Corridors of Power: East Side Story

A look behind the politics and society of Jerusalem.

A ROAD RUNS through Pisgat Ze’ev and Beit Hanina in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A ROAD RUNS through Pisgat Ze’ev and Beit Hanina in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, the dust continued to settle on the group of people who remained there for a long while after the house had been completely demolished.
The two-story home had to be demolished before the end of July, as ruled by the municipality, after it was found that it was built on a plot belonging to a Jewish owner. In this particular case, a representative of the Palestinian Authority who was requested to intervene refused to act and the family members preferred to demolish the house themselves rather than pay a contractor to do the job for them.
One of the most well-to-do neighborhoods in the Arab section of the city, Beit Hanina, like other Arab neighborhoods, has faced this situation from time to time. Somebody (usually an Arab resident) sells a plot, showing documents proving that it had been lawfully acquired, families pay and construct homes – mostly without waiting for a construction permit they assume they will not receive from the municipality.
Months or sometimes years later, it appears that the documents were forged, the plot belongs to a Jewish owner or a Jewish association and the family who bought the plot and constructed the house on it has to leave and demolish it. While the number of construction permits delivered in recent months by the Planning and Construction Committee at Safra Square is slowly but surely growing, such sights are far from being rare.
But the difference regarding this particular case is the timing.
“It happens every time we get close to the municipal election period,” says a bitter Shaher Shabaneh, a resident of Abu Tor and a social activist for families with children with special needs in the Arab sector. Asked why, in his opinion, there is any link between elections and house demolition, Shabaneh answers: “because every time there are talks about a significant participation of the Palestinians in the municipal elections something happens to discourage them from taking part, like a rise in demolition rules.”
Sources at Safra Square completely reject this assumption and say that, on the contrary, there are new plans to regularize the plots for permits. However, it seems now – less than four months to the next municipal elections – that the scenario of thousands of Arab residents streaming to the ballot box on October 30 and dramatically changing the situation on the ground in the political arena in the city, is fading – and not only because of house demolitions.
Most of this scenario was based on a poll conducted and published in March by Dr. Halil Shakaki, which said that about 22% of the Palestinian residents of the city were planning to participate in the elections.
The Israel/Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives conducted another poll alongside the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at about the same time. Dr.
Gershon Baskin, the co-founder and director of IPCRI, said that this poll found that 60% of Palestinian participants responded that they will vote.
“There is a process of normalization, or as some others call it, ‘Israelization,’ among the Arab residents of Jerusalem, but it is not aiming at such things as taking part in the elections,” says advocate Moien Odeh, a resident of Kafr Akab (a Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the security fence).
“Most of those who have learned Hebrew work in the west part of the city are doing it to improve their own life. They are not seeking any change on the ground,” adds Shabaneh. “Therefore, they will not go to vote – not because they are afraid of retaliation, but simply because they do not believe it will get them anything.”
Dr. Ramadan Dabbash is an engineer and a lecturer in some Israeli academic colleges. He is the president of the local council and community center of the village of Sur Bahir, which has about 40,000 residents. For the moment, he is the only official candidate running with a list, “Al-Quds,” to the city council.
Dabbash says that he is confident he will make it to the council based on two facts: his own hamula (extended family) in the village and the many others he speaks to in all the Arab neighborhoods.
Dabbash emphasizes that since there is no more concern from a potential life threat on candidates, he believes his chances are rather high. “For years we tried to work with the representatives of the left-wing Israeli lists – Meretz, for example – but we now understand two things. The first thing is that they have no power to do or to obtain anything.
And the second is that too many times, they just used us as trophies, to show that they care about us, the Palestinians, in Jerusalem. On the ground we’ve seen nothing.”
Baskin was, until recently, involved in an interesting project – an effort to lead a Jewish-Arab list for the council, although it did not work out in the end. However, the project to break the 51 years of boycott of the municipal elections is still around and might finally become realized. A group of Arab residents, none of them officials or otherwise wellknown, are working hard to form a group that will run as a common list for several neighborhoods to the council. For the moment, none of them have agreed to reveal their identities, but the initiative seems serious and might reach the goal. Many of them are young and educated and they are planning – so says a close source – “to challenge the Israeli society and system” but refused to explain in what ways, or to say anything about the program they will present.
“We have all reached the conclusion that we have no mother nor father here, that we, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, are left on our own,” says Shabaneh.
“Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas – nobody cares about us. We and our problems are not in their minds, we simply do not raise their interest anymore. I’ve said that for years now. We, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, are orphans.”
Asked if as a result of this situation the participation in the elections and an eventual Arab list to the council should be the answer, Odeh explains: “Should be perhaps, but it is not happening. The situation has become so desperate that everyone is caring about himself, [or at most] his own family.
Even the old traditions, like the solidarity among the hamulas are fading away. Everyone is seeking his own needs, and many are seriously considering emigrating to the US or Canada. They feel they have no future here, and they don’t believe that participation in these elections could change something.”
Interestingly, some of the people asked who preferred not to be identified, said that while they are not considering going to the polls on October 30, they would prefer, out of all the candidates, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) mayor. Asked why, Amer (not his real name) answered: “Haredim are not crazies. They respect us.”