Corridors of power: License to sell

Was justice done when vendor Zaki Sabah’s conviction for peddling without a permit was overturned?

Street vender in Jerusalem selling beigele 521 (photo credit:
Street vender in Jerusalem selling beigele 521
(photo credit:
A beigele (oval sesame-topped bread) vendor in the Old City was recently sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for selling without a license. The disproportion between the punishment and the crime incurred a major protest among journalists, columnists and politicians, which led to a reassessment of the judge’s decision and, eventually, the release of the man. This almost happy story, with all the ingredients of an exciting drama – a victim, a hardened establishment impervious to the plight of a wretched man and a touching, last-minute reprieve – gave us the impression that justice had been done in Jerusalem.
However, the reality behind this modern tale is not so black and white and holds many disturbing shades of gray.
First of all, the peddler, Zaki Sabah, is not a poor man.
His family owns a successful grocery, and although he does work hard in both winter and summer to sell his bread at Jaffa Gate, his children are not going hungry.
But Sabah is a pawn in a cruel system, one that causes too many simple residents – many of them Arabs – to easily fail and become lawbreakers.
In truth, this was not Sabah’s first encounter with prison. In 2005, he was sent to jail for the same reason.
But in that case, his lawyer proved to the court – the same one that now attempted to send him to prison – that he had not been given proper warning as required by law, and he was released.
After that affair, Sabah, outraged by the imprisonment, sued the municipality and won damages of NIS 300,000. But he still was not granted a vendor’s permit, though he has been requesting one for years, just like dozens of other peddlers in the city. His lawyer, Yazeed Kawar, says he is convinced that the recent incident is the result of a set-up by the municipality to punish the erstwhile beigele seller for the lawsuit he won.
But there might be more to it. Many Jewish peddlers are participants in a rehabilitation program run by the municipality’s welfare services. They are therefore known to the authorities and do not need to submit a certificate from the police confirming that they don’t have a criminal record. That is not the case with Arab residents and, as a result, the certificate is crucial to their obtaining a vendor’s permit.
City councilman Meir Margalit (Meretz), who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio which includes Arab residents, says that in determining whether to grant a vendor’s permit, police consider siblings of the applicant who have been incriminated in or are suspected of activities with felonious groups. In Sabah’s case, one of his brothers had been sentenced to life imprisonment on such grounds and though Sabah is totally clean, his brother’s record may have had a heavy impact.
So here we have an embarrassing case that hasn’t added anything positive to the city’s image and appears to have resulted from a combination of factors: of a judge who forgot that her prerogative allows her a maximum of three years in prison sentences and a bureaucracy that has turned the basic requirement of obtaining a permit into a nightmarish and overly complicated police procedure. In this instance, it concluded with a small scandal and a happy ending, but how many other cases have not come to our attention simply because the person was not persistent enough or didn’t have the right connections? Sabah, by now probably one of the most famous residents in the region, was released earlier this week.
His release was thanks to a massive protest campaign headed mainly by Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On and other groups motivated by human rights and justice issues.
But ultimately Sabah was set free because somebody at Safra Square realized that the judge, Tamat Nimrody, simply exceeded her boundaries. As a judge at the Municipal Affairs Court, she is not permitted to declare a sentence of more than three years.
As far as Sabah is concerned, his situation has improved. Not only has he become a celebrity who has sparked interest even in the foreign press, but the next time a municipal inspector finds him selling beigele without a permit, he might just decide to look the other way and save himself an unnecessary headache.
But what about other vendors? There are plenty of other “Sabahs” working without permits in the city, not only in east Jerusalem, who don’t have the wherewithal to fight city hall.