Inside Sur Bahir

A journalist recalls her interview with an unofficial head of the Jerusalem village from which the tractor terrorist hailed.

east jerusalem 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
east jerusalem 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the aftermath of the bulldozer attack in downtown Jerusalem, Zuhier Hamdan, one of the mukhtars of the Jerusalem Arab village of Sur Bahir, home to the terrorist, was widely interviewed in the press. As reporters asked Hamdan for his reaction to the attack, I was reminded of the interview I conducted five years ago with the Israel-friendly village leader. It was easy to get to his Sur Bahir home, a two-minute ride through the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot, across a small valley where sheep still graze, and up a steep hill where the street narrows between haphazard rows of two-story white houses. It's not so easy to understand how Hamdan manages to operate as one of the titular heads of Sur Bahir, one of a half dozen Arab villages incorporated into Jerusalem's municipal boundary that some Israeli politicians are now calling to be separated from Jerusalem and put behind the security barrier. Traditionally, mukhtars served as the court Jews of the Arab world. Under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule, the mukhtar was "the village sheriff, tax collector, and judge," writes Amir Cheshin in his book, Separate And Unequal. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel used the mukhtars as a channel to maintain contact with Arab residents. Cheshin says that the IDF and the Shin Bet used the mukhtars to obtain intelligence on the Arab sector. Is that the role that Hamdan plays today in Sur Bahir? Former Jerusalem municipality spokesman Haggai Elias says Hamdan is not officially the mukhtar. He explains that a citizens committee runs Sur Bahir affairs today. So, does Suher Hamdan, a seemingly courageous and outspoken critic of Arab terrorism, represent anyone beside himself? In 2003, I was one of two journalists Hamdan into his well-appointed home to answer such questions. HAMDAN WAS born in Jordan. Between 1968-1972, he served in Yasser Arafat's Force 17 unit. He does not explain the circumstances that led to his disillusionment with the PLO. The Hamdan family had roots in Sur Bahir, leading Suher to come live in the area in 1974. A short, compact man with balding head and smooth dark skin, he sits beneath an oversized, gold-framed portrait of Jordan's King Hussein. Smaller photos of the former Jordanian monarch adorn the other walls. Surrounding Hamdan's desk are photos of himself with former Israeli defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer; former president Moshe Katzav and Shas party leader Rabbi Ovadya Yosef. These are all public figures Hamdan has approached in his quest to form an inter-religious forum for peace. Arab propaganda would have us believe that Arab Jerusalemites supported Yasser Arafat and his bid to establish the capital of his Palestinian state in Jerusalem. Suher Hamdan has been doing his best to gauge opinion on the Arab street. Right after the Camp David talks in 2000, Hamdan collected 12,000 signatures on a petition to demand a referendum that would allow residents a voice in deciding their future. Reaction was not long in coming. In October 2001, Hamdan was shot five times as he stood in the spacious courtyard of his home. After 19 days in a coma and more than a month in the hospital, Hamdan appeared completely recovered. He said he knew exactly who tried to kill him. "They were Tanzim who fled to Bethlehem, under Arafat's control," he said, noting that the act of violence against him "opened the eyes of thousands of people." Hamdan claims that the majority of Arab citizens of Jerusalem believe that Arafat was a failure. In unrestrained language, Hamdan openly derided the then PA chairman. "He's not a man, he's a homosexual," sneered Hamdan. "Anyone can see he's failed completely. If a man fails, he should confess to it and resign." Hamdan went on to compare Arafat with his hero, King Hussein. "Who was the father of Arafat?" he asked rhetorically. "Arafat is a nobody. Hussein was the son of Abdullah, who was the son of... all the way back to Mohammad. "If he's a Palestinian, why does Arafat speak Arabic with a strong Egyptian accent?" Hamdan criticism of Arafat went on for several minutes, using words like "mafia," and "criminal," as he berated the Palestinian leader for lying to his people and being responsible for the abduction, torture and murder of Arabs thought to be collaborators with Israel. Hamdan told his visitors that any pro-Arafat demonstrations are all set-up jobs, peopled by those who are afraid of the repercussions if they don't toe the PA line. "Not even one kid supports Arafat," Hamdan stated categorically. HAMDAN LED a delegation of mukhtars to pay condolence calls to Jews injured in Gilo during the second intifada. He's a frequent visitor to community leaders in the adjacent Jewish neighborhoods of Armon Hanatziv, East Talpiot and Har Homa, and an active member of the advisory board of the Islam-Israel Fellowship of the Root & Branch Association. Is he afraid of further assassination attempts? Hamdan dismisses the question with a tight smile. "I am Hamdan and I have my ideas. No one will change me." The encounter with Hamdan left me with one key question unanswered. Just who does represent the Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem - Suhier Hamdan, not recognized by the municipality as a leader but regarded as such by the media, or terrorist Husam Taysir Dwayat, who seems to have left Sur Bahir in the morning with nothing but the murder of Jews on his mind. The writer is the Jerusalem-based author of Jerusalem Diaries II: What's Really Happening in Israel. She blogs at