By Mark MacKinnon, October 16, 2007.
After 40 years of living under Israeli occupation, two stints in Israeli prisons and
a military checkpoint on the same road as his odds-and-ends shop, one would
think Nabil Gheit would be happy to hear an Israeli prime minister contemplate
handing over parts of East Jerusalem to Palestinian control.
But the mayor of Ras Hamis, a Palestinian neighbourhood on the eastern fringe
of this divided city, says that he can’t think of a worse fate for him and his
constituents than being handed over to the weak and ineffective Palestinian
Authority right now.
“If there was a referendum here, no one would vote to join the Palestinian
Authority,” Mr. Gheit said, smoking a water pipe as he whiled away the
afternoon watching Lebanese music videos. “We will not accept it. There would
be another intifada to defend ourselves from the PA.”
In comments that are likely to stir fierce debate on both sides, Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert suggested yesterday that Israel could relinquish several
Arab areas on the periphery of East Jerusalem. The idea is likely to please very
few, since many Israelis consider Jerusalem indivisible, while few Palestinians
would accept a peace deal that didn’t include sovereignty over the al-Aqsa
mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Those who live in the neighbourhoods Mr. Olmert spoke of handing over are
nonetheless worried that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who is seen as
weak and desperate for an achievement after losing control of the Gaza Strip to
the Islamist Hamas movement, will accept the offer. They dislike the idea of
their neighbourhoods, which are generally more prosperous than other parts of
the West Bank, being absorbed into the chaotic Palestinian territories.
Mr. Gheit, with two posters of “the martyr Saddam Hussein” hanging over his
cash register, can hardly be called an admirer of the Jewish state. But he says
that an already difficult life would get worse if those living in Ras Hamis and the
adjoining Shuafat refugee camp were suddenly no longer able to work in Israel,
or use its publicly funded health system.
The 53-year-old said he’d be happy to one day live in a properly independent
Palestinian state, but not one that looks anything like the corruption-racked and
violence-prone areas that are split between the warring Hamas and Fatah
factions. “I don’t believe in these factions. I only believe in putting bread on the
table for my children. I fight only for them. At least in Israel, there’s law.”
Mr. Gheit said that over the past five years, some 5,000 people have moved
into Ras Hamis from other parts of the West Bank, concerned that they would
lose their Israeli identification cards if they didn’t live within the city limits.
There would be a mass exodus into other parts of the city, or other towns in
Israel, if it looked likely that Ras Hamis and Shuafat, home to a combined
50,000 people, were about to be declared no longer part of Jerusalem, he said.
Another concern for many in Shuafat is that they would lose access to the
al-Aqsa mosque if they were transferred on paper from East Jerusalem to the
West Bank. West Bank Palestinians are generally barred from entering the city,
even to pray.
In a speech yesterday to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, Mr. Olmert stayed far
away from such issues, but made his most explicit comments to date about
offering some parts of Jerusalem to Mr. Abbas.
“Was it necessary to annex the Shuafat refugee camp, al-Sawahra,
Walajeh and other villages and state that this is also Jerusalem? I must admit,
one can ask some legitimate questions on the issue,” Mr. Olmert said, referring
to the Israeli decision 40 years ago to annex East Jerusalem, including outlying
Arab neighbourhoods. The entire city was declared to be Israel’s capital, a
decision no other country recognizes.
Notably, all three neighbourhoods that Mr. Olmert mentioned are on the farthest
outskirts of the city, within the greater municipality of Jerusalem, but outside
the eight-metre-high concrete wall that Israel has constructed through the city.
The Israeli government says the barrier was constructed for security purposes;
critics say the barrier, which zigzags deep into East Jerusalem and the West
Bank, has always been intended to establish a de facto border. Mr. Olmert’s
suggestion doesn’t go as far as previous Israeli leaders have in negotiations
with the Palestinians.
At the 2000 peace talks in Camp David, Israel’s then-prime minister,
Ehud Barak, offered almost all of East Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat. The talks
collapsed, primarily over the status of the Old City and the holy sites within it.
Mr. Olmert is also under pressure from the United States to make concessions
ahead of a peace conference that President George W. Bush is scheduled to
host next month.