Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Religion

MIDEAST: ‘’What About the Mailboxes?’’

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM, Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - The sun is about to set over Jabel Mukaber. The call of the muezzin envelops the valley beneath Naim Aweisat’s balcony and, rolling from the mosques of Abu Dis across the wall in the West Bank, rebounds from the stark concrete Israeli security wall to answer the minarets that peer over the walled Old City.

Roughly half of the dozen or so Palestinian men who have gathered on Aweisat’s large balcony unfurl prayer mats and turn eastwards.

Prayers over, the men, all in their mid-30s or early 40s, arrange themselves in a semi-circle to await their Israeli guest.

In the early days of the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem – just about the time the oldest of the men here was born – the legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, regarded around the world as a liberal but, in truth, a charming Israeli pro-consul, used to meet personally with the mukhtars (notables) from the Palestinian neighbourhoods of his fiefdom.

Those were the days when the Israelis talked in terms of an “enlightened occupation.”

Kollek’s successors retained that same determination to sustain absolute Israeli control – but, from up high. They showed not even a semblance of interest in learning the needs of “their” Palestinian residents.

This evening’s meeting is thus something new.

Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor elected a year ago, has gone back to the Kollek approach – but with a difference: he has named one of his councilmen, a former army officer, as his “special representative” to the city’s Palestinians – though they are hardly his natural constituency given the fact that only a handful of Palestinians ever “agree to take part in elections run by the occupiers.”

It has taken a full year for the Jabel Mukaber “Parents Association Committee” to get this meeting with the mayor’s man. And he is coming to them – they have not been summoned to city hall.

When Israelis voted in Barkat, here in Jabel Mukaber, a neighbourhood of 25,000, people did not just ignore the Israeli elections – for the first time since the occupation began, they took their own independent initiative and elected a local council.

At a stroke, they voted out the old sheikhs and clan heads, the old-guard nationalists who put their trust in a political two-city solution, and the Islamists.

As part of the Holy City, they are claimed by all sides but represented by nobody, voiceless people in limbo. So, they voted in Naim Aweisat and his group of young entrepreneurs and community activists.

They got elected not on the basis of dogmatic positions promising an elusive political solution, but on down-to-earth credentials. Aweisat himself has already initiated a successful public transportation service and a decent health care centre.

Expectations are high – they are even prepared to shrug off the latest slap in the face for East Jerusalem.

The previous day, Barkat, ignoring the recommendation of his professional staff, scotched the building of an infant healthcare centre in neighbouring Silwan that would have served some 100,000 Palestinians. At the same time, the mayor passed the budget for just such a clinic to serve the 7,000 Israelis who live in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.

Barkat overrode the few dissenters in his coalition. They pointed out the huge gap in overall services in East Jerusalem compared to Israeli neighbourhoods. The disparity in health services for infants is even more marked: compared to 25 such clinics for Jewish families, only four serve a quarter million Palestinians.

Finally, he arrives. The emissary is younger than expected: “I’m glad to see a young guy,” says one committee man with a smile. “You’ll understand our needs better.”

After warm handshakes all around the hosts stand in front of the row of white plastic chairs. He goes down the line and accepts their greetings. They are discreet, give no sign of noticing that one sleeve of the envoy’s jacket hangs empty at his side.

They do not know that the missing limb has to do with illness rather than war and that it happened before his military service. He exudes the determination that got him into an Israeli army combat unit and even won him a rope-climbing competition.

Seeing Yakir Segev’s determination the mayor picked him to handle the complex liaison job with the city’s Palestinians.

“I’ve come to listen to your needs and to hear your complaints,” Segev tells them in Hebrew.

“First,” says Naim, also in Hebrew, “I want to thank city hall for meeting our request that our daughters continue to go to school close to home and not, as you planned, because of the overcrowding, to bus them to Sur Baher (the Palestinian neighbourhood on the next hill). The boys can travel.’’

Segev smiles his thanks.

The gratitude does not stop the litany of grievances from tumbling out – gently, firmly, with Naim translating from Arabic: the state of the roads, safety on those roads, the military checkpoint on one road alongside the security wall – “the kids have to make a full 45-minute detour instead of a simple five-minute walk to school” – the dirt, the uncollected mounds of garbage…

“Come at night, it’s a real jungle,” says a bearded teacher. “Stray dogs, mosquitoes, cockroaches, snakes, rats, scorpions, you name it – we’ve got it.”

Segev nods. He has pulled out a small notebook and pencil from an inside pocket. He takes down copious notes and continues nodding. “Listen, I understand. There are many problems, and not enough money. That’s the main thing – no budget. I don’t want to make promises… we’ll see what can be done.”

The committee is determined to get something out of the meeting. They stop short of broaching the issue which dominates the daily concerns of most Palestinian residents – the dearth of building permits issued by City Hall. As a result, many houses have been demolished, and many more are under threat of demolition, simply because no permits are to be had.

“I don’t know what will be with the government, though. That’s the key. For 16 years they haven’t decided…,” Segev leaves, hanging in the air the unusual Israeli acknowledgment of the state of limbo which has trapped Palestinian East Jerusalem. A limbo intensified by the 1993 Oslo peace deal between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat who left the status of East Jerusalem in abeyance pending final Palestinian-Israeli peace.

So, nothing is changed. But Naim chooses to sum up on a positive note: “I believe that if we continue to take things in our hands there will be change, things will improve – especially if the municipality finally decides to begin doing right by us.”

“What about the mailboxes?” Segev interjects abruptly, almost incongruously. “Are there enough? You have to ensure that they’re not vandalised so that there’s a way of reaching everyone.”

Extra classrooms, street lighting, scorpions take a back seat – mailboxes sit right in the front row of City Hall’s concerns.

For mailbox read taxpayer.

The committee is taken aback. They know the Israeli administration is determined to have a reliable way of keeping tabs on Palestinians. They know that by and large their community does not default on taxes.

What they do not know is why he is targeting them as a community.

Does this mean that developing and servicing their neighbourhood – in the same way as Israeli neighbourhoods -is conditional on a few errant “mailboxes” being brought to book?

A sobering end to what looked like a promising exchange.

(This is the 12th report from an ongoing series on the changing face of East Jerusalem after 42 years of Israeli occupation.)

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