[News] Meeting Hamas
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 6 08:50:27 EDT 2006
By Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom, June 6, 2006
Shaikh Muhammed Hassan Abu-Tair has something every politician
craves: instant recognizability. His long beard dyed bright orange
with henna is very conspicuous indeed. Actually it is a religious
symbol: the prophet, for whom he is named, used to dye his beard the same way.
The red-bearded Sheikh is better known in Israel than any other
senior Hamas leader. In the most popular satirical show on Israeli
TV, "A Wonderful Land", he is already impersonated by a famous
humorist, who succeeds in imitating his style and body language, with
his intelligent smile, and brought him into our living rooms. For
many Israelis, this impersonation has almost turned him into a
likable figure, even if he himself does not like it at all.
(Something similar has happened to Yasser Arafat, too. A marionette
representing him in a very popular TV show portrayed him as a
likable, mildly humorous figure, very different from the demonic
image that the official Israeli propaganda endeavored to establish.)
This week, Abu-Tair was in the news for a much more serious reason.
When I met him at his home, an ominous threat was hovering over him:
expulsion. The Interior Minister in the Olmert government informed
him and three of his colleagues, all Hamas members of the Palestinian
parliament, that within one month they would have to choose: either
to resign from all their positions in the Palestinian Authority or be
deprived of their status as "permanent residents" in Jerusalem. That
would lead to their expulsion to the occupied West Bank.
HOW WAS that possible?
After the 1967 "Six-day War", when the Israeli government was in a
hurry to annex East Jerusalem, it drew up new borders for the city,
well beyond the neighborhoods of the city itself. The intention was
to annex a maximum of land with a minimum of Palestinian inhabitants.
Because of this, a map of the city looks like a pre-historic monster,
or an American "gerrymander".
Yet, in spite of all the efforts and tricks, there was no way to
avoid including a sizable Palestinian population in the "unified"
city, amounting now to a quarter of a million human beings. The
village of Sur-Baher, where Abu-Tir is living, is situated a short
distance from the city, but was annexed along with the rest.
When the annexation took place, there arose, of course, the question
of the fate of these inhabitants. If it had been possible to drive
them out, it would surely have been done, but under the circumstances
that would not have been acceptable. The natural thing would have
been to give them Israeli citizenship, as was done in 1949 when a
number of Arab villages, which were not conquered by the Israeli
army, were turned over to Israel by King Abdallah of Jordan in the
But the Israeli leaders were appalled by the idea of adding another
large bloc of Palestinians to the already considerable number of
Arabs in Israel, amounting to about 20% of Israeli citizens. They
found a tricky way out: the Palestinians in East Jerusalem were given
the status of "permanent residents" in Israel, but remained citizens
of Jordan. That way they could not take part in Israeli elections,
but enjoyed many other privileges (like paying Israeli taxes and
social security contributions.)
The government knew, of course, that the Arabs would find it
difficult to object to this ploy. If they had demanded Israeli
citizenship, that would have meant recognizing Israeli sovereignty
over East Jerusalem - something no state in the world has yet done.
Not giving citizenship to the "annexed" Arabs also served another
purpose. In the course of the 1948 war, the whole population of West
Jerusalem had to flee to the East of the city. They left behind them
all their property, including all the beautiful homes of the Talbiyeh
quarter and the land on which the Knesset, the Prime Minister's
office, the Giv'at Ram campus of the Hebrew University and the Israel
Museum now stand. If the owners of these properties, who now live in
East Jerusalem, had been granted citizenship, they could have
demanded them back. That would not have been an automatic process,
but the pressure on the government would have been intense. It was
safer to make them "permanent residents" only.
ONE OF the differences between a "citizen" and a "permanent resident"
is that it is almost impossible to revoke citizenship, but quite easy
to annul the status of a "permanent resident". The Minister of the
Interior is empowered to do this by a simple executive decision. The
victim can, of course, appeal to the Supreme Court, but the chances
of success are slim.
The action of Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On is a bad omen. If he
succeeds, this will constitute a danger to all the 250 thousand
Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Their status as permanent residents
could be revoked, under some security pretext or other. In Israel,
security can be used to justify almost everything. Innocent Israelis
can always be convinced that some measure is necessary in order to
protect their lives from the murderous terrorists.
The abuse of the term "permanent resident" is obvious. A "permanent
resident" is usually an immigrant who comes to Israel and is not able
- or does not want - to become a citizen. To apply this term to
families who have lived in Jerusalem since it was conquered by the
Caliph Omar some 1300 years ago is a political and linguistic rape.
It violates international law, which says that East Jerusalem is an
occupied territory whose inhabitants are "protected persons" who
cannot be expelled from their homes. It also violates the Oslo
agreement, which says that the question of Jerusalem is to be decided
upon in the final status negotiations, which have not even started.
Oslo specifically grants the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem the
right to vote for and be elected to the Palestinian parliament.
Abu-Tair has been elected by the voters of the city as their deputy.
The demand that he chose between resignation from parliament and
expulsion from the city is a crass violation of a written agreement -
by the same Israeli government that demands that Hamas accept all
written agreements with Israel. There seems to be no limit to the
cynicism of Olmert & Co.
Moreover, when the Oslo agreement was signed, Shimon Peres also gave
a written commitment on behalf of the Government of Israel that no
Palestinian institution in Jerusalem would be harmed. When Ehud
Olmert was still the mayor of Jerusalem, he violated this commitment
by closing the "Orient House". Now he is violating it again.
PERHAPS IT is worthwhile to compare the two protagonists of this
affair: Ronnie Bar-On and Muhammed Abu-Tair.
Bar-On was born in Tel-Aviv, two months after the official founding
of the State of Israel. I am not sure whether his family came to
Palestine one or two generations earlier. He was always a very
right-wing person, a Herut-Likud-man from youth. He is known for his
rudeness. In the Knesset and in his frequent appearances on TV
talk-shows he often behaves like a real oral hooligan.
He became famous mainly because of the scandal that bears his name.
When the position of Attorney General, a very powerful office in
Israel, became vacant, Binyamin Netanyahu appointed Bar-On. At once
rumors started, alleging that this had been done in collusion with
Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who was awaiting trial and was eventually
sent to prison. A public storm broke out, and Netanyahu was forced to
remove him after only a few days in office.
As a politician, Bar-On is a complete opportunist. His right-wing
views did not prevent him from jumping on the bandwagon when Sharon
set up Kadima. Because of this jump, he is now Interior Minister. He
never made any sacrifice for his views.
Abu-Tair was born in 1951, the son of a family that is deeply rooted
in the country. He was sentenced to prison for life and spent (with
interruptions) 25 years - almost half his life - in prison. First he
was a Fateh member, but in prison he became a pious Muslim and joined Hamas.
He is admired by the people around him, an amiable person with a
lively sense of humor. It's easy to talk with him and he speaks
perfect Hebrew. He has a lot of influence in his party.
I MET HIM first during the stormy demonstration in a-Ram, under a
shower of tear gas. We agreed then that we should meet in quieter
surroundings. A few days ago I visited him at his home. We exchanged
views and agreed to make the fact of our meeting public, thus turning
it into a political act. I asked him to find out whether conditions
are ripe for a wider meeting of Israeli peace organizations and the
To me, the meeting brought back old memories. 32 years ago I
established the first contacts with the emissaries of Yasser Arafat,
who was then considered an arch-terrorist, the leader of a terrorist
organization whose charter called for the elimination of the State of
Israel. These contacts led in 1982 to my meeting with Arafat in
besieged Beirut. It was his first meeting with an Israeli, but the
circle widened rapidly and prepared the ground on both sides for the
Oslo agreement and the Two-State Solution.
I believe that now it is the job of the Israeli peace movements to do
the same again: build the first bridge between Israelis and Hamas and
pave the way for a dialogue between the Government of Israel and the
Government of Palestine. (By the way, consistency demands that those
who insist on talking about the "Hamas government" should also use
the term "Kadima government".)
In such a process, which demands a change in the minds of millions on
both sides, the first contacts are very important. The establishment
and its numerous servants in the media naturally try to ignore and
conceal them, the public treats them with hostility and a lack of
understanding, until it gets used to the idea. But it is an essential task.
More than half the population in the Palestinian territories voted
for Hamas. Hamas is an existing fact. It will play a major role in
any conceivable scenario. The majority of Israelis long for an end to
the conflict, and so do the majority of Palestinians. Both
governments must, in the end, accept this reality.
Our task is to help them cross this bridge.
The Freedom Archives
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