls are throwing around a basketball on what doubles as a tennis court. It’s quiet here, compared to the bustle of Damascus Gate.
Suheil Omari has been the general director here for the past five years. Originally from the north of Israel, he travels two or three times a week to the community center from his home in Nazareth Illit.
Omari makes clear that his most passionate work is speaking out against child marriages, girls being married off at the age of 16 and even younger – but the center, which serves hundreds of east Jerusalem Palestinian’s, deals with issues that are unique just to this population.
There are 28 Arab neighborhoods and villages that fall within Jerusalem’s municipality with as many as 350,000 residents, most of whom identify as Palestinian.
They align themselves with the Palestinian cause, yet don’t live under the Palestinian Authority.
Omari says that the community he serves is of two minds. They are entitled to social benefits, health insurance, allowances for children and the elderly, but their Jerusalem residency status is always under threat of being taken away if it’s shown that they no longer live in Jerusalem. This push and pull – being part, but not wholly, of Israel – creates paranoia when dealing with the civil administration. Problems are solved in the traditional sense, between the family and community, and if necessary, through a conduit who has good relations with the government.
“The whole climate of these problems can make people suspicious about anything that can be done for them,” Omari says. “They address me, not the municipality; I contact the municipality.”
According to a 2015 survey by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 75.4 percent of east Jerusalem Palestinians live below the poverty line, 83.9% of whom are children; the school dropout rate was 26% for 11th grade and 33% in 12th grade.
In a 2013 report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the authors wrote that “all of the Arab neighborhoods were classified in the low socioeconomic group” and that “the extent of poverty within the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem was significantly higher than within the Jewish population.”
THE SECURITY issue exacerbates this general distrust of Israeli authorities.
Over the past six months, particularly during the wave of terrorist attacks targeting Israelis, when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat publicly encouraged licensed Israeli Jews to carry their firearms, Omari says that to the population in east Jerusalem, “it’s like a call to kill Arabs.”
“The declaration of the mayor [just proved] to the people that he is not the mayor of all Jerusalem, just the mayor of west Jerusalem.”
A STUDY in 2010 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research looked specifically at opinions of east Jerusalemites over a range of issues. The sample size was 1,000 residents over the age of 18 in 50 villages. Not surprisingly, there was overall dissatisfaction (69%) with the delivery of municipal services and the cost of arnona. An overwhelming majority (87%) felt there was discrimination toward Arabs in service delivery in general, including health, personal treatment, basic infrastructure and building permits. Yet despite this, 71% and 73% of east Jerusalem residents would not move under two different peace scenarios (the option to move into a new state of Palestine; the option to move into Israel, respectively).
“The majority of east Jerusalem residents want to be part of the Palestinian state. They want to be Palestinian citizens,” center director Dr. Khalil Shakiki told the Magazine, “but the percentage of those who would rather live either under Israeli sovereignty or with access to Israel being more important than access to the Palestinian territories is larger among east Jerusalemites than among the rest of the Palestinians.”
SO EAST Jerusalem residents are not planning to leave, but deep grievances still need to be addressed, namely feelings of discrimination and freedom of movement. Also, with a majority placing al-Aksa mosque as the thing they “like most about living in east Jerusalem,” according to Shakiki’s survey, the importance and repercussions of perceived threats to al-Aksa are clear – particularly in light of what we saw from October to December, the height of the “stabbing intifada.”
FRIDAY AFTERNOON at Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem can be a tense time. It’s the Jumma prayer, the most important prayer in the Muslim week, with an emphasis on going to the mosque and being with community, but in Jerusalem, it has the potential to explode.
Of everything that defines life for an east Jerusalem Palestinian – humiliation at checkpoints and random searches, the poor and decrepit neighborhoods, the constant feeling of being second-class citizens – nothing is as important as access to al-Aksa.
Fuad Abu Hamed, from the village of Sur Baher in southeast Jerusalem, is a successful businessman, a leader in the community and lecturer at the Hebrew University. Among the many issues plaguing east Jerusalem and its Palestinian population, he says that top priority is to make sure that al-Aksa is safe.
“The Palestinians in east Jerusalem need to believe that the Jews don’t want to take al-Aksa,” he says.
Abu Hamed is the father of three children; the youngest 14 years old. “It’s difficult to be a Palestinian father in Jerusalem,” he says.
Today, the situation in Jerusalem is relatively calm. The stabbing attacks, which occurred two to three times a day at the height of the violence at the end of 2015, have somewhat abated, and Abu Hamed’s thoughts go toward the mosque.
“They [Palestinian kids] know about the problems at al-Aksa… If they see any non-Arab come to the mosque, they feel they have a responsibility on their shoulders to go and do something.”
AHEAD OF celebrations to mark Jerusalem Day, when Israel conquered the Old City and east Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967, the interviewees for this article expressed deep sadness and anger towards the actions of Israelis on this day.
On June 5, tens of thousands of Israelis will dance, sing and wave Israeli flags on a march from the center of Jerusalem to the Western Wall, passing through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Arab shop owners are told to shutter their stores, and residents are advised to stay inside to avoid possible confrontations with nationalist marchers.
Abu Hamed describes the parade as “their finger in my eye.”
“They just want to tell me ‘We are here, you are under occupation.’ On this day, I remember that my situation is very bad. All the time, I am afraid that the crazy Jews [want to] destroy the mosque.”
He says that on this day in particular, he feels that Jews want to force him out of his city.
“It’s, naturally, a difficult day.”