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Inside Sur Baher
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel National news Radio
January 28, 2002

It’s quite easy to get to the home of the man who considers himself a leader of the Arab community of Sur Baher. His house is just a two-minute ride through the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot, across a small valley where sheep still graze, and up the steep hill where the street narrows between haphazard rows of two story white houses.

It’s not so easy to understand how Suher Hamdan manages to operate as one of the titular heads of Sur Baher, an area that is one of a half dozen Arab villages incorporated inside Jerusalem's municipal boundary.

Traditionally, mukhtars served as the court Jews of the Arab world. Under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule, the mukhtar was “the village sheriff, tax collector, and judge,” writes Amir Cheshin in his book, 'Separate And Unequal'. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel used the mukhtars as a channel to maintain contact with Arab residents. Cheshin says that the IDF and the Shin Bet used the mukhtars to obtain intelligence on the Arab sector.

Is that the role that Suher Hamdan plays today in Sur Baher? Jerusalem municipality spokesman Haggai Elias, says Hamdan is not officially the mukhtar. He explains that a citizens committee runs Sur Baher affairs today. So does Suher Hamdan, a seemingly courageous and outspoken critic of Yasser Arafat, represent anyone beside himself? On a recent Friday morning, Hamdan invited two journalists into his well appointed home to answer such questions.

Hamdan, 48, was born in Jordan. Between 1968-1972 he served in Arafat’s Force 17 unit. He does not explain the circumstances that led to his disillusionment with the PLO. The Hamdan family had roots in Sur Baher leading Suher to come to live in the area in 1974. A short, compact man with balding head and smooth dark skin, he sits beneath an oversized, gold-framed portrait of Jordan’s King Hussein. Smaller photos of the former Jordanian monarch adorn the other walls. Surrounding Hamdan’s desk are photos of the Mukhtar with Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer; President Moshe Katzav and Shas party leader Rabbi Ovadya Yosef. These are all public figures Hamdan has approached in his quest to form an inter-religious forum for peace.

Arab propaganda would have us believe that Arab Jerusalemites support Yasser Arafat and his bid to establish the capital of his Palestinian state in Jerusalem. Suher Hamdan has been doing his best to gauge opinion on the Arab street. Right after the Camp David talks, Hamdan collected 12,000 signatures on a petition to demand a referendum that would allow residents a voice in deciding their future.

Reaction was not long in coming. Last October Hamdan was shot five times as he stood in the spacious courtyard of his home. After 19 days in a coma and more than a month in the hospital, Hamdan now appears completely recovered. He says he knows exactly who tried to kill him. “They were Tanzim who fled to Bethlehem, under Arafat’s control,” he says, noting that the act of violence against him “opened the eyes of thousands of people.”

Hamdan claims that the majority of Arab citizens of Jerusalem believe that Arafat is a failure. In unrestrained language, Hamdan openly derides the PA chairman. “He’s not a man, he’s a homosexual,” sneers Hamdan. “Anyone can see he’s failed completely. If a man fails, he should confess to it and resign.” Hamdan notes that Arafat was not crazy to refuse the Barak-Clinton offer of taking control over the Arab villages of eastern Jerusalem. “He doesn’t know or understand what’s going on there.” According to Hamdan, anti-Arafat sentiment runs strong and deep throughout the area.

Hamdan goes on to compare Arafat with his hero, King Hussein. “Who is the father of Arafat?” he asks rhetorically. “Arafat is a nobody. Hussein was the son of Abdullah, who was the son of…all the way back to Mohammad.” “If he’s a Palestinian, why does Arafat speak Arabic with a strong Egyptian accent?” Hamdan says.

His criticism of Arafat goes on for several minutes, using words like “mafia,” and “criminal,” as he berates the Palestinian leader for lying to his people and being responsible for the abduction, torture and murder of Arabs thought to be collaborators with Israel. Hamdan tells his visitors that any pro-Arafat demonstrations are all set-up jobs peopled by those who are afraid of the repercussions if they don’t toe the PA line. “Not even one kid supports Arafat,” Hamdan states categorically.

Hamdan has led a delegation of mukhtars to pay condolence calls to Jews injured in Gilo. He’s a frequent visitor to community leaders in the adjacent Jewish neighborhoods of Armon Hanatziv and East Talpiot, and an active member of the advisory board of the Islam-Israel Fellowship of the Root & Branch Association. Is he afraid of further assassination attempts because of his continued activity? Hamdan dismisses the question with a tight smile. “I am Hamdan and I have my ideas. No one will change me.”

The encounter with Hamdan leaves several unanswered questions. Why has Hamdan been left alone lately by Arafat’s thugs? Whose protection is he under? Who represents the Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem--the self-appointed clan leaders like Suher Hamdan, not recognized by the municipality, but welcomed by his Jewish neighbors. Or Sari Nusseibeh, the deceptively mild mannered commissioner for Jerusalem affairs appointed by Arafat and courted by the Israeli left and the European Union?

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