Coronavirus and the story of Arab sector at east Jerusalem

Generally speaking, the Arab residents have been very cautious regarding coronavirus' dangers.

MUSLIM WOMEN pray in the Old City on May 1, during Ramadan. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MUSLIM WOMEN pray in the Old City on May 1, during Ramadan.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
This week’s meeting between Arab residents’ representatives and the mayor and his staff was dedicated to the medical centers in east Jerusalem.
It could have been a regular meeting taking place anywhere, except that in this particular case, the participants’ identities were anything but. Around the large conference room table on the sixth story of Safra Square sat Mayor Moshe Lion, three high-ranking municipal officials, three Home Front Command officers and the head of Makassed Hospital, reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in the city’s Arab hospitals.
This was not a one-off meeting, but one in a series of weekly meetings that Lion has been holding over the past few months, each time with representatives of Jerusalem’s 380,000 Arab residents, each time on another topic.
“He cannot solve all our problems,” Makassed director-general Dr. Issa Aliyan told me at the end of the meeting on May 11. “But he listens and tries to help us, especially with the Israeli Health Ministry, since now we do not have patients coming from the Palestinian Authority, and hence our income is largely damaged.”
Listening to them and trying to help – this in a nutshell is the relationship between Lion and his high-ranking staff and Jerusalem’s Arab residents. On one occasion, a Silwan resident even said Lion is “like Teddy Kollek,” the city’s iconic 28-year mayor – quite a remarkable compliment for someone who still represents, for the majority of the Arab residents, the “occupation.”
The change in the tone of relations between Arab residents and the municipality has been a source of interest and inquiry for many researchers and observers, in an attempt to understand how deep this change is in terms of their attitude toward the Israeli authorities, their readiness to accept a “normalization” of their relations with Israel and, most importantly, what it says about any future wave of violent uprising. More recently, the coronavirus threat has provided an opportunity to realize how helpful a friendly municipality can be, in terms of welfare and health issues, and has probably added to the general feeling that things are calming down on the east side.
However, a recent survey tells another story. A questionnaire conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy along with Palestinian pollsters, led by David Pollock, shows a dramatic drop in the number of Arab residents who would choose to live under Israeli citizenship compared to the findings about a decade ago.
Pollock is a Bernstein fellow at the institute, focusing on regional political dynamics and related issues, and he has been conducting this survey since 2010. In the most recent poll, about 15% said they preferred Israeli citizenship, compared to 52% in the 2015 findings.
For years, it was clear that east Jerusalem’s “330,000 Palestinian legal residents, though overwhelmingly not Israeli citizens, have many practical advantages over their West Bank neighbors. Only the former have the right to work, study and travel freely inside Israel, and to participate in Israel’s extensive social welfare system of healthcare, unemployment and retirement benefits. As a result, previous surveys demonstrated that a significant segment of these Palestinians gradually came to prefer Israeli to Palestinian citizenship if faced with that stark choice,” Pollock wrote in his findings.
Therefore, says Pollock, “from 2010 to 2015, the proportion of east Jerusalemite Arabs who said they would prefer Israeli to Palestinian citizenship rose substantially: from 35% to a remarkable 52%. But that number dropped precipitously, to the 10-20% range, once the 2015-2016 Palestinian ‘knife intifada’ violently alienated the Jewish and Arab halves of the city from each other. In the current survey, that proportion seems to have stabilized at around 17% – compared with two-thirds who would rather choose citizenship in a Palestinian state.”
TO GET a closer look at what drives the city’s Arab residents, one should perhaps start with a deeper look at their civil society – mostly benevolent and focused on welfare, education and women’s empowerment, which flourished among this sector. “There are many such associations – firstly, the local councils and community centers spread out in all the Arab neighborhoods,” says Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center (JICC) on Mount Zion. “They do have some problem of legitimacy as they are perceived as representatives of the Israeli authorities – mostly the municipality – but they manage to work with the population nevertheless.”
Other associations make an impact, namely Bahag al-Kalak in the Muslim Quarter, a welfare organization for the needy; the Edward Said National Conservatory; MiniActive, a womens’ empowerment group; and perhaps the largest of them all – Atta’a, which means “giving,” an organization that focus on exercising the rights of workers in regard to the authorities and private employers, he noted.
“Above all these, there are many WhatsApp groups, a lot of them of parents of students, and the ‘Maqdissi’ – literally the ‘Jerusalemites,’ which also has a Facebook page and is very popular. For example, this social media outlet has been extremely helpful and active in explaining to the population the dangers of the coronavirus, so that the closure of the mosques – including al-Aqsa – has been widely accepted. While some of these associations are still strongly opposed to any contact with any Israeli authority, others admit that in order to have a relatively normal life, they need to take into account the presence of the Israeli representatives, and firstly, the municipality. It is important to note that the JICC is not the ‘owner’ of these groups and their activities, but rather serves as a very neutral platform, to enable a cultural competency for the city and its residents beyond their different identities.”
In this context, the fact that for the past two years significant budgets have been approved by the government to improve the infrastructure and general conditions on the Arab side has contributed in large part to the relative calm and security. The upgrades can be seen in several neighborhoods with improved sidewalks, street lights, cleanliness and more. One of the highlights of the changes occurred in regard to the municipality’s decision to freeze all demolition orders in the Isawiya neighborhood for six months, to enable residents to prepare construction plans and projects to be submitted to the local planning and construction committee, while adhering to proper procedures.”
“These improvements are certainly perceived as a good thing,” says Agmon-Snir, “but that won’t certainly have any impact on the Arab residents regarding their political identity. In a way, they will simply say that since they are under occupation, it is the occupant’s responsibility to take care of these [issues].”
During the long weeks of isolation, these associations were highly active and influential in providing assistance and support for low-income families, in addition to that provided by the municipality, in amount of 17,000 daily meals, food baskets and vouchers for supermarkets for seniors, the needy and those who could not go out to buy food.
“What has changed these last years is the overtaking of the Jerusalemite identity over other aspects,” says Agmon-Snir. “Perhaps because of the security barrier, perhaps because of other things, like the geopolitical situation surrounding us, the understanding that they cannot rely on anyone else, the legitimate yearning for a decent life... all these together have finally ended up in a strong local identity.”
Generally speaking, the Arab residents have been very cautious regarding corona’s dangers. Calls to strictly observe the isolation rules have been published quite often on the associations’ respective Facebook pages, and in Silwan – more than once – there was an open call to police and even to the Home Front Command to enhance surveillance of young adults who were breaking the restrictions and endangering the population. When one remembers the level of violence and hatred that Arab residents in several neighborhoods, especially Silwan, often show toward Israeli security forces, it is clear how deep the concern about the pandemic goes.