Mar 24 2006

Meet the minister of Jerusalem

Published by at 4:46 am under Blogs

Daoud Kuttab


For the first time in Palestinian history, Jerusalem has a minister: Khaled Abu Arafeh, a businessman from East Jerusalem who worked as a mechanical engineer until he took over the family hardware store just off Salah Eddine street. This is not to say that Palestinians didn’t pay attention to their declared capital before the Islamic Hamas movement decided to create a separate ministry for the affairs of Jerusalem and its Palestinian Arab residents. Before Abu Arafeh, Faisal Husseini had been a de facto minister of the city.

Although his stature was more of a national leader than a local one, he tried, through the Orient House and his own charisma, to help his people through a mix of charitable help, support for the existing religious institutions, private hospitals, schools and NGOs. After his unexpected death from a stroke while visiting Kuwait, the city’s over 200,000 Palestinians felt orphaned. The PLO, unlike the Palestinian Authority, is technically allowed to work in the city and it tried to fill this vacuum by creating a city-wide committee.

Al Quds University President Professor Sari Nusseibeh tried for a short period to represent the PLO in Jerusalem, but he was unable to run a major university and attempt to satisfy the insatiable needs of the city’s residents.

Ahmed Qureia also made an attempt to address the needs of the city residents by asking minister without portfolio Hind Khoury to take on the Jerusalem dossier. She began from scratch to institutionalise the nascent mini ministry.

Abu Arafeh, a father of five, is described as open minded and very tolerant by people who know him well. He told this writer that he plans to pay close attention to the various issues and problems raised by the people of Jerusalem. “We will support every effort that will restore the rights of our people.”

He insists that this will include providing legal advice, going to court and using all means possible for the benefit of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. I tried to see whether this tolerance also includes the state of Israel. “Within the general policies and for the service of our people in Beit Al Maqdes [Jerusalem] there is no opposition to negotiate with them regarding humanitarian and political issues.” I read the statement back to him to make sure that I understood it correctly and he assured me that it was fine by him.

While Jerusalemites welcomed the idea of a ministry being established, with an honest, dedicated person at its head, that will focus only on the issue of the city and the needs of its people, it is highly unlikely that Abu Arafeh will have much of a leeway to carry out his politics. Last week, he and a number of elected Hamas parliamentarians were arrested minutes before attending a public meeting at an East Jerusalem hotel. The Israeli action was a very clear signal against any political activities by Hamas in what Israel considers the annexed part of its capital, a claim that Palestinians and the rest of the world (including the US) have not recognised.

Abu Arafeh will do well if he can help produce a pragmatic and workable plan for Jerusalem. The Jerusalemites suffer not only from continued Israeli land confiscation and the crippling separation wall, but from many other social and economic difficulties as well. Problems in the city range from drugs (especially inside the city walls) to land and property takeover (often using forged documents without Israeli courts or police able to do anything about it), to the network of local and regional humanitarian, religious, medical and educational institutes.

The city chamber of commerce has been closed by the Israelis and tourism is almost non-existent. This and the closure of the Orient House and other institutions in Jerusalem under the 1945 Emergency Law is in direct contradiction of various international commitments to Palestinians.

The US secretary of state during the first Clinton administration, Warren Christopher, and the Israeli government’s Shimon Peres signed written commitments supporting to the “preservation of the existing institutions in East Jerusalem” and even allowing them to “thrive”.

Most of those who came to congratulate Abu Arafeh shared with him the concern that his new post will be a very heavy burden to carry. Any normal Palestinian running a ministry of East Jerusalem while Israel considers the unified city its eternal capital would have a hard job. A Hamas person running this post will have a next to impossible job.

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