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Behind the Headlines: on the Streets of Abu Dis, Nobody Thinks It’s Jerusalem

May 8, 2000
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Jamil Uthman Nasser has a clear view of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount from the terrace of his office in the nearby village of Abu Dis.

“You see?” he said, pointing at the Dome of the Rock, its golden roof glittering in the afternoon sun. “That’s Jerusalem. This is not.”

Nasser, who is governor of the Jerusalem district of the Palestinian Authority, is in charge of close to 200,000 Arabs living in an area including eastern Jerusalem and stretching eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea.

Most of his “subjects” are residents of Jerusalem who carry Israeli identity cards.

His office is located in Abu Dis, he said, “because that is as close as we could get to Jerusalem.”

But his heart lies in Saladin Street, the main street of eastern Jerusalem.

“I am now 54 years old,” he said with a smile, “and I am absolutely convinced that before I turn 60, my office will be located on Saladin Street, the present headquarters of the Israeli Justice Ministry.”

Such statements fuel the Israeli right, which claims that any concessions regarding Abu Dis will only lead to additional compromises regarding Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak is personally responsible for Abu Dis’ recent reappearance in the headlines.

It was his idea to transfer Abu Dis and the neighboring Arab towns of Al- Azariya and Sawahara to full Palestinian control “as a gesture of goodwill toward the Palestinians.”

The three towns are currently under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, with the Palestinian Authority in charge of civilian affairs and Israel overseeing security.

In the course of negotiations with Israel, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has long sought “quality territories” near Jerusalem as part of Israeli redeployments from West Bank lands.

Barak hoped the offer of the three towns would alleviate Palestinian demands regarding Jerusalem while also creating a new momentum in the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

Unfortunately for Barak, neither the Palestinians nor his own coalition partners were impressed by his offer.

The National Religious Party threatened to walk out of the coalition if the Palestinians got full control over Abu Dis, and Interior Minister Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah called Barak’s offer “tactically wrong.”

For their part, the Palestinians were simply unimpressed.

“Look,” said Nasser, “we are in charge anyway. If Israel turns the area over to us, the only difference will be that our security men will finally be able to wear their uniforms and carry arms, and the Israeli army will be prevented from entering the village.”

Indeed, the Israeli presence is hardly felt in Abu Dis, where one can hardly spot any signs in Hebrew.

During the morning hours, the narrow entrance to the suburb, just off the old Jericho-Jerusalem road, is almost always filled with young men, waiting for someone to offer them work. The Israeli authorities prevent many of them from entering Israel to work.

In the old days, generations before the village had turned into a Jerusalem suburb, villagers used to make a living by robbing caravans en route between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

In the past 200 years Abu Dis developed from a small village into an urban neighborhood, thanks mostly to the emigration of Bedouin tribes from Syria and Jordan.

After Israel occupied the area following the 1967 Six Day War, many families moved to Abu Dis from Hebron and the Gaza Strip as Arab men sought jobs as construction workers in the new Jewish neighborhoods being built in Jerusalem.

Abu Dis first came to international prominence several years ago as part of what became known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan.

In a series of secret talks between Yossi Beilin, now Israel’s Justice Minister, and Arafat’s second-in-command, Abu Mazen, the two agreed on a plan to resolve the question of who would have control over Jerusalem in a final peace accord.

Under their plan, which was never officially confirmed by either side, the boundaries of Jerusalem would expand to include Abu Dis, which would serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Barak’s plan to transfer full control over Abu Dis to the Palestinians has so far been greeted with opposition from all possible fronts.

In addition to the protests that were sounded from members of the governing coalition, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a staunch hawk and a possible candidate for the Likud leadership, rushed to Abu Dis last week to discuss the possibility of building some 250 apartments in a new Jewish neighborhood right on the border of the Arab town.

“You Israelis do not really negotiate with the Palestinians,” said Farid Mustafa, a Palestinian free-lance journalist. “You negotiate between yourselves, as if we have nothing to say.”

Another twist to the complex issue is that not all Arabs living in Jerusalem are eager to become citizens of the Palestinian Authority.

“In fact, most of them don’t,” said Shalom Goldstein, Olmert’s Arab affairs adviser.

Once they become Palestinian citizens, they would have to give up social benefits, including social security payments, and Israel’s more advanced health and educational systems.

Moreover, some residents of Abu Dis say they would like to have the town become part of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, though none would give their names for publication.

“Give me an Israeli ID, and I will pay you $10,000,” said one Arab worker. “Most of the people here are laborers who find their living in Israel. Where are they going to get it in the future?”

Given all the political complexities, Nasser’s dream of moving to offices on Saladin Street seemed this week as fantastic as ever.

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