By Danny Rubinstein
March 20, 2001
Last Thursday, East Jerusalem Arabs went on strike for the day. Streets were
empty, shops shuttered, schools and public institutions were closed. Arab taxis
and buses disappeared from the streets. With all the violence in the
territories, few noticed the strike. Even the Palestinian news media gave it
only cursory attention. The strike was organized by Faisal Husseini, the PLO
director for Jerusalem. The tightening Israeli closures and sieges in the
territories were the trigger for the strike, but U.S. Secretary of State Colin
Powell’s comment that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel was also on the
agenda. Along with the strike, Husseini convened a meeting of the entire Arab
leadership in the city, to discuss what the Palestinians should do in the face
of political developments.
Husseini occasionally calls such meetings in the Orient House. But the large
turnout was too large for the Orient House auditorium, so it was held in the
nearby Hakawati Theater. There were Palestinian Authority officials, such as PA
Jerusalem Governor Jamil Otman Nasser, whose office is in Abu Dis, while he
spends most of this time in Jerusalem itself. The PA Ministry for Jerusalem
Affairs was represented by the ministry director-general, Dr. Nimr Ismail. And
there were members of the Palestinian parliament, from the Jerusalem district,
as well as officials from the wakf.
In the past, such a meeting of PA officials in Jerusalem would have caused a
ruckus in Israel, which would have tried to prevent it from taking place. There
were even times, such as the early days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in
1996, when there was talk about closing Orient House because of the Palestinian
political affairs conducted within its walls. Sometimes, the government picked
on a few relatively inconsequential Palestinian offices in East Jerusalem,
shutting them down for a few weeks.
But that’s all in the past now, After last summer’s decision with Knesset
approval to hand over Abu Dis to Palestinian control, Israeli officialdom has
ceased bothering Palestinians about the activities of Yasser Arafat’s people in
the city. Nonetheless, the organizing body for the conference last week was
called the "Committee for Mutual Assistance by Palestinian Institutions in
Jerusalem," apparently to prevent Israeli intervention.
Jews in East Jerusalem
The main item on the conference agenda was how to respond to the new
government’s plans for the eastern part of city. Construction work is almost
done in the Jewish apartment block financed by American gambling tycoon Irwin
Moscowitz in Ras Amud, and soon the new Jewish tenants will be moving into the
densely populated Arab neighborhood. Thousands of apartments are almost
finished at Har Homa, and the Palestinian media has reported extensively on
government plans for thousands more apartments there.
In settlements all around Jerusalem, there’s a flurry of construction work,
despite the Intifada, improving the roads to the settlements. In the Old City
and Arab neighborhoods around the city, yeshiva students continue buying properties
in Arab neighborhoods. This week another group moved into a house in Sheikh
"History will notice if we don’t challenge the effort to Judaicize the
city," Husseini declared at the conference. But the problem is exactly how
to conduct that struggle.
Inside Orient House there are complaints that the Palestinian struggle in the
city is leaderless. The leadership around Saeb Erakat, who dealt with the
political negotiations with Israel, is now busy with Intifada issues and rarely
has time to deal with Jerusalem, where things are relatively quiet. Husseini’s
own relationship with Arafat has long been strained, so there’s a lot of
duplication of efforts for Arabs in the city, with irregularities in the
budgets for PA-sponsored public institutions.
The best example happened three years ago, when Ziad Abu Ziad was named the PA
Minister for Jerusalem Affairs. That angered Husseini, whose conference last
week plus accompanying strike was all about pressing home the message that he
is the leading Palestinian nationalist politician in the city.
Uzi Landau and the Temple Mount
Another critical issue nowadays in East Jerusalem is Public Security Minister
Uzi Landau’s declaration upon taking office that he sees no reason why Jews
should not be allowed to visit the Temple Mount.
Since the outbreak of the hostilities after then opposition leader Ariel
Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa plaza, the gates of the Temple Mount have been
closed to visits by all non-Muslims, Jews and gentiles, Israelis and foreigners,
alike. Israeli police at the entrances to the mount allow only Muslims in for
prayers, and prevent access to anyone else. Right-wing groups in Israel are
pressuring the police and security services to end the practice and allow Jews
back onto the Temple Mount.
After Landau’s statement, Jerusalem Mufti Akram Sabri said that there’s no
logic to allowing non-Muslims freely on Al Aksa plaza while the closures
prevent hundreds of thousands of believers from Gaza and the West Bank from
reaching the holy site. "We’re ready for a struggle and martyrs to protect
Al Aqsa," he declared.
In a conversation in his office last Saturday, wakf director Adnan Husseini
explained that the ban on visits to the plaza was not aimed at Jews but at
foreigners in general. He said that the thousands of non-Muslim visitors to the
mount, who brought a lot of revenues to the wakf, were mostly foreign tourists
and secular Israeli tourists, neither of whom are flocking to Jerusalem
nowadays. That leaves mostly extreme right-wing Jews who would head to the
mount if Landau orders the police to let non-Muslims up to the plaza.
In other words, the wakf believes a renewal of tourist visits to Temple Mount
is a sure formula for a flare up of new violence. The relative quiet in recent
weeks during Friday prayers, says the wakf’s Husseini, is because few believers
can actually reach the site, due to the closures and sieges.
The Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem, religious and political, is now
certain that they have to get ready to confront the energetic ministers of the
Sharon government – on the Temple Mount, the settlements, and the new Jewish
neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.