SHEIKH MUHAMMAD Hassan Abu-Tir 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
This week, Abu-Tir 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
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 armistice agreement.
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
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-Tir has been elected by
the voters of the city as their deputy.
The demand that he choose 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 Muhammad Abu-Tir.
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-Tir 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 Fatah 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 Hamas leadership.
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
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
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