Three young Islamic Jihad members from this Arab village that lies inside Jerusalem's municipal boundaries were indicted a few days ago for planning a wave of terror attacks in the capital.
The three, who carry Israeli ID cards providing easy access anywhere inside Israel, are accused of plotting to shoot down a helicopter over the Knesset, attacking the shopping center in Ramot Eshkol and placing a bomb at a bus stop in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Zev.
In an interview in his home a little less than a year ago, Suher Hamdan, head of the Sur Baher village council, never said a word about the presence of Islamic Jihad in the village. Instead, Hamdan spent most of the time telling me that the majority of Arab citizens of Jerusalem believe that Yasser Arafat is a failure. In unrestrained language, Hamdan openly derided the PA chairman. "He's not a man, he's a homosexual," sneered 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 went on to compare Arafat with his hero, the late King Hussein. "Who is the father of Arafat?" Hamdan 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 said.
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 me 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.
So if they don't support Arafat, do they follow the Islamic Jihad line? Over the past few days I've tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to reach Hamdan to get his take on the current mood of the people of Sur Baher. Perhaps his reticence has something to do with his experiences in October 2001. Hamdan was shot five times as he stood in the spacious courtyard of his Sur Baher home. After 19 days in a coma and more than a month in the hospital, Hamdan recovered. He told me last year that he knew 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."
What are those people thinking now ? Driving through Sur Baher it's difficult to see evidence of unusual economic hardship. New homes are being built everywhere. They're large and ornate, on a much grander scale than the apartment houses that grace most of the newer Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In Sur Baher,almost every building that's not new is being renovated. Satellite dishes adorn every rooftop, and roads in and out of the area are clogged with young Arab women maneuvering the cars of their instructors during expensive driving lessons.
It's quite easy to get to the home of the man who considers himself a leader of the Arab community of Sur Baher, one of a half dozen Arab villages inside Jerusalem's municipal boundaries. His house is just a two-minute ride from the Jewish neighborhood of East Talpiot, across a small valley where sheep still graze, and up a steep hill where the street narrows between haphazard rows of two story, single family white houses.
It's not so easy to understand who Suher Hamdan is, and how he operates as one of the titular heads of the village. 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 King Hussein. Smaller photos of the former Jordanian monarch adorn the other walls. Surrounding Hamdan's desk are photos with former 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.
Hamdan led a delegation of mukhtars to pay condolence calls to Jews injured in Gilo at the beginning of the current war. He used to be a frequent visitor to community leaders in the adjacent Jewish neighborhoods of Armon Hanatziv and East Talpiot, and is still 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 key questions unanswered. Who is more representative of Jerusalem Arabs today and whose authority is gaining adherents--clan leaders like Suher Hamdan, welcomed by his Jewish neighbors, or Islamic Jihadists plotting the murder of Jews? One thing seems certain--in Jerusalem, there will be no such thing as separation.