Jerusalem Palestinians Defining Their Own Future

EAST JERUSALEM — Almost a year ago a barely noticed event took place in Sawarha, a Palestinian neighborhood in the Israeli-occupied part of the city.

On that November day, Israeli Jerusalemites were voting in a new mayor and a new city council.

On that same day, in this neighborhood home to 25,000, people were ignoring the Israeli-run elections. Instead, they were focused on electing their own local council.

Even though Israel annexed the eastern sector of the city in 1967, Palestinians have had no right to vote in Israel’s national elections. But Israel allows them to vote in the five-year municipal elections as "residents of Jerusalem".

Last November, as in past elections, no more than a few hundred out of the tens of thousands of eligible Palestinian voters chose to exercise that right. It would have been tantamount to acquiescence in the Occupation.

Sawarha’s ‘election day’ is a landmark, Palestinians taking their daily life into their own hands — irrespective of what Israel does.

All the more of a potential turning point, now that the future of East Jerusalem has begun to figure large in the new drive by the Obama Administration that aims to secure a "comprehensive" Palestinian-Israeli peace. And, with the President insisting that the two sides re-engage in talks "next month", with Jerusalem on the table as well.

Most Jerusalem Palestinians were born or grew up during the Occupation.

The alternative Sawarha election reflects a new mindset. Here, Palestinians have begun to act in order to counter an overwhelming feeling that they’ve been kept too long in limbo — squeezed between Israelis’ claim that "United Jerusalem" will forever be their capital, and the counter national claim of Palestinians that East Jerusalem must be the capital of their future state.

"We are not forsaking our national aspirations for Jerusalem but, frankly, time has run out on high political promises that change will come," says Mohammad Nakhal, a community coordinator in several neighborhoods that are slated to be part of the future Palestinian capital.

"We need to start taking care of ourselves, of our interests," he adds, "because no one else has — and, no one else will." Mohammad’s credo found fulfillment in the Sawarhah poll. He’s working to apply this "model" to other neighborhoods

Voted out summarily in Sawarha was the old guard who had put their trust either in a political two-city solution advocated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or in Islamic leaders close to Hamas. Old style sheikhs and clan heads were also sidelined.

The winning list garnered some 95 percent of the vote. They represent a cross-section of dynamic entrepreneurs and community activists. The vote was officially billed as an election for the "Parents Schools Association" (so as not to draw the ire of the Israeli authorities who might have suspected an ulterior nationalist motive).

The victors were voted in not on the base of vague promises of "better days" heralded by a future political solution, nor on staunch opposition to Israel. What won them the confidence of voters were down-to-earth credentials that have improved the community’s lot.

Naim Awisat, 38, heads the list. Even prior to the election, he was among a group of businessmen who had taken the bold initiative to rectify the abysmal public transportation situation in East Jerusalem. Until they moved, there was no proper bus service for Palestinians at all.

They approached the Israeli Ministry of Transport and won approval to operate their own private bus lines. Now, instead of the previous "anarchy on our roads" says Mohammad, who was also among those who planned the new bus network, "our people can travel safely all around East Jerusalem."

The Walled Old City with its holy sites is now linked to the southern part of the "Holy Basin" (where Sawarha is located) by 17 buses and mini-buses that run regularly on Naim’s No. 5 and 5a lines.

During a bumpy ride on a bumpy road dating back to pre-1967 days (which Israel has never repaired), he tells us: "We’re not talking politics at all. Our purpose is simply to improve our lives — in education, infrastructure, sanitation — in everything that’s basic."

Both Naim and Mohammad recognize that their initiatives could be exploited by the Israeli authorities looking for ways to consolidate their grip on East Jerusalem. And, that it could also help Israel — as the occupying authority — thwart the international charge that it purposefully evades its responsibilities to the city’s Palestinians.

But given the neglect of over 40 years, it’s a risk worth taking, they believe.

Entrenched Palestinian attitudes in East Jerusalem have long fallen between the stools of waiting for the occupiers to provide, and wasting in neglect as they don’t. "One thing’s for sure — we can’t simply go on forever hanging our hopes on a political agreement, or for the occupation just to fade away," says Naim.

He points out an elderly man sitting a rear seat of the bus: "You may want to talk to him; for decades, he’s been representing Fatah (the primary Palestinian national party) here. We ousted them in the election," he adds wryly.

What does the veteran politico think of the mini transport revolution — does it compromise Palestinian interests?

The line is evasive, but categorical: "As occupiers, they have the duty to provide services."

"But Israel doesn’t…" we persist.

He sticks to the line about the "duty" of the occupiers. And yet again, as we prod him further whether Naim’s buses might not offer succor to the continuation of the occupation.

Naim isn’t impressed: "We’ve heard that so many times. It’s old hat. Some even charge that we’re collaborating. But sticking to hide-bound principles has given us nothing — it’s just left us in limbo.

"Most people are fed up with the nonsense of the past," he continues. "Today, we, young guys, have a different attitude. We see things differently. It’s got nothing to do with living under occupation."

"Rulers come and go, after all," interjects Mohammad, "but we’re staying. To anyone who brands us with doing something untoward when all we’re doing is, at last, looking after ourselves, we say: Remember we’re here in the motherland — and we’re not going anywhere."

A quarter of a million Palestinians live in the city compared to the Jewish population of around half a million. Around 200,000 of the Jewish residents live in East Jerusalem, in new Israeli neighborhoods built since 1967 in the wake of the annexation across the old dividing line between the western (Israeli) and eastern (Arab) part of the city.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.