Ruhi al-Khatib (b. June 7, 1913, in Jerusalem) was the mayor of al-Quds (Arab East Jerusalem) for a decade, from his appointment in 1957 under Jordan until 1994, despite Israel’s abrupt dismissal of the Arab municipality on June 29, 1967. But his contributions to the growth and development of the city of his birth went far beyond that.
Al-Khatib studied at al-Rashidiyya School for Boys in East Jerusalem, near Bab al-Sahira (Herod’s Gate) and the English College in Jerusalem (1928–32). Later, he completed his higher education at Oxford and Cambridge universities, graduating from Oxford in 1929.
After graduating, al-Khatib returned to Jerusalem and became a teacher at Dar al-Aytam Islamic orphanage in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1931. Over the coming years, he served in many public capacities: He was appointed in the Immigration and Travel Department of the British Mandate authorities. In 1943, he moved to the Labor Affairs Department. In 1946, he resigned and was appointed director of the Arab office (diwan) in Jerusalem. He remained in that post until 1948, when he became director of the Travel Permit Office in Jerusalem until April 1949; and then moved on to work in the fields of economy and architectural renovation in Jerusalem.
Involvement in the Palestinian National Movement
In the mid-1960s, Ahmad al-Shuqayri chose al-Khatib to serve on the preparatory committee for selecting members of the newly emerging Palestinian National Council (PNC). As Jerusalem mayor, he was a witness to and participant in the birth of the PNC in May–June 1964, when it held its first conference in the Holy City. At that conference, the PLO was formed, and al-Shuqayri was elected as its first chairman.
After the Nakba (Catastrophe), al-Khatib worked tirelessly to rebuild the city’s infrastructure. Many years later, he recounted,
When the city was first divided in the 1948 war, Israel wound up with the water works, the electric generating plant, the city treasury, and the municipal services. We had to start from the beginning from nothing.1
Together with 59 other Jerusalemites, he worked to reestablish the Jerusalem District Electric Company (JDECO) in 1956 and served as its director (1956–68). He was also director of the Jerusalem Construction Company and had an active role in various cooperatives.
Al-Khatib also supported other projects that helped strengthen the Arab community in the city, including founding both the Arab Hotels Company in 1949 (as whose elected director general he served until 1968) and the Az-Zahra Hotel in Jerusalem, which was the first Arab hotel established in East Jerusalem after the Nakba. As director of the Arab Hotels Company, he encouraged investment in the hotel industry, leading to the establishment of some 70 hotels in Jerusalem at one point. He served as director of the Ambassador Hotel from its establishment in 1949 until his deportation in 1968. He was also a member of the Arab Chamber of Commerce.
Interestingly, al-Khatib had a pivotal role in establishing Cinema al-Quds, which opened in 1950 with an 800-seat capacity on al-Zahra Street. He encouraged several businesspeople and traders to invest in it.2
Municipal Roles and Election
In 1951, al-Khatib was elected to the Jerusalem Municipal Council. He was reelected to every subsequent council (i.e., 1955, 1959, 1963) until Israel deposed him in 1968. On January 19, 1957, he was appointed mayor of Jerusalem by Jordan (under Jordanian law, the mayor is appointed from among the elected council members by the civil governor of the Jerusalem district, the muhafiz, himself appointed by Jordan) and then four times more in 1959, and 1963, and twice when he resigned on no-confidence votes. The municipality was later known as the “Amana of Jerusalem” and he became known as the “Amin of Jerusalem.”
Involvement in the Establishment of Al-Quds University
In the early 1960s, al-Khatib was instrumental in advancing the foundational work on Al-Quds University construction at the request of its first Executive Committee, which had formed in Kuwait to found the university. In this capacity, he attended the laying of the first cornerstone of the university with King Hussein of Jordan and the prince of Kuwait in attendance.
During the three weeks from the day the Israelis occupied the city until they dismissed the city council of East Jerusalem, al-Khatib worked to reinstate the municipal services and restore the calm. He encouraged merchants and electricity and water services to operate normally. He even helped in dealing with sensitive issues such as the surrender of weapons held by the civilian population. His actions attracted criticism from fellow Arabs, who accused him of collaborating with Israel.
However, al-Khatib refused outright the proposal from the newly appointed Israeli military governor of Jerusalem to merge the two municipalities (Arab East Jerusalem and Israeli Jewish West Jerusalem). He also refused Teddy Kollek’s request that the municipality be allowed to appoint members to the board of directors of the JDECO and led an international effort to prevent any such appointment.
1967: Dismissal and Aftermath
On June 29, he was one of five municipal council members who responded to a summons from the Israeli military police, where they were informed verbally that the council was summarily dismissed. When al-Khatib asked for this in writing in Arabic, he was given a scribble on a napkin from the hotel where they were meeting. It read: “I have the honor to inform Mr. Rouhi al-Khatib and the members of the Jerusalem Council in Arab Jerusalem that the council is henceforth dissolved.”3
Al-Khatib did not recognize the council’s dismissal and remained in Jerusalem. Indeed, even today the elected Jerusalem municipality remains the recognized authority by some countries and international bodies. He continued to work as director of the Arab Hotels Company and the Jerusalem Electric Company. He was a member of the newly established Higher Islamic Council, which formed spontaneously on July 24, 1967, to take charge of Islamic religious affairs in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and generated an outpouring of support from around the world. He took over as head of the newly formed (since July 24) National Guidance Committee when its founder, Sheikh al-Sayeh, was deported to Jordan together with two other committee leaders on September 22, 1967.
On March 7, 1968, al-Khatib was rudely awakened. He described what happened next:
“At 3 a.m. on March 7, 1968, nine months after the occupation, my house was surrounded by armed policemen. They told me to dress and accompany them. They said I did not need a change of clothes because they were only going to interrogate me for a few hours.
They drove me direct to Jericho, and questioned me for about four hours. Then, around eight in the morning, the assistant military governor read me an order in Hebrew—in Hebrew. It was later translated to Arabic for me.
I was charged with carrying on revolutionary activities. I knew I was not, but there was no trial, no appeal, no details. I was ordered deported to Jordan.
They put me in a car and drove me under escort to King Hussein’s (Allenby) Bridge, and told me to proceed to the other side.”
Left behind in Jerusalem were his wife, his daughter Hala, then 17, and his son Amer, 8. He did not see them again for 20 months.4
His wife and two children, who learned of his expulsion from the radio, decided to stay in Jerusalem, hoping for his return. After his deportation, he continued to speak out against Israeli occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem through many Arab, Islamic, and international conferences and the Save Jerusalem Committee. This committee was established in Amman by Palestinians and Jordanians with the aim of preserving the Arab and Muslim character of Jerusalem. It was headed by Sulayman al-Nabulsi. The committee attended various regional and international events and conducted valuable studies on Jerusalem (particularly about the Judaization of the city).
For example, on May 3, 1968, al-Khatib appeared before the UN Security Council to testify in the matter of an urgent request by Jordan about Israel’s actions and intentions that were “calculated to change drastically the national and historical character of the Holy City”5 (see BOX).
Report on the Speech of Ruhi al-Khatib to the UN Security Council, May 3, 1968
As reported in the Yearbook of the United Nations, Volume 22, 1968
Between 3 and 21 May 1968, the Security Council continued its discussion of the Jordanian complaint of 25 April 1968 and held six meetings on the situation in Jerusalem.
On 3 May 1968, following a request from Jordan on 2 May that Rouhi El-Khatib, the elected Mayor of Jerusalem, be heard by the Security Council, under rule 39 51/ of its provisional rules of procedure, the President, in the name of the Council, invited Mr. El-Khatib to take a place at the Council table and address the Council.
Mr. El-Khatib charged that during the first three weeks of the occupation, the Israeli authorities had spread terror through the city, looting, mistreating anyone expressing dissatisfaction, and arbitrarily gaoling hundreds for unlimited periods in order to create fear and force people to leave. In the Magharba Quarter, a Waqf religious endowment, 135 houses had been bulldozed, causing the inhabitants to scatter. The Israeli authorities and religious bodies had also directed a campaign against the Arab inhabitants of the area adjacent to the Western Wall of the Al-Aqsa mosque, later extended to wider areas in the heart of the Moslem quarters and, to some extent, to the old Jewish quarter, 80 per cent of which was Arab property. Inhabitants had been given notice to evacuate in three days. On 27 June 1967, the Israeli authorities had issued a decree of death to the Arab status of Jerusalem by passing an act annexing Arab Jerusalem to Israel; on 29 June 1967, they had dissolved the Arab Municipal Council and dismissed the Mayor.
Since then, Mr. El-Khatib continued, the situation in Arab Jerusalem had deteriorated as the Israeli authorities executed one carefully planned measure after another, such as: the desecration of Holy Places; the imposition of Israeli civil laws and regulations and school curricula; the application of the "Law of the Properties of Absentees", authorizing confiscation of all property of so-called "absentee Arabs"; the refusal to permit Arabs to go back to their homes in Jerusalem; the expulsion of many Arab dignitaries; the building of new Jewish settlements on expropriated land belonging almost entirely to Arabs, with the purpose of separating Jerusalem Arabs from the Arab towns to the north of Jerusalem; the closing of Arab banks; and the closing down of the Jerusalem airport. Consequently, there had also been a drop in the tourist industry. All these political and economic pressures had made the Arabs feel insecure: 8,000 had to leave their city--Jerusalem. Their only choice, Mr. El-Khatib said, had been to stay and live in misery or leave. The Arab inhabitants had protested these measures taken in violation of United Nations resolutions. Such measures, he charged, were designed to change the identity and character of Jerusalem, to turn what is Arab into Jewish and Israeli and to constitute a fait accompli, not subject to reversal or appeal, namely, the "unification" of the two sectors of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
Source: “Complaints by Israel and Jordan,” Communications to Security Council (1 January – 11 March 1968), Yearbook of the United Nations, Volume 22, 1968.
As reported in the Yearbook of the United Nations, Volume 22, 1968
Arrest of Wife, Still in Jerusalem
In the fall of 1969, al-Khatib’s wife was arrested (on no charge), interrogated, and sentenced to three months in prison. After widespread protests and UN intervention, she was sentenced to time served (15 days) and released. However, she was forbidden to draw any income from her husband’s businesses. Subsequently, she and her children were granted permission to visit her husband in Jordan, and from there she had to have a simple medical procedure in Beirut. However, after her convalescence, although she had received permission to extend her stay, when she tried to return to Jerusalem, she was refused reentry at the border by Israel.
Israel expropriated al-Khatib’s land in Jerusalem and froze his income from sources other than his modest mayor’s salary, which the Jordanian government continued to pay.
Interviewed in 1970 in exile in Amman at age 56, al-Khatib said, “I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life aiming to build a better life for the citizens of Jerusalem.”6
Return to the West Bank
In May 1993, as part of a deal during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at a point when Palestinians were reluctant to return to the table, a US-sponsored arrangement secured the return of 30 Palestinians who had been deported in 1967 back to the West Bank, including al-Khatib. After a long exile, he returned to the West Bank in a triumphant moment, receiving a hero’s welcome. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was not long after, in early April 1993, that Israel closed the West Bank and Gaza, separating them from the part of the West Bank that included East Jerusalem (as defined within Israeli municipal boundaries). Al-Khatib was allowed to return to Jerusalem. He died in Amman on July 5, 1994, and was buried in Jerusalem on Friday, July 8, 1994.
Upon his death, an obituary in The Guardian observed:
ROUHI AL-KHATIB, who has died aged 81, was one of the first Palestinian “notables”—as opposed to hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens—to be deported by the Israeli government in the wake of the June War of 1967. There was no suggestion that he had committed any offence against any known law, Israeli or Jordanian. On the contrary, he was penalised because he agreed with the UN Security Council in opposing Israel’s annexation of Arab Jerusalem and the measures which the Israeli government was taking to alter the status and the skyline of the city. The penalty was a harsh one: exile for a quarter of a century from the city where he was born and which he served as mayor for 10 years (1957–67) before the Israeli occupation.7
The Judaization of Jerusalem—21 editions published between 1970 and 1981 in three languages
Jerusalem: Israeli Annexation—1 edition published in 1968 in English
Tawhid al-Quds—2 editions published in 1970
Jérusalem et des Pourparies de Paix—4 editions published in 1973 in French
L’identité Arabe de Jérusalem—2 editions published in 1973 in French
Présent et avenir de Jérusalem—2 editions published in 1973 in French
Address delivered at a meeting held in the House of Commons members’ dining room, during the Jordan Refugee Week in London, June 13, 1968
“Memorandum Concerning the Measures Taken by Israel with Respect to the City of Jerusalem.” Submitted to the UN by Ruhi al-Khatib, August 26, 1967.
Adams, Michael. “Jerusalem’s Champion: Rouhi al-Khatib.” Guardian, July 18, 1994.
Benziman, Uzi. “The Real Reason Israel Annexed East Jerusalem.” Haaretz, May 25, 2017.
Encyclopedia Palestina. s.v. “Jerusalem (Rescue Committee).” [In Arabic.] September 18, 2014.
Ethridge, Mark. “One City, Two Masters: Jerusalem, Symbolic Price in Mideast.” Detroit Free Press, December 5, 1970 (via Newspapers.com).
Ethridge, Mark. “Rouhi al-Khatib: What War Means to Ex Mayor in Jerusalem.” Miami Herald, December 5, 1970 (via Newspapers.com).
al-Ghad TV. “Ruhi al-Khatib: Secretary of Jerusalem and the Preserver of Its Conscience.” [In Arabic.] January 23, 2020.
“Jerusalem 1967.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no. 1 (Autumn 2007): 88–110.
al-Khatib website. “Ruhi al-Khatib.” Last modified April 20, 2012.
Kuttab, Daoud. “Report from the Occupied Territories.” Journal of Palestine Studies 23, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 80–89.
Odeh, Hisham. “Portrait: Ruhi al-Khatib: Secretary of Jerusalem and the Preserver of Its Conscience.” [In Arabic.] al-Dustur, December 19, 2009.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Al-Khatib, Ruhi (1914–1994).” Accessed March 22, 2021.
Qudsn. “al-Zahra Street: Resistance of Judaization and Fighters’ Testimony.” [In Arabic.] March 11, 2018.
Tleel, John. “I am Jerusalem: Life in the Old City from the Mandate Period to the Present.” Jerusalem Quarterly 4 (1999): 30–40.
Wikimili. s.v. “Al-Quds University.” Last modified January 22, 2021.
Wikimili. s.v. “Ruhi al-Khatib.” Last modified February 26, 2020.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Ruhi al-Khatib.” Last modified March 20, 2020.
WorldCat Identities. “Al-Khatib, Rouhi.” Accessed March 23, 2020.
Mark Ethridge, “Rouhi al-Khatib: What War Means to Ex Mayor in Jerusalem,” Miami Herald, December 5, 1970; Uzi Benziman, “The Real Reason Israel Annexed East Jerusalem,” Haaretz, May 25, 2017.
The cinema remained open until 1987, when it was closed by the Israeli authorities for 25 years. The cinema reopened in February 2012 and is now housed within the Yabous Cultural Center and is the only cinema in East Jerusalem.
Mark Ethridge, “One City, Two Masters: Jerusalem, Symbolic Price in Mideast,” Detroit Free Press, December 5, 1970.
Ethridge, “One City, Two Masters.”
Ethridge, “Rouhi al-Khatib.”