Meet Khaled Abu Arafeh - Hamas's Mr. Jerusalem

For the first time in Palestinian history, Jerusalem has a minister.

temple mount 224.88 (photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
temple mount 224.88
(photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
For the first time in Palestinian history, Jerusalem has a minister. He is Khaled Abu Arafeh, 45, a businessman from east Jerusalem who worked as a mechanical engineer until he took over his family's hardware store just off Salah a-Din Street. This is not to say that Palestinians hadn't paid attention to their declared capital before Hamas decided to create a separate ministry for the affairs of Jerusalem and its Palestinian Arab residents. Before Abu Arafeh, Fatah's Faisal Husseini had been a de-facto minister of the city. Although Husseini's stature was more of a national leader than a local one he tried, through Orient House and his own charisma, to help his people. He did so through a mix of charitable help and support for existing religious institutions, private hospitals, schools and NGOs. After his unexpected death from a stroke while visiting Kuwait, the city's over 200,000 Palestinians felt orphaned. The PLO, which unlike the Palestinian Authority is technically allowed to work in the city, tried to fill this vacuum by creating a citywide committee. Al-Quds University President Professor Sari Nusseibeh tried for a short period to represent the PLO in Jerusalem, but he was unable to run both a major university and attempt to satisfy the many needs of the city's Arab residents. PA premier Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) also made an attempt to address the needs of the city's residents, most recently by asking Hind Khoury to serve as Minister of State for Jerusalem Affairs in the Palestinian Authority. She began, from scratch, to institutionalize the nascent mini-ministry. THE CLOSURE, under a 1945 Emergency Law, of Orient House and other Palestinian political institutions in Jerusalem is in direct contradiction of various international commitments to Palestinians. The US secretary of state during the first Clinton administration, Warren Christopher, and the Israeli government under Shimon Peres signed commitments supporting the "preservation of the existing institutions in east Jerusalem" and even for allowing them to "thrive." Now the task falls to Abu Arafeh, a father of five, who is described by people who know him well as openminded and highly tolerant. He told this writer that he plans to pay close attention to the various issues and problems raised by the people of Jerusalem. "We will support every effort that will restore the rights of our people." He insists that this will include providing legal advice, going to Israeli courts and using all means possible for the benefit of the Palestinians in east Jerusalem. I tried to see whether this tolerance also includes dealing with official Israel. "Within the general policies and for the service of our people in Beit al Maqdes [Jerusalem] there is no opposition to negotiate with them regarding humanitarian and political issues," he told me in Arabic over the phone. I read the statement back to him to make sure that I understood it correctly, and he assured me that it was fine by him. WHILE Jerusalemites welcomed the idea of a ministry being established and led by an honest, dedicated person, a man who will focus only on the issues of the city and the needs of its people, it is highly unlikely that Abu Arafeh will have much leeway to carry out his responsibilities. Last week, he and a number of elected Hamas parliamentarians were temporarily arrested minutes before attending a public meeting at the city's Ambassador Hotel. The Israeli action was a clear signal against any political activities by Hamas in what Israel considers the annexed part of its capital, a claim that Palestinians and the rest of the world (including the US) have not recognized. Abu Arafeh will do well if he can help produce a pragmatic and workable plan for Jerusalem. Arab Jerusalemites suffer not only from continued Israeli land confiscations - as well as private purchases of land (often using forged documents) - and from the crippling separation wall; they also suffer from a variety of social and economic challenges. These range from drug problems, especially inside the Old City walls, to maintaining a network of humanitarian, religious, medical and educational institutions. Most of those who came to congratulate Abu Arafeh shared their concern that his new post would be a very heavy burden to carry. Any Palestinian running a ministry out of east Jerusalem - which Israel considers part of its undivided and eternal capital - would have a hard job. But a Hamas person managing this post has a next to impossible task. The writer is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.