Lip service or concrete plans?

Both the government and the municipality have allocated funds for rehabilitating the neighborhood of Sur Bahir, but its needs are many.

Sur Bahir covered in snow. (photo credit: ELIEZER YA’ARI)
Sur Bahir covered in snow.
(photo credit: ELIEZER YA’ARI)
When Dr. Ramadan Dabash addressed a message of peace to guests at a Safra Square reception last week, he did so in Arabic – and he made a point of including a message as to what the authorities must do to implement such a possibility.
Dabash, chairman of the local council and community center of east Jerusalem’s Sur Bahir neighborhood, was a guest of honor at the New Year’s reception for the religious communities and foreign diplomatic staff, where speeches traditionally focus on greetings and goodwill and steer clear of controversial subjects. However, Dabash has proven on more than one occasion that he is not here to play it safe; he wants to bring about significant changes for the well-being of Sur Bahir’s residents.
In his speech at the ceremony, which Mayor Nir Barkat and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern attended, Dabash had a point to make: that peace also means equality in quality of life.
“I decided to speak there in Arabic, so that my words would be understood also by the residents who trust me, and to seize the occasion to express my position – that what we need now is not just words, but deeds and improvement in our daily life, that this is how we can achieve some peace, too,” he says.
It’s been about a year and a half since he was elected to head the local council of Sur Bahir, a village south of the Old City that came under Jerusalem’s jurisdiction after 1967. The neighborhood includes the smaller villages of Umm Tuba and Umm Lison as well, and according the Central Bureau of Statistics, it had some 18,000 residents as of December 2011, all of them Muslim. Today, it is surrounded by Kibbutz Ramat Rahel to the west, Homat Shmuel (Har Homa) to the south, Jebl Mukaber to the east, and East Talpiot to the north.
Sur Bahir is one of the first two Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods that the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies is researching in a new series of studies led by Prof. Yitzhak Reiter. The researchers, who aim to depict the situation on the ground in the city’s Arab sector as accurately as possible, term these neighborhoods “terra incognita,” unknown land – not only to the average non-Arab resident, but also, in some ways, to the authorities that need to decide how to proceed there.
Barkat has repeatedly declared that to make Jerusalem a truly united city, the gap between the Jewish and Arab sectors in all aspects of daily life must be reduced and eventually filled. This series of studies could end up playing a determining role in achieving that presumptuous goal, considering that the gaps remain even though the city has officially been united for 47 years.
Dabash believes that a wind of change is blowing from Safra Square for the first time regarding the needs of the Arab sector.
“I feel that this time, Barkat is sincere when he says he wants to reduce the gap... and that is not a gift – we deserve all these things, like roads, sidewalks, playgrounds, classrooms and well-baby clinics, just like any Jewish resident,” he says. “After all, we pay our share of municipal taxes; the municipality has to give us all these things.”
Asked if he knows for certain that the city’s 2015 budget financially backs these pledges, he says he hasn’t seen the details of the new budget, but he knows exactly what will be included in this year’s working program for Sur Bahir.
“First thing, we will finally have a real road to reach the neighborhood and cross its center – for the first time since 1967,” he says with some emotion. “Route 18, for which the government has approved a budget of NIS 32 million, will at last be properly constructed and paved as a road should be in 2015.”
YET DABASH stresses that there are still huge difficulties that even Safra Square’s amenable attitude cannot overcome – like the sewage issue.
The mere mention of the sewage problem draws a deep sigh from the local council chairman, and the tone of his voice becomes slightly harsh.
“We are in the hands of the Gihon [water company].
It is totally different [from the municipality]; it’s the price of the privatization in the whole country, and it’s very tough for us,” he says.
He recounts that at first, the company requested “a sum of money that the neighborhood couldn’t afford – more than NIS 48m. – and since we didn’t pay it, they simply seized the bank accounts of all the residents.
And as if that was not enough, they did it on the first day of Id, the high festival – and so, instead of enjoying the holy day, people were blocked from their bank accounts!” But what seems to infuriate him even more is the follow-up to the story: In a bazaar-like bargain, the original sum dropped to NIS 32m. and will apparently drop further, “but only because we finally understood that the main purpose was to fix the sewage for the nearby neighborhood of Har Homa,” he explains. “So in the long run, it is not so much for the sake of Sur Bahir residents, but rather Har Homa’s, and we are simply so close that they will include us, too.”
Nevertheless, he insists that the general atmosphere in the neighborhood is improving, following what he describes as a few significant actions on the ground.
“Before me, there were nine different chairmen of this local council, nine chairmen in nine years. They were all identified either with Fatah or with Hamas; we heard lots of ardent speeches, but nothing on the ground,” he says. “When the residents asked me to take over, I said right from the beginning that I was not going to do politics, but serve the residents’ needs. I say what I believe, loud and clear – I want services and improvements in our daily life, nothing else.”
In Barkat’s second term, in which the mayor has publicly pledged to devote attention to the Arab sector, things have worked out for Dabash and his plans. The first thing he requested, a few months ago, was a cleaning and resurfacing of the neighborhood’s main road – something that the city does regularly in Jewish areas but that has never been done in Sur Bahir since Jordanian rule.
“That was a kind of test, for me and for the municipality’s serious intentions,” recalls Dabash. “Since then [last year], I know I can work with them, even if it requires a lot of work and patience.”
And the list of what is still lacking is long – at least 40 classrooms; renovations and air conditioning in dozens of rented apartments that are set to be used for still other classrooms; the first well-baby clinic; a rehabilitation and care center for people with disabilities; sidewalks; playgrounds; streets; parks; and so on. There are no youth centers for the neighborhood’s teenagers, and Dabash says preventing private organizations – mostly affiliated with political movements such as the Palestinian Authority or Hamas – from filling in the vacuum is his top priority.
One of his major advantages is that the nine members of his council include representatives from all the major neighborhood clans, and as such, he doesn’t face much opposition. Still, he knows that his plans will only work if he succeeds in obtaining more funding and project authorizations from the municipality – for example, construction permits for the residents, which will be his next crucial test.
REITER OF JIIS sounds somewhat less optimistic.
“It is true that [Barkat’s] administration is genuinely trying to improve things. Barkat can improve [things] here and there – a playground, a kindergarten, things like that – but that’s not enough,” he stresses. “In order to fill in the gap between the two sides of this city, it takes much more than a regular city budget.
Here you need the state’s involvement – you need huge budgets, [government budgets for specific projects], and for the moment, we don’t see that.”
Meanwhile, on top of the city’s annual budget, which does include projects for both the Jewish and Arab sectors, there are high expectations for two additional projects: the Jerusalem Development Authority’s Marom project (which is financed by the government, the city and additional funds), and the five-year development and tourism project that the government is funding to the tune of NIS 300m. (of which NIS 50m. will go toward security necessities).
Minus that NIS 50m., the remaining funds will amount to NIS 50m. a year, Reiter points out.
“Not bad, but still far from what is required,” he says.
On Sunday, Dabash met with his colleagues from the Homat Shmuel neighborhood council. On the agenda was a dialogue between the two neighborhoods’ leaders to share a soccer field located more or less on the seam between the two.
“We don’t have any such field in Sur Bahir, and we need it badly,” explains Dabash. “I could quarrel, but I prefer instead to reach an agreement – to share it between their and our youth. If we succeed in reaching such an agreement, that would be a good beginning.”