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Thirty Years On, Palestinian Jerusalemites Reflect on the Impact of the Oslo Accords on Their City and Community
A wide-ranging conversation among four Jerusalemites who are active in their community about how the Oslo Accords, first signed 30 years ago, have transformed the landscape of their city in unimaginable ways.
The following is the text of a Jerusalem Story Roundtable discussion that took place September 8, 2023, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo I Agreement) in the White House on September 13, 1993. Participants were all Palestinian Jerusalemites:
Bassim Khoury is a prominent businessman who has established global companies including Pharma, the Palestine Insurance Company (PIC), the National Company for Agro-Industries, and Pharmacare Premium in Malta. He has served in Palestinian government roles: He was twice elected President of the Palestinian Federation of Industries (PFI) in 2006 and 2009, and in 2009, he served as Minister of National Economy in the Salam Fayyad administration. Dr. Khoury is very active in local Jerusalem organizations and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music; the Board of Directors of both the Palestine Capital Market Authority and the Palestine Deposit Insurance Corporation; and the Board of Trustees of the Society of St. Yves Catholic Center for Human Rights, where he serves as Treasurer.
Hazem H. Kawasmi is a social and political activist. An expert on development issues, he moderates the Jerusalem-centric social media group “Jerusalem Electronic Forum” (al-Muntada al-Maqdisi al-Iliktruni). He is a founding and board member of the Palestinian Ecotourism Association; member of the Palestinian chapter of Pugwash (international NGO for disarming of nuclear weapons); founder and first president of the National Campaign for the Freedom of Movement of Palestinians (Karama); and board member of the following organizations: Arab Observatory for Elections Democracy (al-Marsad); the Arab Studies Society; and Qudsuna (Our Jerusalem [Waqfiyat al-Quds]).
Nivine Sandouka is an expert in the field of program development, management, peacebuilding, and gender issues. She is a board member of Hoqoqona (Our Rights), a Jerusalem-based NGO that focuses on civil and political rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, especially women. She also runs a grassroots initiative called “Judi, from Me to You,” which aims to bring women together.
Samer Sinjlawi is a Palestinian activist and the founding chairman of the Jerusalem Development Fund, a public corporation aiming to facilitate the development of Jerusalem by encouraging and sponsoring megaprojects in the city, such as housing projects, hotels, commercial centers, and educational institutions. He is also the chairman and major shareholder of Group Alfasit, a regional energy investment group.
The Roundtable was moderated by Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist and media activist from Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: Bassim Khoury, you were a minister, and you own pharmaceutical factories in Palestine and Malta. During your time in Salam Fayyad’s government, what were the limits and obstacles related to the Oslo Accords that impeded your ability to work in Jerusalem?
Bassim Khoury: When the Oslo Accords were signed, those who negotiated were from outside Palestine, thus they were not fully aware of the conditions on the ground inside Palestine, and therefore many matters were neglected.
Unfortunately, the Oslo Accords neglected Jerusalem as Jerusalem. Borders and refugees were issues postponed to the final status negotiations [which never materialized—Ed.]. However, in some civilian matters affecting Jerusalemites, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) continued to play a role. For example, Jerusalemites’ right to vote in Palestinian elections was covered in a special agreement [under Oslo]. Additionally, the PNA maintaining responsibilities on issues like education or health, particularly through the Jerusalem hospitals, was initially accepted by Israel. However, little by little, even those modest authorities were withdrawn.
Before Oslo, I was in the technical committees advising the Palestinian negotiating team to the Madrid and Washington peace negotiations. All our meetings were in Jerusalem. Indeed, Jerusalem was the center of Palestinian action in all aspects, politically and socially. Thus we were surprised that we did not find Jerusalem’s central role in Palestinians’ life reflected in Oslo! Jerusalem’s position and status as Palestine’s center and the core of the conflict simply retreated and took a backstage. With Oslo, the Gaza-Jericho agreement was signed. Thus unfortunately, the focus was shifted to Gaza, which initially became the center and then, to a lesser extent, to Jericho. It was only way later that little by little, the rest of the West Bank [outside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem] became the center and Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] moved his base to Ramallah, making it the de facto center.
The first people/regions that paid the price of the Oslo Accords were the city of Jerusalem and the Jerusalemites. Jerusalem was technically transformed and lost its status as the center where things happen.
We used to have all our activities in Jerusalem, and all the meetings covering all topics, such as the economy, industry, commerce, transportation, education, and health were held here. Basically, all aspects of the lives of the Palestinians were centered in Jerusalem. Sadly, I remember the words of the late Faisal Husseini, who said: “The Orient House and other buildings in East Jerusalem should remain Palestinian, and I hope one day they would act as the seat of the Palestinian government and centers for the Palestinian sovereign state. I hope that the Orient House will never be at the most just an embassy for Palestine in Jerusalem.” It is as if he saw into the future! And predicted our sad current reality. [In fact, a mere two months after Husseini died unexpectedly in May 2001, the Orient House was forcibly locked up by Israel, a closure that has been repeatedly renewed ever since.—Ed.]
Basically, the PNA should have never neglected Jerusalem, or minimized its work in Jerusalem. On the contrary, I believe that despite the limitations imposed by Israel, work can be done in Jerusalem. Later we can touch on things that the PNA can do in Jerusalem, some practical ideas that can be implemented even if officially we cannot as an authority work in Jerusalem [under Israeli law—Ed.].
Daoud Kuttab: How do you see the limits set by Oslo regarding Jerusalem? Hazem H. Kawasmi, I would like to direct this question to you, because you are a person who works in community development, the issue of municipalities, and all these matters. On the ground in Jerusalem, how did you see the Oslo Accords as an axis? We talk about the positives and negatives, so there are positives.
Hazem H. Kawasmi: I mean, those who severed Jerusalem from the Oslo Accords ensured that the issue of Jerusalem was no longer the center of attention. The physical situation on the ground remained as it was, with East Jerusalem in its place, West Jerusalem in its place, but East Jerusalem was gradually isolated from its lungs in the West Bank and Gaza—politically, socially, and economically. In the beginning, Oslo was a general agreement; no one knew exactly what would happen on the ground or its dangerous consequences on East Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: In the past, civil society activity under occupation was an alternative to the state. Where, Nivine Sandouka, do you see that the Oslo Accords linked, disrupted, or affected civil society in Jerusalem?
Nivine Sandouka: First, as you suggested, before the Oslo Accords, civil society in East Jerusalem was playing an exceptionally significant role. Unfortunately, we are seeing civil society and civil society organizations thinking about Jerusalem and not getting enough support, as the scope of their work is extremely limited, meaning we cannot talk about civil society organizations. After Oslo, the work that civil society did in Jerusalem almost diminished. They are not allowed to work in the fields of economy or political empowerment.
Regarding any political representation—training of youth leaders, election processes, or any democratic process—because all of this is simply against the policies and interests of the occupying power, so we see that the activities of those civil societies that remained are somewhat limited to cultural work, or perhaps staging a play here and there.
We also do not want to forget the civil society institutions whose role is linked to women’s rights. Most of these institutions moved to Ramallah and elsewhere in the rest of the West Bank. As women in Jerusalem, to whom do we go when we have problems, such as violence against women and other social problems? We are forced to separate ourselves from Palestinian civil society, from the services provided by Palestinian civil society, and go to the Israeli authorities in certain cases, or Israeli social security, or the Jerusalem municipality. Unfortunately, we are in this place between the rock and the anvil, and we do not know exactly where to turn.
Daoud Kuttab: Is it only the financial aspect—which Oslo suspended because the PNA cannot funnel financial support to Jerusalem organizations—or other aspects?
Nivine Sandouka: Not just the financial aspect. First, under Israeli law, Palestinian civil society institutions in Jerusalem cannot receive any financial support from the PNA—even at the level of a soccer game. I mean, youngsters in Jerusalem are deprived of playing soccer, because these competitions may be financially supported.
The Palestinian economy has also been hit. We are talking about the rights of individuals: women, children, or even youth—about all matters. The economy has been hit because there is no such civil society that activates the commercial movement in Jerusalem. These things, unfortunately, appeared after the Oslo Accords.
Daoud Kuttab: Samer Sinjlawi, you are also an activist in civil society issues, and you run a support fund. We all blame Oslo, but Oslo stopped financial support from the PNA that did not exist before the Oslo Agreement. Before Oslo, there was no money, there was no authority, but we had civil society—so how after Oslo did we stop knowing how to work?
Samer Sinjlawi: I would like to begin by addressing the reasons that prompted Israel to impose the postponement of Jerusalem to the final-status stage, in addition to the refugees and other issues. I want to go to extremes with speculating the reasons that prompted the PNA to accept this postponement. Israel asked to postpone the issue of Jerusalem due to its lack of readiness for Oslo. It was a clear Israeli strategic postponement. Merely postponing the issue of Jerusalem did not stop the Judaization of Jerusalem. It did not stop its hostile dealings with Jerusalem. These intentions were clear as soon as they asked to postpone the issue of Jerusalem. If the intentions were clear with other issues, why would the PNA accept the postponement of the issue of Jerusalem? Because it was not the PNA’s priority. The priorities of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in 1992 and 1993 were more focused on returning to the international arena after the rug was pulled from under it. The keys fell to the hands of Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, and Haider Abd al-Shafi. All the talk became about what was happening in Madrid and Washington, and the PLO was left without financial resources and without any political keys; hence, the priorities of the PLO leadership. Therefore, it was clear that the PLO could accept the removal of Jerusalem from the deal, which was proposed at the time without any guarantees.
Samer Sinjalawi: Jerusalem was not their priority at all. On the contrary, there was always a feeling of threat from Jerusalem—any personality who can emerge in Jerusalem, any institution that can emerge in Jerusalem. Whoever leads Jerusalem leads the nation. Perhaps this thing exists with us. It exists with the Israelis. Any prominent leadership that emerges in Jerusalem may disturb those in Ramallah. Or in Tunisia previously.
We can all remember the tense atmosphere that existed in the leadership meetings towards Faisal al-Husseini when he visited Saudi Arabia, when he took some financial promises, and when he acted. If possible, these backgrounds helped in starting the Oslo process without Jerusalem and contributed over time to the fall of Jerusalem. So it was not the peace process that dropped Jerusalem from the agenda of the Palestinian leadership.
I want to ask now, how can I, as a decision-maker in Ramallah, justify that I do not want to help the educational sector in Jerusalem under the pretext that I cannot enter [the city], and Israel prevents me from providing any financial solutions to the education sector in Jerusalem? Ok, now I, as a Palestinian national authority, pay the salaries of about 1,500 full-time employees in the security services, meaning within the boundaries of Jerusalem, in the Old City, in all the neighborhoods—to the security services. Well then, why do I not pay the salaries of 5,000 teachers in private schools, which could relieve these private schools of the burden of their commitment and affiliation with the [Israeli education] ministry? You pay salaries. You let the school pay a partial payment, meaning NIS 2,000 shekels, and you pay NIS 5,000—6,000 shekels . . .
I would like to make my contribution to this Roundtable not only dealing with Israeli policy before Oslo, during Oslo, and after Oslo, with the issue of Jerusalem, but how we, as Palestinians, at multiple levels, have dealt with the issue of Jerusalem. I say that part of the fragmentation of Jerusalem is on our shoulders, and the damage in terms of results is no less influential than that caused by Israeli strategic policy. The Palestinian negligence is no less harmful than Israeli aggression regarding the issue of Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: My next question is about Kufr ‘Aqab. Perhaps the most important example of the last 30 years after Oslo in Jerusalem is what is happening in areas like Kufr ‘Aqab behind the Separation Wall. I would like to talk about how much the Oslo Accords, or their neglect, affected Jerusalem in different regions and sectors other than education. We still have not talked about housing and other matters, and Kufr ‘Aqab, for example. Is this a result of Oslo or not?
Bassim Khoury: Starting from the year 2000, Israel divided Jerusalem into two main parts. The “core” part consisting of the Old City and the surrounding neighborhoods; these areas are inside the new Separation Wall, where Israel is fervently implementing its Judaization policies with billions earmarked for this. Basically, one cannot do or build anything without the municipality’s consent. While the areas that are historically within the borders of the municipality of Jerusalem but outside the wall are areas of disorder, mayhem, and chaos, to use polite words. Today, we are talking about Kufr ‘Aqab, and I call it the Kufr “‘Ajab” or “wonder land” refugee camp, a place that never stops amazing me in a negative fashion! What is happening there is simply amazing. People have their lands and properties stolen by thugs, with Israel—which is theoretically in control—doing nothing. Would-be “developers” are building dozens of 20-floor buildings on lands that is not theirs, and of course, without any regard for building codes or public safety! This is happening especially if the landowners are not in Palestine. Huge projects without municipal building permits—nothing. The Jerusalem municipality, to no one’s surprise, allows the registration for the purpose of collecting “arnona” or municipal tax on those unsafe and unlicensed buildings/slums, thus collecting hundreds of millions in municipal taxes.
Basically, as finding affordable housing in the “core” of Jerusalem—areas inside the wall—is becoming increasingly impossible, hundreds of thousands of Jerusalemites are forced to reside in those areas that are outside the wall but inside the municipal boundaries, rendering them literally slums. According to some estimates, around 150,000 Jerusalemites currently reside in this area. Kufr ‘Aqab is also important because it is adjacent to Ramallah and one can access it from other areas in the West Bank without an entry permit from the Israeli COGAT (required for Palestinians with PNA IDs to enter Jerusalem). Therefore, many families in which one spouse is a Jerusalemite and has an Israeli permanent-resident (blue) ID, and the other lives outside the city with a PNA (green) ID, see it as the only refuge where families can live together without the need for constant permits. Kufr ‘Aqab simply is a “no-man’s-land”! An area of complete lawlessness! Firing of firearms is a daily occasion. When I was coming here just now, I received pictures of attacks, fights, and four or five burned cars.
Bassim Khoury: Yes, we need action there—however, what is more urgently needed is action to combat the Judaization of the “core” of Jerusalem. I have a practical proposal that will combat this. This proposal does not need political intervention, and Israel can prevent it. It could be very effective; however, it needs money.
One of the critical issues facing Jerusalemites is the push toward integration into Israel, particularly in education. Israel is pushing its curriculum on our schools in Jerusalem. With time, this will lead to complete de facto Judaization.
A few months back, I was invited to an engagement party. All the young people there either were studying or intending to study in Israeli universities, while their fathers and mothers were graduates of Palestinian or Jordanian universities. The new generation today is, unfortunately, heading there. Many private and other schools in Jerusalem implement the Israeli curriculum, thus directing students away from Palestinian education and toward Israeli higher education establishments. To help combat this I have a proposal.
Daoud Kuttab: There is no doubt that there is a decline in the status of women, except for the ability of Muslim women to defend Jerusalem. They are the Murabitat. Nivine, can you tell us about the impact of the 30 years of Oslo on the status of Palestinian women in Jerusalem?
Nivine Sandouka: If you would allow me a little clarification about what Bassim was just saying, with the new policy of the extreme right-wing Israeli government, Palestinian students from East Jerusalem will no longer receive educational scholarships to study in universities. Educational opportunities will be greatly reduced with this policy of the new extreme right-wing government.
Regarding the status of women, Palestinian women in Jerusalem were a force, especially in the Orient House. From the Orient House, they moved to various political activities, such as leaflet-writing and demonstrations. I was not there. I was young, but I heard older women talking about their experiences, such as the First Intifada, before Oslo—how women had roles that were equally as important as those of men in resisting the occupation.
Unfortunately, after Oslo, as per my personal point of view—and I may be mistaken—there arose a clear political absence of political leaders in the city of Jerusalem. This absence left room for a specific religious movement. Of course, there was an increase in religious movements in general in the Arab world, but I think Palestine, especially Jerusalem, has increased a lot to the point that I mention one of my relatives telling a story after Oslo: People used to leave their homes wearing very normal clothes, not covering their heads, but when they reached Damascus Gate or the Old City, they were attacked because they were uncovered and must be veiled.
After Oslo, a religious movement appeared in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself also changed. Not only because of the fight for al-Aqsa, it became a matter of religious control over us—what we are talking about has become control over society. This greatly weakened the role of women. Secondly, the barriers that have appeared in the city of Jerusalem and the Separation Wall made it difficult to reach work, difficult to reach university. This also greatly impacted the role of women in Jerusalem.
I mean, let us talk about education for women. Less than 40 percent of women are educated above the high school level in East Jerusalem. Working women who earn an income are only 11 percent. This statistic is from the Ma’an Center. In Jerusalem specifically, as a woman, you are in a position where you want to protect your daughter or son from the occupation.
At the same time, you want to ensure that you have a house living under a roof in East Jerusalem. You want to maintain the Jerusalemite identity card that you hold. On top of that, you do not have an education and you have many social problems. Whom do you go to?
And we have 70 percent poverty rates. The priorities of Jerusalemite women are not those that existed before. Their priorities have now changed. Protecting children has become the priority, to ensure a safe environment for children. We are now more compelled to take on roles that are more reactive than proactive. Unfortunately, the role of women has certainly been marginalized in Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: Which sectors have been most affected by Oslo in Jerusalem—housing, health care, education, tourism, community development?
Hazem H. Kawasmi: The biggest problem for Jerusalemites, and this is discussed daily across all social media groups, is how do we strengthen the steadfastness of Jerusalemite youth in Jerusalem? How do we stop them from emigrating from Jerusalem because, as everybody knows, the price of a flat in East Jerusalem is half a million dollars, and for this reason a large emigration has occurred of 100,000 to 200,000 Jerusalemites. Housing is the biggest real problem, because if the young people leave Jerusalem, then as we say, we are handing Jerusalem on a silver platter to the Israelis. Additionally, the youth also need decent jobs and satisfying salaries, and that is why young Jerusalemites are heading to study in Israeli institutes and Israeli universities, since they will be better prepared for the Israeli markets and high-paying jobs.
The steadfastness of the Jerusalemites and their staying in Jerusalem requires high-paying jobs and affordable housing. Studying in Palestinian universities will not prepare Jerusalem youth for high-paying jobs in Jerusalem and the Israeli market, and will only get them low salaries in the West Bank thus contributing to their emigration from Jerusalem.
Let’s discuss the other sectors in East Jerusalem, starting with education. It is true that Israel is trying to control and Judaize the Palestinian minds and is striking at the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinian personality, and the Palestinian identity. However, if we look at the long-proven experience of Palestinians from the 1948 areas who studied in Israeli schools and universities, they did not become Jews, and they did not lose their Palestinian identity.
Additionally, our Jerusalem students who study in the Hebrew University in the recent period have become more nationalistic than the ones who study in Palestinian universities, especially since they have the freedom to be active politically inside the Hebrew University. In a recent speech, [Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich mentioned that he wants to stop funding scholarships for Palestinians, as mentioned by Nivine, to the Hebrew University for the first year, because he claimed that the Palestinian youth from Jerusalem who are studying in the Hebrew University were the front of extremism.
As for the health sector and the Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, it is true that historically those hospitals are important to Jerusalem since they provide health services for our brothers and sisters from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But frankly, for decades, we Jerusalemites have been treated mostly in Israeli hospitals like Hadassah and Shaare Zedek. Thus, it is not an existential problem for Jerusalemites, as is the problem of housing or the problem of work for Palestinian youth, which is our priority. I am not underestimating the importance of health and education, but the most urgent priority is providing affordable housing and jobs for the youth to keep them in the city. It is very important that this priority is given serious attention from the minister of Jerusalem, the governor, and all relevant PNA institutions since this will need tens of millions of dollars and coordination among all key stakeholders.
Daoud Kuttab: Samer—do you agree that housing is the number one problem? For 30 years, we have not developed industries other than trade.
Samer Sinjlawi: Of course, the housing sector is one of the affected sectors. Tourism income plays a key role. Not only do we fail to provide solutions to the Jerusalemites—I mean, as a community in Jerusalem, as a local leadership in Jerusalem, the leadership of the national authority, in Ramallah as a whole, share in a complete collective failure to provide anything useful in presenting an applicable strategy in Jerusalem. Absence of the strategy means absence. Palestinian action at a time when Israeli action is escalating. The Israelis are walking on a one-way train forcefully without stopping. On the other hand, we construct theories about what is happening in Jerusalem, but we do not decide related to action in Jerusalem. The only thing that I see is applicable currently, of course, is part of Jerusalem’s problems in the recent period. Once the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was suspended [in 2007—Ed.], the last link of communication between Jerusalemites and the PNA was lost.
We [Jerusalem] had at least seven or eight representatives in the PLC who were able to present Jerusalem in budget discussions and who were able to be a link between the Palestinian Jerusalemites and the various administrations in Ramallah, because now all aspects of the capitol have withdrawn from Jerusalem toward Ramallah, and thus the Jerusalemite does not have any kind of connection. We are content with just watching and theoretically reviewing what is happening in Jerusalem.
Whether directly with the PNA, or indirectly, Jerusalem needs to benefit from their rights in the public budget. And if this benefit is translated into achieving achievements in sensitive plots, it means that not only did we not build, nor did the PNA or the Arab countries manage to build, nor even the Palestinian community was able to build a large, huge housing project. This means that all housing initiatives are individual. If someone has a piece of land, he can build. How many apartments do they have to pay, or sell them for their rent, etc.? These budgets can solve the housing project. These budgets can solve the issue of tourism. From 1967 until now, only one Palestinian hotel has been built in East Jerusalem, which is the hotel owned by the Nusseibeh family. Unfortunately, all the projects that received licenses in the hotel sectors did not find funding, although, for example, the Palestinian Investment Fund, which has huge financial resources, has part of these lands that have licenses. One of the important projects that could have created about 400 hotel rooms in Jerusalem is the Rashid Hotel project.
A landowner in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood from the Totah family was forced to use his prime land as a parking lot after waiting 30 years without being able to get a permit to build a 400-rooom five-star hotel on it, but he could not. This shows you the extent of the Palestinian weakness.
Is this issue in Jerusalem based on a lack of intention or a lack of possibility? No. The potential exists, but there is no intention. There is no decision. There is no will. Jerusalem is absent from the agenda of the Palestinian decision-maker, in all forms. Even some institutions that have been devoted to the issue of Jerusalem, such as the Ministry of Jerusalem or the Jerusalem Governorate, do not fail to work in a limited and marginal way. What is required is that we as Jerusalemites can raise the pace of our thinking, raise the pace of our ideas, and try to ask why the balance of power is consumed.
Why does the PNA’s security services consume 35 percent of the general PNA budget, while Jerusalem cannot get its right to 8 percent of this budget? This is the beginning. Without me relying on any hopes on the Arab-Islamic effort on the issue of Jerusalem because the Arabs may follow in succession if they see something positive happening or changing. People are always looking for positive success stories. People do not want to hear someone cry. But if you go to them with a success story, they will automatically turn to you. If we are able, during the next five years, we will allocate these funds from the PNA’s budget and create great successes in the fields of housing, tourism, and high-tech (advanced technology). And education. If I were one of the decision-makers to allocate a budget for scholarships for Palestinians to enter the Hebrew University, because this achieves a form of their involvement in the only labor market open to them and maintains their steadfastness, I would create these scholarships.
Bassim Khoury: I disagree with you here, my friend Samer.
Samer Sinjlawi: Dr. Bassim Khoury, I visited the Hebrew University about two or three times in the last month and tried to communicate with the Palestinian students there. We cannot say that it is not important that the Jerusalemite student master the Hebrew language. The Hebrew language has become very essential in the practical life of the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem; the Hebrew University has given our students, at the present time, an outlet from political action that is not available anywhere else. Today, a Palestinian student can go to the Hebrew University, raise the Palestinian flag, demonstrate in the Hebrew University, and express his opinion outside its walls.
Bassim Khoury: But the issue, Samer, is much bigger and much more dangerous than that. What is happening to Palestinians in Jerusalem, basically, is that the entire society, not just the educational process—all aspects of life are being Judaized. Unfortunately, today, when walking along main Jerusalem streets one often hears and sees young people playing Hebrew songs loudly.
Samer Sinjlawi: Do you know who these are? This doctor, who did not go to the Hebrew University, did not go to school because of his cultural weakness.
Bassim Khoury: No, Samer, I have a fundamental problem with accepting the implementation of the Israeli curriculum for our students in Jerusalem and attending Israeli universities. If the goal is for our youth to find decent jobs in Israel, I can give concreate examples of how doctors who graduated from Al-Quds University or from An-Najah University have passed the Israeli bar exams with honors, have learned the Hebrew language, and are finding many good positions in Israeli hospitals. They achieve this because there is a shortage of doctors inside Israel. Basically, I believe if we want our youth to find jobs worthy of them within Israeli society, the key is not only going to the Hebrew University.
The fundamental challenge is how to return Jerusalem and Jerusalemites to their Arab and Islamic depth! How to remerge Jerusalem with the West Bank! How to combat the effects of separation imposed on Jerusalem through Israel’s Separation Wall. We must constantly search for ways to allow us to break this wall of separation within the Palestinian community. That is—if we want Jerusalem to be Palestinian; if we want Jerusalem to be Arab.
Daoud Kuttab: How?
Bassim Khoury: I have a practical proposal regarding education, which I believe can help in this direction. A practical step that can breach this Israeli-imposed wall around the “core” of Jerusalem, which was built to merge East Jerusalem with Israel away from its depth in the West Bank, away from its Arab and Islamic depth. I believe that the PNA or the parties concerned with Palestinian students should give scholarships to Jerusalemite students in Palestinian universities.
As university education is costly, if parents are guaranteed that their children will learn for free at the university, they will keep them away from the Israeli curriculum. Thus, during their formative years, ties with their Arab and Muslim depth will be fostered, instead of full integration into Israeli society. If we fail to reintegrate our youth by returning them to education in Palestinian universities, interacting and mixing with their peers in the West Bank, we will have a bleak future. Many Jerusalemites, particularly students, today do not know those who live in the West Bank! They do not mix with them. After all, although we both live under occupation, we are following two separate tracks. It is not permissible for us to allow this wall to continue separating us.
Daoud Kuttab: We need practical solutions.
Bassim Khoury: The practical solution is to assure the people of Jerusalem that their children will receive scholarships that will enable them to study in Palestinian universities without paying any fees. If we achieve this, a very large percentage of Jerusalemites will be encouraged to have their children in schools that teach the Palestinian curriculum instead of the Israeli curriculum. If parents are guaranteed that university education is free up to bachelor’s degrees, there will be a demand for education in Palestinian universities such as Bethlehem University, Birzeit, or the Arab American University. I think this is a key to fighting the Israelization of education in Jerusalem.
Nivine Sandouka: It is not a boycott, but it is just statistics regarding Jerusalem. The percentage of school dropouts is 35 percent. From East Jerusalem, 35 percent of our children dropped out of school and are going to work in West Jerusalem, not Israel, with the minimum salaries.
When we talk about university education, there is something that still comes before university education. The national police must take it into consideration. Where are these students? And now we are also returning to the problem that Hazem mentioned. Where is the housing? Where are the places we have so that we can accommodate them? It is a wonderful idea to have scholarships in Palestinian universities, but before that there is the problem of the 35 percent. Let us find schools for them and let them find housing. Thank you.
Bassim Khoury: I agree with you, but I commented on the Hebrew University issue . . .
Daoud Kuttab: This is the most important thing. Hazem said that the housing problem is a big problem. What is the solution?
Bassim Khoury: I would like if we could find a solution to the housing issue in Jerusalem. The person that finds the solution will be seen as a hero.
Daoud Kuttab: What about voting in the Jerusalem municipal elections?
Bassim Khoury: But how will voting solve the housing issue?
Daoud Kuttab: Because who creates a zoning plan—not the municipality?
Bassim Khoury: This Roundtable is not the place where we will address such a difficult issue. An invitation must be made to a dedicated session attended by specialists. Personalities who have worked and continue to work in the field of housing in Jerusalem should be invited. Only a specialist in this field can determine what is possible to do to facilitate construction in Jerusalem.
Building in Jerusalem is very expensive. We are talking about astronomical figures, which were submitted for a building permit in Jerusalem nine years ago, and after paying about NIS 1 million shekels, we obtained permits for four units on four floors. We found out a year ago that the municipality had increased the percentage of construction, so we applied for a second permit for two additional floors, and I expect to wait at least two more years to obtain the new license and I expect that the cost will be NIS 1 million additional shekels. Most Jerusalemites cannot afford such sums. In addition, much of the land in Jerusalem has problems with ownership deeds, which constitutes an additional obstacle to construction in Jerusalem. The issue of housing in Jerusalem is very important, but it cannot be addressed adequately here.
Simply put, the main problem we face is that only a few officials are interested in Jerusalem issues and remember Jerusalem! Therefore, I find it my duty to thank you, Daoud and Jerusalem Story, for organizing today’s meeting dedicated to Jerusalem, as for years the focus has not been on Jerusalem and its issues, while the gap between Jerusalem and Ramallah is widening. As a Jerusalemite living in Kufr ‘Aqab, near Ramallah, and working in Ramallah, I have roots in Jerusalem and extensions in the West Bank. The main problem is that Jerusalem is absent from the Palestinian radar, and this includes all aspects!
While the generation of their parents knows Jerusalem and remembers different aspects of life in Jerusalem, most of the Palestinian youth who live in the West Bank do not know Jerusalem, and the majority of them have not visited it, and the few who enter Jerusalem are limited to visiting religious places such as al-Aqsa Mosque, performing prayers, and returning home to the West Bank. I encourage these visits and these prayers in Jerusalem, but I would love it if they were for longer periods so that all Palestinians can learn about the history, civilization, and present conditions of Jerusalem.
Because Jerusalem is our eternal capital and the center of the Palestinian being, we must press for Jerusalem and its issues to return to the center stage. Since the death of the late Faisal al-Husseini, I feel that Jerusalem has been orphaned, and there is a complete absence of leadership in Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: What is stopping the rise of new leadership?
Bassim Khoury: The first step should be to gather patriots and those who care about Jerusalem. Hazem thankfully initiated the establishment of a specialized WhatsApp group on Jerusalem, and he was the first to accomplish this. At least now we exchange information and discuss matters related to Jerusalem; at least we can vent! But this is not enough, especially since time is running out and Israel is pushing vigorously their plans to Judaize and annex the city; they want to make Israeli both the city and the Palestinian people here in Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: Hazem, we want to focus on what is required. How do we restore our administrative and financial rights?
Hazem H. Kawasmi: Jerusalemites feel that they became like orphans, but at least 10 or 15 years ago, they began to depend on themselves and started defending their interests and taking initiatives in the economic sector, health, education, taxation, and other areas. There is no leadership on the ground in East Jerusalem that can work publicly and transparently according to Israeli laws and that is helping Jerusalemites in their daily lives and strengthening their resilience. Of course, there are many [PNA] leaders, like the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and the governor, but [according to Israeli law,] they cannot work inside the city of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem can work in the villages of Jerusalem around the city but not inside the city boundaries.
Jerusalem youth need somebody to help them in finding jobs and affordable housing inside the city of Jerusalem. They do not need a crippled leadership who themselves and their institutions need help. Jerusalem youth are trying everything possible in order not to leave the city that they were born in and that they love. However, for economic reasons, they are sometimes obliged to leave because they cannot afford it.
Secondly, what we want today is a practical way, a group, an institution, or a mechanism that can work with what is available inside the city of Jerusalem and can achieve concrete results on the ground. Jerusalemites should not be left to struggle alone against the occupation measures and racist procedures. Frankly, many of the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah have been cut off from the city of Jerusalem and do not interact with the people of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has changed in the last 15 years. The social fabric, economic situation, and infrastructure have completely changed.
We always say that if you do not know how to adapt, you will be forced to leave. Some young people were not able to acclimate and were therefore forced out, while some were able to adapt to the Israeli laws, and stay in the city. I disagree with my dear friend Bassim about the issue of education.
Jerusalem youth in the past years moved to study in Israeli universities because they saw that if they learned in Palestinian universities they will not have good chances to work in East Jerusalem or in the Israeli market and institutions. While I agree with Bassim that those who study medicine in Palestinian universities can find jobs in the Israeli health sector, this does not apply to all other fields of study. Many of my relatives who studied business, law, engineering, or any other field faced many difficulties, and took five or six years to do additional education and Israeli certification and study Hebrew from scratch in order to be able to find work in Jerusalem.
Daoud Kuttab: Nivine, would you like to talk about a mechanism for unifying civil society to give civil society a greater role? What can we do to have more leaders?
Nivine Sandouka: There is a shortage of leaders in general, especially youth and women. As was said before, we have no interest in participating in the public sphere. Anyway, what can we do? We started a little to raise the topic, but we did not discuss it in a more in-depth way, and this is an opportunity to delve deeper into it. Political representation of Jerusalem would increase the Jerusalemites’ authority and visibility and voice.
Who can talk about these matters? I mean, in many directions, including the revival of amanat al-Quds and the option to participate in the municipal elections. Is it possible for the PNA to take a greater role? This topic is extremely broad, but it solves many of the issues we discussed: housing, education, the Palestinian voice, and protection from home demolition. It is one of the mechanisms that we must study in more depth as Palestinian Jerusalemites.
Daoud Kuttab: Thank you. Samer, what do you think?
Samer Sinjlawi: In my opinion, it is possible to start with preliminary steps. The currently open table on participation and nonparticipation in the Jerusalem municipal elections is a kind of collective search for a means of positive influence on the lives of Palestinians in Jerusalem or a change in strategy, but I say that it is possible, for example, to start with a simple step if we want to talk about the steps.
We are able to include a larger group of our friends if we gather 50 people in Jerusalem for various activities and decide to form an official registered body that is the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Jerusalem Development Council, any name that takes legal space in Jerusalem, if some serious names emerge, some open minds, some people who can give of their time. It is possible that even the existing group here can allocate an hour every four to five days for a meeting or seminar or something related to the issue of Jerusalem, but it is impossible to find a group of five to eight sincere people who constantly dream of the case of Jerusalem, who wake up at six o’clock in the morning immediately working on Jerusalem’s agenda. If a body is formed, if leadership emerges, one of the forms of leadership emerges, the secretion of leadership is municipal elections, for example.
But this issue is controversial. I do not think that Jerusalemites can take serious steps at this stage, perhaps at a later stage, but if we create a symbolic leadership that starts with 50 or 150 people meeting and electing a board of directors of 7 or 9 people who choose a specific name and register it officially as a nonprofit company or as an association. This group then embarks on serious work that can prove that it can present theoretical ideas and then map out the existing financial capabilities that could contribute to implementing the ideas. With housing, we can achieve many things. With tourism, we can achieve many things with grants, even if there is controversy.
In response to Bassim’s words, I am against entering [Israeli] schools, but for the entry of our students into the better universities.
The Israeli universities are better than our universities. I am a graduate of Birzeit, but I can encourage my son to study in one of the Israeli schools and not in one of the Palestinian schools, not from a national standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, because you are ultimately determining what his life will look like for the next 50 years for him and his children by this decision. Firstly, he will be tormented every day as he drives through to the checkpoints, and secondly, when he takes his degree, he will find himself in a situation where he will not find opportunities and doors will not be as open to him as he wishes.
Daoud Kuttab: Thirty years after the Oslo Accords, have we become more aware?
Samer Sinjlawi: National affiliation to Jerusalem has transformed from a symbolic, emotional national affiliation to an effective, practical affiliation. This is something that is more useful for the Jerusalemite if he continues to deal romantically with the issue of Jerusalem at the same time as the Israelis deal with the issue of Jerusalem at the top of the process. Jerusalemites take refuge in jokes and social relationships, and we stay away from involvement in matters that could have a direct role in consolidating our presence in Jerusalem. We must get rid of this romanticism and sentimentality, poetic, moral, and constructive, which has no value, and engage in practical matters; including challenging old, inherited patterns of thinking. No business strategy in any country, nation, or city would remain static for 57 years.
The Israelis impose a new reality every year that you can see and touch. Our strategy has been static for 57 years. This means that we have fallen into part of the Israeli strategy. Our silence, our lack of innovation, our lack of change, and our lack of renewal is in service to the Israeli strategy. Israel hopes that the Palestinian Jerusalemite will remain in this situation. He is emotionally within a big slogan linked to decisions that are made abroad but does not interact on the ground in a way that could actually affect the Israeli strategy. Palestinian negativity serves Israeli positivity in Jerusalem, and this equation must change. We start by switching passive to active, and it may be small initiatives, the first of which is to gather 150 people somewhere. Let them elect a body under a certain framework, register it, and start working. But they bring together a group of seven to nine people who are able to prove to the people and to the world that this is a body that represents Jerusalem and will work for the sake of Jerusalem, because we include all the initiatives that took place in Jerusalem, including initiatives that recently opened financial doors to it. But the people who were in charge of it let down the people of Jerusalem and let down the people who could have done great things for Jerusalem. A large part of our problem is that many people who interacted with the world abroad brought some financial resources to Jerusalem, but they misused them in a way that nullifies any trust between the people of Jerusalem and the outside world.
We can start with this step.
Daoud Kuttab: Thank you very much, everyone.