A pragmatic mayor for Nablus

Hamas-backed Ya'ish says he is religious Muslim who believes in coexistence.

yaish 298 88  (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
yaish 298 88
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
He backs Hamas, but he also supports programs promoting coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian children. He is a religious Muslim who has never sipped alcohol but believes that the Christians and Samaritans of his native city have every right to run shops selling the forbidden drink. His family owns the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Nablus, but he drives a maroon-colored 1994 model dotted with scratches and dents. Meet Adli Ya'ish, 53, the mayor-elect of Nablus, whose Hamas list, the Coalition for Change and Reform, won the municipal elections last week by a landslide. Not only does 73.4 percent of the city think he can do a better job than the Fatah candidates, but so does an Israeli businessman who has known him for some 30 years. "I know Adli and I am positive that he will be an excellent mayor and serve the citizens of Nablus to the utmost of his capabilities and help the people that especially need it in these [difficult] days," Menahem Fisher, CEO of Autoworks, told The Jerusalem Post. Autoworks is the largest importer and distributor of auto parts in Israel. Fisher said he knew that Ya'ish was elected on a Hamas coalition list, but maintained that his views of his old friend have not changed. "Adli has a wonderful character," said Fisher, 56, who lives in Ganei Tikva. "He is honest, reliable and kind... I am proud to be his friend and to have him as one of my clients." A few years ago Ya'ish and his family traveled with Fisher to Germany. While Fisher had no problem with Ya'ish's Hamas connections, the election of 13 people from the Hamas list to the 15-member Nablus Municipal Council poses a dilemma for Israelis, Europeans and Americans who need to work with the municipality and yet have sworn they would have no relations with Hamas. Ya'ish, however, told the Post that there should be no problem. "I am not a member of Hamas," he said in an interview Monday in his office on the floor above the empty showroom that awaits the 2007 models. According to the new mayor who takes office on Saturday, there are only two Hamas members on the list, both of whom are sheikhs. However, two locals, who asked not to be named, said that while Adli was never identified with Hamas, most of the other people on the list were. "What makes one person a member and another not? Only the people who are fighting or also the people who are supporting them? Only the people who carry the flag or also the people who believe in it?" asked one local who voted for the Hamas list. "It's a Hamas list, but maybe they are not active members." The local, an educated man in his 30s, added that Ya'ish's reputation as a good, honest man was the main reason people voted for the Hamas list. The other reasons were the lack of trust in the other parties due to corruption, and the desire for change. "All these reasons came before the people's desire to vote for Hamas for being Hamas," the local said. Ya'ish, a small dapper man, married and father of six, said he had no hesitations about joining the list considered taboo by Israelis and foreigners alike. Fatah had approached him first to join their coalition, said Ya'ish. "But there was a problem with who is No. 1 and who is No. 2." Hamas offered him the No. 1 spot and he took it, he said. "I follow the Islamic views. I am a religious man. I pray five times a day. I don't drink alcohol. I like people. I have been in England. I never did anything wrong," said Ya'ish, who, unlike most of the members of his list, is cleanshaven. He received his mechanical engineering degree at Liverpool University in 1975 and spent one year training in Germany. "Hamas is a religious party and they offered the best people," he said, and those people are all educated, all from good backgrounds and all people who help other people. Among them are Dr. Nihad al-Masri, a highly respected doctor known for his service to his city and three women, a lawyer, a doctor and a teacher. The number of women on the list exceeded the number of women on the other lists. The 15-person list also included seven engineers, three doctors and the two sheikhs, who are the official Hamas members. The Nablus local said that the list members are not identifying themselves as Hamas so that they will be able to work with USAID and the EU to get support for development projects for the city. "We have a saying in Arabic: 'Do you want to get the grapes or fight with the guard?,'" said the local. "Adli doesn't want to fight with the guard. He wants the grapes, he wants to help his city." From Ya'ish's point of view, the list's political views do not matter. "This is not a political job," said the man with the shy smile, whose face adorns posters all over the city. "It's a service to the people." To demonstrate, Ya'ish took the Post reporter for a drive into the rundown Dahia neighborhood across the street from his Mercedes-Benz distributorship, garage and spare parts center. (His nephew Rifaat said that Ya'ish refused to drive a new Benz because he didn't like to draw attention.) As he drove, he pointed to the children playing among the litter and the streets without sidewalks and said, "God willing we will change all this. These people pay the same taxes as the rich neighborhoods and they should get the same services. This is justice. This is our religion." Ya'ish took 86.5% of the vote in Dahia. But he also got votes from the Christian neighborhood of Rafidiyeh and from the Samaritans. "They know we don't differentiate," he said. "Our slogan is Nablus for all, which means Christians, Muslims, Samaritans and people from the villages. "It's not just a slogan. We are going to apply it," said Ya'ish, who campaigned in churches as well as mosques. Ya'ish is from one of the old highly-respected Nablus families. His father opened a car parts shop in the center of town in 1929 and was a member of the Nablus Zakaat committee, a Muslim charity group which dispensed food and money to the city's poor. When he died, Adli took his place. Fisher remembers his last visit to Ya'ish's offices before the intifada began. "At some point in the evening, Adli asked me to excuse him because he had to step outside at the entrance to his building where poor people were waiting for his help," said Fisher. "He told me he did so almost every day." When the intifada broke out in September 2000, a group of the city's leaders formed a special emergency committee to collect from the rich and distribute to the poor. Adli was the treasurer. "I used to call the Samaritans to ask them how many people were unemployed and then send them food," said Ya'ish. "He is famous in the city for giving charity," said the local. Despite Ya'ish's reputation, the local noted that he would not have voted for him if he had run on the Fatah list. "It has a long history of corruption," said the young man. Moreover, he added, "Fatah has been fighting for 40 years and has achieved nothing. Isn't that enough reason not to vote for them?" The young Hamas voter said Hamas was realistic about coexistence with Israel. "Forty years ago the Palestinians wanted the Polish, Russian and British Jews to go back to where they came from. Today a whole generation was born in Israel. They don't speak Polish or Russian. They don't know anything but Israel. They are not going anywhere. There is a new reality. Hamas understands this." So does Ya'ish. He does business with Israelis, so when Fisher approached him a couple months ago to initiate a Peres Center for Peace program to help educate Palestinian children in Nablus and promote coexistence with Israel, Ya'ish agreed to try if he had the opportunity to do so in the future. "I hope Adli will do it now that he was chosen as the mayor of Nablus," said Fisher. In response Adli said, "Yes, of course I remember [Fisher's] offer, I will do anything that is good for my people." The only exception, he said, were issues related to politics, which he would not enter. "I am not a politician." Nablus has a population of 160,000 and the municipality has 1,870 employees. The picturesque city lies in between two mountains ranges. The city center is located in the valley below and the residential areas speckle the sides of both mountain ranges. On Saturday and Sunday, the List for Change and Reform held a victory reception. Orthodox priests, Samaritan priests and Muslim clerics were among the crowd.