Abd el-Raouf Arnaout
The Media Line
October 12, 2008 - 8:00pm

Beginning by appointing an Arab as deputy mayor, to opening the way for Muslims and Arabs to invest in the city of Jerusalem, to building an international airport in the city for Muslim pilgrims, Russian-Israeli billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak is promising Jerusalem Arabs paradise if they help elect him mayor of Jerusalem.

A weekly news bulletin called “Al-Amal” (hope) appeared for the first time in the streets of Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago with a long interview with Gaydamak clarifying his positions regarding the city of Jerusalem, and making a wide range of promises.

Arabs in Jerusalem, many of whom refer to themselves as Palestinians, told The Media Line (TML) that Gaydamak initiated a series of meetings with prominent Arabs in the city to try to convince them to participate in the municipal elections that are scheduled to take place on November 11.

Gaydamak met with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilos III, as well as with Palestinian business people.

Though the Grand Mufti denies publicly meeting with Gaydamak, he admits off the record that he met with him without knowing who he was.

Gaydamak said: “I met the Grand Mufti, the honorable Sheikh Muhammad Hussein at his home and he gave me the “Honored Guest” certificate, the first to be given to an Israeli personality. I think the best thing I presented to the Arabs of Jerusalem was buying Bikur Holim hospital, which serves thousands of Arab citizens and provides work for dozens of Arab doctors and nurses.”

High-ranking Palestinian officials told TML that so far they hadn’t adopted an official position regarding the municipal elections, though they said that there was no change in the official policy adopted in the past.

Since 1967 the PLO has asked the Palestinians to boycott this election for political reasons.

This position was echoed by Grand Mufti Hussein, who said, “Our position regarding the municipality is clear: all that is been done in Jerusalem is occupation and this occupation should end; every military and governmental authority in Jerusalem is occupation or exists by force, and we as Palestinians refuse this occupation.”

But the Grand Mufti did not clearly call for boycotting the elections.

More that 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem are eligible to participate in the city elections as residents but not in the Knesset elections because they are not citizens.

An increasing number of Palestinians in the city are becoming convinced that they should be represented at city hall in order to defend the rights of the Palestinians in the municipality that they say is working hard to force them out of the city.

Indeed, Palestinians and international and Israeli human rights organizations are saying that the municipality is neglecting the eastern part of the city and adopting a hard line policy against Palestinians, a claim the municipality denies.

The B’Tselem human rights organization says, “East Jerusalem residents are required to pay taxes like all city residents. However, they do not receive the same services. The Jerusalem Municipality has continuously failed to invest significantly in infrastructure and services (such as roads, sidewalks, and water and sewage systems) in Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods. Since the annexation of Jerusalem, the municipality has built almost no new schools, public buildings or medical clinics for Palestinians. The lion's share of investment has been dedicated to the city's Jewish areas.

“Less than 10 percent of the municipality's development budget for 1999 was allocated for Palestinian neighborhoods, although the population there represents a third of the city's residents. The lack of investment has left infrastructure in East Jerusalem in a deteriorated state,” B’Tselem added.

“We do pay city taxes and go to the municipality to get licenses to build, so what is the point of not being represented at city hall,” a Palestinian businessman, who asked not to be named, said in a private meeting.

“We should be represented at city hall and defend our rights from inside,” he added.

When Palestinian journalist Hanna Siniora called for Palestinians to be represented in the municipality in the 80s, his car was burned and since then no one has dared to repeat what he demanded.

But Zuhair Hamdan, the mukhtar of the village of Sur Baher in the city, declared recently that he had registered as a candidate for mayor, the first Arab running for this post. But Hamdan is not a known political figure in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is considered the most difficult of the core issues in the final status negotiations and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had asked to postpone negotiations over the city’s fate.

Palestinians, who call for east Jerusalem to be the capital of the Palestinian state, refused this suggestion and insisted that all the core issues should be resolved at the same time.

This is exactly why Palestinians have long called for a boycott of the municipal elections as they consider participation as recognition of the Israeli position that considers east and west Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.

But Gaydamak is calling for Palestinians to put these beliefs behind them, at least for the time being.

“In principle I’m with any agreement both sides will reach, but I also believe that daily life issues for more than 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem should not be neglected; they deserve to get their municipal rights in full just like others,” he said.

“I believe that Arabs and Jews can coexist in peace. As for the problems that exist today among the residents, especially in the Arab neighborhoods, it is complicated but its solution is not. I believe it would be very easy to solve if real goodwill existed,” he added.

According to B’Tselem there are many signs of neglect on the eastern side of Jerusalem, such as:

* Entire Palestinian neighborhoods are not connected to a sewage system and do not have paved roads or sidewalks;
* Almost 90 percent of the sewage pipes, roads and sidewalks are to be found in West Jerusalem;
* West Jerusalem has 1,000 public parks, east Jerusalem has 45;
* West Jerusalem has 34 swimming pools, east Jerusalem has three;
* West Jerusalem has 26 libraries, east Jerusalem has two;
* West Jerusalem has 531 sports facilities, east Jerusalem has 33.

Palestinians have waited long to hear these facts stated by a Jewish candidate.

Gaydamak has promised to change these inequities.

“It is clear that the level of life of the Jews is much higher and completely different from that which exists among the Arabs, therefore I will achieve real equality between Arabs and Jews and bridge the gap between the two sides,” he said.

“I know that there is a big difference in services provided for the Arab population and those provided for the Jews, and I am aware that this injustice is the result of mistaken policy pursued by the municipality of Jerusalem towards the Arabs over the past decades and, therefore, addressing these issues are not that easy but it is also not impossible,” he said.

“I will work to apply the law strictly to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem without exception and without discrimination, including everything to do with building permits and the demolition of unlicensed houses,” he added.

Furthermore, Gaydamak said, “In principle I support Jerusalem to be an open city for all and I also call to open it to millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world because it is a holy city to three religions, and in order to turn words into tangible reality I support that there be an international airport in Jerusalem to facilitate access for pilgrims and visitors.”

“Of course, one cannot talk about the development of east Jerusalem in the absence of real Arab and Muslim investors, so I also welcome and encourage Islamic capital investments in vital projects in east Jerusalem,” he added.

Gaydamak voiced opposition to demolishing the homes of Palestinians from east Jerusalem who have killed Israelis.

“Demolishing the houses of attackers will not solve the problem. I believe the solution is through tackling the roots of this problem and that is by preventing those youths from committing other attacks because terrorism doesn’t differentiate between Arabs and Jews – it is against all humanity,” he said.

Gaydamak said he would be the first to appoint an Arab as a deputy mayor if elected.

“We are working on choosing the right person for this job because I consider appointing an Arab as deputy mayor is very important for me as well for the Arab residents of the city because this person will tackle the problems of the Arabs in the city,” he said.

For their part, Palestinians who heard Gaydamak’s positions said they preferred to wait and see what he would tell the city’s Jews before judging him.


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