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A tale of two citizens

Expelling Suheir Azzouni from Jerusalem undermines the city's historical mission as a symbol of reconciliation for humankind

This is a story of two people who define themselves as Jerusalemites. The first, Moshe Leon, moved to the city two months ago and is now running for mayor. The second, Suheir Azzouni, has deep roots in Jerusalem (her Greek Orthodox family has lived in the Old City for centuries). Her permanent residency in Jerusalem – and that of her children – was revoked last month. As the Israeli Leon arrived in town, the Palestinian Azzouni and her Jerusalem-born children were banished.

Jerusalem has always been at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in many respects it is a microcosm of its contours and the key to its resolution. The resumption of negotiations on a permanent accord between Israelis and Palestinians has thrust this majestic, complicated and passion-evoking city once again to the forefront. Most discussion today revolves around the spate of new Israeli construction designed to affect the outcome of talks on the future of Jerusalem. Not enough attention has been devoted to the human side of what is taking place in this heterogeneous metropolis. Yet without tolerance for the immense human diversity of Jerusalem and recognition of the fundamental rights of all its citizens to a secure life in the city, no lasting peace will be achieved.

There are now 804,000 people living in the municipal area of Jerusalem. It is, by far, the largest Jewish city and the largest Palestinian city between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. According to figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics in May of this year, 499,400 of the city’s residents are Jewish (approximately 62%). Thirty-eight percent are Palestinian: 281,100 are Muslim, 14,700 are Christian, 200 are Druze and an additional 9,000 are not classified by religion. The Jewish birthrate in Jerusalem is the highest in the country: the average Jewish woman in the capital has 4.24 children; her Muslim counterpart bears 3.71 children. The human barriers between the various parts of the city are legion: immense differences both within the Jewish sector and between Jews and Palestinians – demonstrated not only in history, culture, religion and way of life, but also in infrastructure, education, municipal services and economic prospects – have created monumental divisions without walls in this sprawling urban expanse.

It is here, in post-1967 Jerusalem, that Suheir Azzouni met her husband, Palestinian educator Khalil Mahshi, who was born and bred in the city. Suheir studied at Bir Zeit University (she holds a B.Sc. in Chemistry and a Master’s Degree in Gender, Law and Development). In 1994, she established the executive offices of the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, a coalition of women’s organizations which has campaigned assiduously for gender equality and achieved several notable successes in curtailing gender discrimination in Palestinian society. It is here, too, that her three children were born.

In 2001, her husband, who had served as headmaster of the prestigious Friends School for Boys in Ramallah, as the first Director-General of the Ministry of Education in the Palestinian Authority and had been active for years in joint Israeli-Palestinian activities, was offered a senior position at UNESCO in Paris (he now heads its International Institute of Educational Planning). Suheir remained in Jerusalem, but in order to keep the family together, eventually joined her husband in Paris. She took on various positions as a gender advisor – including for the World Bank, UNIFEM and various governments – and is a highly respected expert on gender and human rights.

She has since visited Jerusalem several times a year to see family and friends and spent most of 2010 in the city designing a national gender strategy for Palestine (the most progressive in the Arab world). She was on her third visit to the city this year when she received her expulsion orders from the Ministry of Interior, rendering her and two of her three children stateless (her husband and one child were granted French nationality in 2010). Suheir Azzouni and her children thus join 14,563 other Palestinian-Jerusalemites whose access to their city has been revoked since 1967 on the grounds that it is no longer “the center of their life”.

Until two months ago, Jerusalem was never the center of Moshe Leon’s life, although he did spend time working in the city. Leon, roughly the same age as Suheir, is a certified public accountant who served as Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term. His children grew up and were educated in his hometown of Givatayim, where he has resided all his life.

Besides developing his private firm, he has held several public positions, notably chair of Israel Railways and, during the past few years, chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority. Throughout, he has been closely associated with the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, representing the latter in the recent coalition negotiations prior to the creation of the third Netanyahu government. His decision to run for mayor of Jerusalem on the Likud-Beytenu ticket was propelled by Avigdor Lieberman and backed by Aryeh Deri.

In all his interviews in recent weeks, the mayoral candidate Leon has stressed his concern for affordable housing, employment, education and the cleanliness of Jerusalem. He hardly mentions East Jerusalem, highlighting his close connections to the government and constantly berating his opponent, incumbent Nir Barkat – himself one of the key proponents of Jewish expansion throughout the city – for not being sufficiently right-wing. Moshe Leon, while claiming that he has the qualifications and expertise required to run the city, acknowledges that he still has much to learn about its pulse and inner workings. Jerusalemites, a very particular breed, as yet do not really consider him one of their own.

The ease with which Moshe Leon has moved to Jerusalem and Suheir Azzouni has been banned from the city says more than reams of learned analyses, both about the state of one of the most important urban centers in the world and the prospects of its varied inhabitants to live together in equality and dignity. Here – as in other veteran urban concentrations – there developed over the years a culture of pluralism and tolerance which has been easily upset by power considerations.

Moshe Leon can’t come to Jerusalem at the expense of Suheir Azzouni. Both embody key elements of the complex human mosaic that is Jerusalem today. Each reader can decide which of the two has the closest connection to the city. But nobody can, in good conscience, deny that Azzouni and her family have as much of a right to reside in the city as Leon and his family do. Until the injustice wrought upon her and other Palestinian-Jerusalemites denied access to their hometown is rectified, the rights of Jewish-Jerusalemites in the city will continuously be questioned. And Jerusalem – the bridge between Palestinians and Israelis and the meeting point of Jews, Christians and Muslims – will not be able to live up to its historical mission: a city of peace for all its residents and a symbol of reconciliation for humankind.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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