Dateline: Jerusalem

An old city’s walls of the mind

Eric Silver September 22 1980
Dateline: Jerusalem

An old city’s walls of the mind

Eric Silver September 22 1980

An old city’s walls of the mind

Dateline: Jerusalem

Eric Silver

Menachem Begin’s prospective new neighbors are not amused. For Zeinab Abu Ta’ah, a 55-year-old widow, her two daughters-in-law and 11 grandchildren, the Israeli prime minister’s imminent move from Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East is no abstract political issue. Begin’s office and other fourand five-storey government buildings that have gone up over the past two years are already laying siege to the Palestinian family’s stone bungalow. The bulldozers preparing the site cracked the walls of two cement outbuildings which were used as a kitchen and bedroom, and all 14 Abu Ta’ahs (not to mention Zeinab’s two sons when they come once a year from their jobs in Saudi Arabia) have been forced to live in two bedrooms and a living room.

The presence of a solitary Arab house in the middle of the new government compound is an obvious embarrassment to Israeli security men. Even before Begin had decided to move there, they had tried to push out the Abu Ta’ahs, offering them compensation and another house elsewhere. The three women, refugees 32 years ago from the Arab village of Lifta in West Jerusalem, refused to go.

Amina, the more vociferous of the daughters-in-law, explained their stand: “Even if they destroy our house,

we shall not leave. We have nowhere else in the world. We don’t trust the Israelis. They expelled us first from Lifta, then they expropriated land on this site that belonged to other members of our family. We don’t want another house. Even if they mean what they say, they will probably put us in the desert somewhere.” Final notices to quit were issued last weekend, but in the subsequent flurry of publicity the prime minister’s aides let it be known that he would not insist on their eviction. The threat has been lifted—for the time being.

Ali Ya’ish is the editor of A Sha'ab, one of the more radical of East Jerusalem’s three Arabic daily papers. Like all journalists working in the city, he has to submit his copy to military censorship. But the Arabs, he claims, are subjected to stricter and less predictable control. When The Washington Star reported that Begin had quarrelled with the security service about the investigation of an assassination attempt on three Arab mayors, the story was carried instantly in all the Israeli media and went round the world. A Sha ’ab was not allowed to mention it. “After waiting three days,” Ya’ish added, “we ran it and nothing happened to us.”

The Arabic papers have devised their own way through the maze. “If we have a local story that we know will be suppressed, we pass it on to an Israeli re-

porter. Once he publishes it, we are free to follow suit,” Ya’ish explained. Commentaries are closely scrutinized. “You know what you want to say,” he added, “and you know what you are allowed to sáy, so you try to find something in between. Usually you don’t succeed.” The shopping streets of East Jerusalem are bustling, loud and a little tatty. Business is good. The locals have money and the tourists keep coming. But the Arab merchants have their complaints too. “Nobody here accepts that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” said one who asked that his name not be used. “Not long ago, a business strike was called in protest at the new law. The police came to our houses at 1 and 2 in the morning and took us off to the police station. They kept us there till 6 o’clock, then they took us, unshaven and still in our pyjamas, and forced us to open the shops. They wouldn’t let us go home to wash and dress first. It broke the strike, but it makes us angry.” Thousands of Arabs cross Jerusalem every day to work on Israeli building sites, in hotels, cafés, factories and workshops. They are the silent minority (perhaps even a silent majority). Ahmed is one of them. He has worked for nine years in a Jewish-owned garage, servicing and repairing cars. For him politics takes second place. “When the Jordanians were here,” he said in self-taught Hebrew, “it was hard to find work. You had to know somebody to get a job. If you didn’t, you had to cross the river and look in Amman. With the Israelis, there’s plenty of work. For people like us that’s the first thing. We

need money to feed our children.”

The 100,000 East Jerusalem Arabs move freely about the city, as do Jerusalem’s 250,000 Jews. Arab workers are a common sight on the orange Israeli buses, though Jews are more wary of taking Arab intercity transport to the outer suburbs. The two communities live apart, a custom that suits them both while their political differences are unresolved. Jews and Arabs, who are increasingly difficult for the outsider to tell apart as the Arabs give up their kaffiyeh and ankle-length shirts in favor of jeans and T-shirts, buy and sell to each other. Most of the Oriental Jews speak Arabic; many of the Arabs have learned Hebrew.

But social contact remains minimal. Anwar Nusseibeh, a leading lawyer and former Jordanian ambassador to London, remembers Jerusalem before 1948. “I always had Jewish friends,” he said. “We used to meet socially over a game of bridge or a game of tennis. After 1948 there was a physical wall between us.

That wall fell down with the occupation by Israel of Arab Jerusalem.

“Although deeply shocked by the way in which the reunion of my friends had to take place, I welcomed the opportunity to see my friends again. But that immediate reaction could not be sustained against the continued presence of Israel as an occupier and then as an annexer of my part of Jerusalem. Therefore, as time went on, instead of the physical wall, psychological walls grew up that made it virtually impossible for friends to meet without inhibitions.”

Ibrahim Dakkak is chairman of the East Jerusalem Engineers’ Association, a successful architect and civil engineer who supervised the restoration of the El Aqsa Mosque after a Christian fanatic set it on fire in 1969. Since the 1967 war he has become an increasingly vocal

spokesman for the Palestinian left. Last month the military government banned him from entering the occupied West Bank. His views on Jerusalem’s future are clear and uncompromising: “East Jerusalem was not part of Israel before the June war, and it is included in our demand that the occupation should be terminated. It is part and parcel of the occupied territories. For most of us participation in politics started with the occupation. You had to stand against it. The threat to your identity, your family, your property and values left no room for choice. The consciousness of

everybody became more acute.” Dakkak acknowledged, however, that perceptions had changed over the past 13 years. “We were able to get rid of a certain proportion of the mystical and romantic approach to our cause. In the old days we talked of the Israelis as unwanted guests. We said they must go away. But that only served Israel’s cause. We cannot deny the fact that they have formed a nation. But by accepting this fact we assert our own right to stay and live alongside them with the choice of each people to its own way of life.”