All eyes on al-Aksa

How will the sweeping Hamas victory affect day-to-day life in east Jerusalem?

hamas flags bus 298 (photo credit: AP)
hamas flags bus 298
(photo credit: AP)
The election posters are still hanging on the walls along Ibn-Batuta Street in east Jerusalem. Held just over a week ago, those elections marked what already seems like an eternity between the pre- and post-election Palestinian reality. Despite all pre-election polls, anticipations and prognoses the Islamic Hamas movement won the elections with flying colors, painting the Palestinian Authority in green throughout the Palestinian Authority. East Jerusalem is no exception. In the Jerusalem electoral district, the Islamists' Change and Reform list took four out of six seats, and one of the two seats reserved for Christians was taken by the Christian candidate preferred by Hamas. The outcome was stunning, shocking even people who actually gave their own votes to Hamas. Abu Salah, a resident of Beit Hanina who is less than eager to divulge his full name, says, "I voted for Change and Reform but I was also sure that Fatah would still remain in power. I do not entirely support Hamas' policy, but since Fatah has disappointed us so many times in the past, many Palestinians wanted to make sure that this time there would be a strong and influential opposition. Expressing commonly held views, Abu Salah continues, "Anyone who went to vote took a chance, because the Israelis might use it against us and deprive us from our rights to National Insurance benefits and health care." Overall voter turnout was close to 80 percent. In east Jerusalem, turnout reached nearly 70%, much higher than pollsters had predicted. Yet some east Jerusalemites say they decided against participation in the elections simply because "they didn't see a fit candidate." Miral Malki, a resident of Beit Hanina, says that no one in her family voted. "Some of us were busy and some just had no interest in the whole process." But the Hamas victory will force everyone to pay more attention to the political reality. Some already regret their decision not to vote or to vote for Hamas as a protest vote. Says Wael Hammad, a student at Bir Zeit University and a resident of Shuafat, "I didn't vote because I was sure that Fatah would still remain in power, and I can assure you that nobody anticipated these results. But in any case - these results are Fatah's responsibility," he concludes. Of course, the bitter fights between the senior and younger leadership of the Fatah, along with the wide-spread accusations of corruption and nepotism didn't help Fatah. But many Palestinian politicians say that the Hamas victory in the Jerusalem district, where many citizens work and live side by side with the Israelis, unlike the people of Gaza, Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, was an unexpected and nasty surprise. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, one of the leaders of the Third Way party and a freshly elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says that she expected that Hamas would do well in Jerusalem, but this "political tsunami" caught her by surprise. "I think that the people of east Jerusalem were punishing Fatah. They were very disillusioned by Fatah's policy, by their inability to defend their rights, especially when in comes to the wall, checkpoints, and so forth. So they voted Hamas," she explains. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, one of the heads of the Independent Palestine list, which received two seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, also believes that the Islamists' unanticipated success is due to disappointment in Fatah and lack of faith in the candidates' promises. "The real power of Hamas in the parliament is maybe 60 mandates, which is less then half (the Palestinian parliament consists of 132 members). But they received 74 seats because they were much better-prepared than Fatah and because many people voted for them in order not to vote for Fatah." Hamas' red-bearded Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir has already said that Hamas is very serious about implementing the Shari'a (Islamic law) way of life in the Palestinian Authority. Yet Jerusalem, with its distinct traditions and coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians, was always considered to be more open, liberal and tolerant than cities in Gaza Strip or even Hebron. What effect will the Hamas victory have on the lifestyle in the Holy City and its surroundings, which are so close to west Jerusalem? Sami Masri, a Christian and Fatah activist, calls the Hamas victory, "a nightmare." He warns, "They will gradually try to impose their mentality and their laws, and it will be a disaster." With his blue ID card, Masri is free to move to other places, far away from Hamas, and he admits that he is now seriously considering the possibility. But not everyone can or will leave his or her home. "We are very afraid," admits Malki, also a Christian. She is sure that "nothing good will come out of these parliamentary elections. Of course, since the Palestinian Authority doesn't really influence our life here in Jerusalem, the influence will be sociological. I'm sure that it will be tougher for Muslims, as the women might be forced to wear head scarves, but I don't think they will meddle with Christians. "I hope they know that there are many Christians with their own way of life," she adds. Ashrawi thinks that, at least in the beginning, Hamas will be very cautious. "Hamas' political agenda is still not that clear. They've been sending conciliatory messages, but only time will tell how they will act." Then she adds, "I have faith in Palestinian society. It is democratic and open. We have our constitution and it should be observed." Yet Hamas supporters in Umm Tuba believe that the Hamas victory will make a huge difference in Jerusalem, even though the Palestinian Authority does not have any legal power in the city. "Jerusalem should be Arab, not Jewish," declares a long-bearded man who would identify himself only as Abu Jihad. "It is written in the Koran, our holy book. Our heart is in Jerusalem and our eyes on al-Aksa. Unlike Fatah, Hamas will bring the liberation of our holy places." He makes little of the fact that Hamas was willing to waive the right to vote in east Jerusalem. "It's not important," he states. "They were ready to do this so that elections would not be canceled. But now, when these honest and serious people are in power, we in Jerusalem will much more hopeful then before." He does not respond when this reporter points out that the new Palestinian ruling party is responsible for dozens of bombings within east and west Jerusalem, in which both Jews and Palestinians were killed and wounded.