Jerusalem’s 360,000 ‘orphans’
By Daoud Kuttab – Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are experiencing perhaps their worst times. With the continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the uncertainty of the future of Jerusalem, the 360,000 residents of East Jerusalem are political orphans.
They are not allowed to be part of the Palestinian Authority, do not possess its passport, nor do they enjoy its governance. They are not Israeli citizens either.
Israel grants permanent residency to Palestinians who were in Jerusalem when the Israeli army conquered the holy city and unilaterally annexed it to the state of Israel. And even though no country in the world has recognized this Israeli annexation, there has been little success in allowing Palestinians to retain their own local institutions.
Despite Israeli promises and US commitments, since the Oslo Accords, the city has been isolated and denied self-governance.
The Orient House, which was a de facto Palestinian reference point, has been closed by orders of the Israelis, which have used emergency laws to retain its closure. Similarly, the chamber of commerce has been closed, denying Palestinian merchants the right to accede to this organization.
Any event that smells of Palestinian nationalism is quickly stopped by Israeli police. An attempt to celebrate the success of an East Jerusalem football champion was denied on claims that the Palestinian Authority was secretly behind the celebrations.
One institution that has barely survived throughout decades of occupation is the Jerusalem Electricity Company. This private company, which has been operating based on a concession, is owned by local municipalities from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas, as well as the East Jerusalem municipality.
Naturally, the seats of the latter have been taken over by the Israeli municipality, whose elections Palestinians have been boycotting since because of the Israeli decision to unite east and west Jerusalem against the will of the local population and the international community.
Over the years, this company lost its ability to produce its own power and has become a redistribution company. Now the Israeli company providing it with electricity is threatening to take it over because of its growing debts.
The Jerusalem Electricity Company owes about $100 million. Part of the problem is that when the Palestinian intifada broke, Palestinians, especially from refugee camps, stopped paying their electricity bill (as well as water and taxes). Without having the ability to collect, the company has asked the Palestinian Authority to help it or to cover the bills of those living in the refugee camps.
Jerusalem’s problems are not restricted to the current crisis of the Electricity Company. Perhaps the biggest problem that is constantly reported by the city’s “orphans” is the general absence of any mechanism to resolve problems. Local crime goes unresolved, thus creating a parallel (but haphazard) security system that generally favors large families and those with the ability to pay thugs to protect them.
Palestinians prefer not to go to the Israeli court system against each other and during the intifada introduced the idea of local arbitration. But this locally designed mechanism has now been corrupted. Arbitration works well when people are willing to trust and abide by its decisions.
What has happened is that organized crime in Jerusalem has found arbitration to be a perfect vehicle to extract large amounts of money from weak individuals by suggesting an arbitrator who appears to be a person of repute and then pressuring the arbitrators into making exaggerated settlements of which they get a hefty percentage.
The Palestinian Authority is unable to intervene and the Israelis are hardly interested in stemming this tide of organized criminals and thugs.
Some so-called nationalists appear to be secretly cooperating and benefiting from this thuggery. The result has been a serious erosion of local cohesion and national cooperation.
While Palestinian leaders keep evoking the importance of Jerusalem in the national struggle, it is very likely that even if an agreement is found at political level, Palestinians will discover that the city they have been declaring their capital is an empty shell run by thugs and criminals.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University.