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Published:20 November, 2000
Jerusalem Arabs seek right to choose Israeli sovereignty

JERUSALEM, 16 November 2000 (Newsroom)

East Jerusalem's Arabs are gathering signatures calling for an independently governed referendum that would give them the right to choose between Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty once a Palestinian state is established.

Activists under the leadership of Zuhair Hamdan, the 47-year-old head of the largest clan in the Tsur Bahr neighborhood of East Jerusalem, have collected more than 12,000 signatures calling for a referendum before any decisions on Jerusalem are made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.).

Supporters of the referendum drive believe it would help stop growing alienation from Jewish neighbors while securing their plight in a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Jerusalem's Arabs, who carry the status of permanent Israeli residents, have a higher standard of living than Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Their citizenship entitles them to free movement and work opportunity throughout Israel and access to all of Israel's social programs, including health insurance, free school education, retirement benefits, and unemployment payments. Though they claim to suffer discrimination, Jerusalem's Arabs have been much less resistant to the Israelis than their West Bank and Gaza counterparts.

Some Palestinians in Jerusalem view the referendum effort as naive and dangerous, since it openly challenges the Palestinian Authority and its West Bank constituency. The latest poll conducted at the Bir Zeit University of Ramallah showed that 92 percent of West Bank students oppose a peace treaty without East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Only 21 percent of the Palestinians polled were ready to accept Israeli sovereignty even in West Jerusalem, which is part of pre-1967 Israeli territory.

Hamdan has responded to accusations of "collaborating with Israel" by citing his former membership in P.A. President Yasser Arafatís elite guard, Force 17. Hamdan was a member from 1968 to 1972 in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In 1974 he returned to Jerusalem as part of a family reunification program. "The P.A. is a failed experiment," Hamdan declared recently. "Arafatís way is bloodshed. This is how it was in Jordan in the 1970s and later in Lebanon. A leader who spills the blood of his own people has failed."

In the past, Hamdan has criticized the P.A. for corruption and the conduct of its police, asserting that they have kidnapped Arab residents who carry Israeli identification, extorted money from them, and persecuted the P.A.'s critics.

Leaders of the 200,000-strong Arab community of East Jerusalem say they lament the collapse of mutual trust between Jews and Arabs in the city. Neighborly relations survived years of the first intifada but almost have died in the current month-long wave of violence. Arab shop-owners of the Old City are concerned that terrorist attacks on Israelis have created a feeling of deep suspicion and have stanched the influx of foreign tourists and Jewish customers.

The Jerusalem Arabs have petitioned the International Court of Justice in the Hague, requesting that the referendum be held under the auspices of an independent third party. They have sent letters to United States President Bill Clinton and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, expressing concern that they will find themselves handed over to the control of the Palestinian Authority without having been consulted. Both Clinton and Annan have promised to look into the matter.

"Some interpret this referendum as meaning that we donít want the Palestinian Authority, that we want to remain under Israeli rule," Hamdan notes. "No. I just want to give people the chance to express their opinions. Maybe the majority wants the Palestinian Authority, or Israel, or even Jordan."

Hamdan said he would like to see Jerusalem's Arab villages remain under Israeli sovereignty while being granted a large measure of neighborhood autonomy. "For 33 years, we have been part of the state of Israel," he said. "But now our rights have been forgotten."

The Jerusalem attorney handling Hamden's case admits it is unprecedented, as the international court hears requests from nations, not individuals. "We are trying to work through a U.N. committee, either Middle East or Human Rights," said Omri Kabiri, deputy head of the Israeli Bar Association. "The U.N.F can then turn to the court and request a referendum. But in that case, both Israel and the P.A. must agree to accept the courtís judgment so its decision can be enforced. The other option is if one of the countries, either Israel or the P.A., were to accept this petition, then that country could go directly to the court."

Professor Yehuda Blum, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, dismisses the entire case as political, not legal: "The parties involved are preparing something for political propaganda," he said. "It is ridiculous for any lawyer to promote such a request." As for Israel taking up the petition, Blum said that "Israel is not going to request an international ruling on something that it sees as falling within its domestic jurisdiction. Not only would Israel not request such a thing but would vigorously oppose it."

Law professor Moshe Hirsch of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem believes the case does not fall under the legal definition of self-determination. "International human rights law gives the right to self-determination to people," he said. "But some experts believe that this applies only if the state doesnít grant citizens adequate participation in governmental processes. And I donít believe that is true in this case. Citizens in Israel have the right to vote for the Knesset and the prime minister. Should the government decide to transfer a part of the state to another country and this is approved by the Knesset, then legally there is no need to ask the residents involved for approval."

Jerusalem city councilor Roni Aloni believes, however, that the proposed referendum will get widespread support in Israel, appealing to the political left "because it is human rights, and to the right because they are interested in having these areas remain part of Israel." Source: Newsroom




















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