Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have been frustrated for years as they are caught between Israel’s unilateral decision to annex East Jerusalem and the inability of the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership to help them.
Positive homegrown leadership in Jerusalem has not found a way forward due in part to the absence of any mechanism for electoral politics. Ever since the passing away of Faisal Husseini, no leader or leadership structure has emerged for the city Palestinians say will become their eventual capital. The leadership vacuum has not gone unnoticed by many, often by individuals seeking personal gain. While no single person or entity has emerged, scores of de facto groups and gatherings have emerged often around social groups or neighbourhoods. Some of these groups have done positive acts to advance their local communities, but others have made personal fortunes. The absence of the rule of law and a culture of voluntary national cooperation has played into the hands of these groups that have at times terrorised the population.
Decades old entities have not done much better as the absence of leadership has resulted in the creation of fiefdoms run by autocratic individuals who often seek Arab and international funding and rule their organisations on the basis of their ability to raise funds and pay salaries. Institutional corruption has skyrocketed because of the contradiction that exists in Jerusalem. On the one hand, Israel, which effectively rules the areas of East Jerusalem, is ambivalent about the state of Palestinians in the city; the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Gaza might be more caring, but is unable to implement any policy because of the Israeli repression against any activities stemming from the Palestinian leadership. The same contradiction also exists in terms of simple rule of law issues. If a Jerusalemite is wronged by another Jerusalemite or by a Palestinian institution he or she has little recourse. The prevailing atmosphere makes it politically incorrect to sue a fellow Palestinian or a Jerusalem institute at Israeli courts. Thus they are left with trying to plead their case with the Ramallah leadership. In Ramallah, there is a sense of apathy and exhaustion because of the many unresolved cases that come to them. Even if the Palestinian leadership rules in favour of a particular person, they are unable to execute that decision as they have been barred from having physical presence in the city.
For some time in the 1980s, the Orient House — re-opened and revived by Faisal Husseini — acted as a local government hub where the population could address their grievances and cases were resolved mostly on his power and charisma. The Israeli closure of Orient House and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as Husseini’s unexpected death from an asthma attack in Kuwait, have literally orphaned the 300,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem.
The most recent agreement between the PLO and Jordan regarding the holy places in Jerusalem, has revived the hopes of Jerusalemites of a possible formula that will allow a respected party such as Jordan to help the city’s orphaned Palestinians. Jordan, however, has power mostly in the form of the Awqaf Department, which still operates in Jerusalem and is largely involved in issues related with Al Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic waqf institutions (mostly schools) and properties. However, the Islamic waqf which is not an elected group (just like all others including the churches and charities) has not witnessed any new blood for years. Having been in power for so long leads to a lack of accountability for city officials. Some Jerusalemites were hoping that the Royal Court rather than the city take a more direct role in enacting the issues agreed to between the King and President Abbas.
Jerusalem governance issues always tend to come back to the local scene. With Palestinians refusing to participate in the municipal elections for the so-called unified city, few opportunities exist to unite and focus the populace. The recent resignation of Salam Fayyad as prime minister has revived hope among some Jerusalemites that the highly respected Palestinian manager — who lives in the city and whose wife is a Jerusalemite — can help the people of Jerusalem design a governance system that can address the inhabitants’ many grievances and draw up plans for the growth and prosperity of the city as a central part of the Palestinian national strategy. When confronted with the idea, Fayyad expressed willingness to help out as long as there is a legitimate request from Jerusalem residents for him to do so. With the city suffering without a leader for decades, and with a well-respected leader becoming jobless within weeks, some feel that this could be a marriage made in heaven.