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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Ismaeel Hamoud

Ismaeel Hamoud works with Bimkom, an organization which seeks to make community participation and human rights a central part of urban planning. Bimkom provides legal advocacy, planning consultancy and educational materials to communities and political leaders to promote planning rights. Ismaeel works primarily in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, where he is the liaison between the community and Bimkom.

  • Please give us a brief background about yourself and your work.

    My name is Ismaeel Hamoud. I specialized in Social Affairs, and completed two Masters degrees at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one in Public Policy and one in social work. I was born in the village of Kavul in the Galilee and currently live in Jerusalem. I work as a community coordinator with Bimkom on a project to create a layout of a proposed community in Issawiya. The main part of my work relates to the psychological aspect of the project.

  • Please tell me more about your work.

    Bimkom's activities address discrimination against minorities in urban planning. Two and a half years ago a structural plan1 for Issawiya was proposed. I am a member of the professional planning team. The project aims to add residential areas to Issawiya because of the population density and the problems with obtaining building permits. People are not granted building licenses for two reasons; there are problems with the proprietorship of lands and because of the bad urban planning there. The structural plan is actually the vision for Issawiya for the year 2020, for what you could call the "middle run". Issawiya is surrounded from all sides: by French Hill in the west, the Hebrew University in the south, and the road to Ma'ale Adumim in the east and in the north. The only remaining area in which the residents of Issawiya can live and build is in the southwest. The project aims to add 700 dunams to the already existing 700 in Issawiya and thus double its populated area.

    • 1This plan called for 1,900 new apartments for Arabs in Issawiya and was approved in 2005. See article at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/907562.html

  • What is your role on the committee?

    I am the community coordinator. The project team consists of engineering, technical and social aspects, and I work on the social aspects. Our job is to hold workshops and meetings with the residents, during which we explain their rights and the plans for the neighborhoods and listen to their ambitions and ideas for the future. We do this in order to coordinate the people's wishes and the planning process. My role is to bridge the sides, raise people's awareness, and coordinate between the team's work and the residents.

  • Why was Issawiya chosen for the project?

    Sarah Kaminker [who used to work in the Jerusalem City Council] lived in French Hill and had social ties in Issawiya.

  • Please explain a little bit about Issawiya. What is special about it?

    Urban planning in Issawiya is very bad: the streets are very narrow, there are many unauthorized buildings, and the buildings sometimes block the roads. The city council doesn't plan the neighborhood and doesn't pave roads so the neighborhood is in a state of chaos. Buildings are randomly built without prior planning, which causes permit problems, which is in turn followed by house demolition and fines.1 In addition, the infrastructure is in very bad shape.

    • 1In response to construction of houses without permits, the city of Jerusalem has issued many demolition orders. See http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/907562.html.See also http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10727648 for account of the demolition of 157 homes declared illegally constructed in East Jerusalem between 1999-2003.

  • You said that the city council doesn't plan the neighborhood and doesn't pave roads. Why? Is this different from other places?

    Issawiya is part of the land Israel occupied in 1967. During the period of Jordanian rule, lands were registered under their owners' names but after 1967 Israel stopped registration. This is where the problem started. The land we are living on isn't registered in anyone's name. Usually lands are registered by the Israel Land Administration but in Jerusalem and specifically in Issawiya, there are no such services [for Palestinians]. People know whose land is whose, but there are no legal records of land ownership. As an undeveloped Arab neighborhood, Issawaiya's lands haven't been dealt with. While that's true for many other places in East Jerusalem, here we're talking about Issawiya. The lands haven't been registered, merged and then properly divided and legally registered. When the residents of Issawiya want to build on their land, they are forced to do so illegally because there is no registration of land ownership. When people want to get building permits, the authorities refuse, claiming their ownership over the land can't be proven. The local council and the Ministry of Interior have played a major role in the creation of this situation because they didn't register land ownership and didn't provide alternative building areas; therefore, people were forced to build randomly and independently because of their natural needs and natural population growth. Legally, all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem are subject to municipal jurisdiction, and the municipal authorities are supposed to plan the city and pave its roads. Issawiya initiated a request that plans be drawn up because of the residents' needs. The municipality is supposed to take responsibility for planning. In the case of Issawiya, because this is land occupied in 1967, planning is done in a political context and becomes a political tool. The municipality hasn't initiated a plan for the neighborhood since 1990. Until then there had been plans that only dealt with the neighborhood's immediate needs, but all other aspects were put off. This created a reality of anarchic construction because there weren't any plans, and the only option was to build without a permit. Building without a permit is illegal but the municipality offers no alternatives: the population is growing, and so illegal construction takes place in public and privately owned areas.

  • Why weren't Issawiya's lands legally registered?

    Israel didn't keep records of land ownership and the Jordanian registration documents were disregarded, and now Palestinians can't get building permits. The problem of unauthorized building and demolition orders arose because Israel occupied East Jerusalem and didn't fulfill its administrative obligations. Under occupation, civilians are entitled to civil rights that include National Insurance and building permits. Theoretically people are entitled to a building permit, but in reality it is very difficult, if not impossible, to acquire such a permit. In some areas in Jerusalem land ownership is registered in Israel based upon the Jordanian registration system, Beit Hanina for example. In Issawiya, the municipality did not instigate a procedure and the residents didn't think about it, but it's a long and expensive procedure. A political aspect is also a part of it, meaning if the lands are registered people would have to be granted permits for building and there would have to be planned construction. The planning process Bimkom and the residents of Issawiya undertook was complex, both socially and politically. Say there's a 100 dunam lot and it belongs to ten clans. Land is inherited and so this land would need to be unified and then divided, because it isn't divided into proper plots. A plan would have to register all the residents who claim ownership and then measure the plots. When plots are unified and then divided and distributed it causes problems with the residents, because what happens if instead of your plot you are granted ownership of a plot somewhere else? You could lose plots of land if they are converted to public spaces, and that's part of it. But the public authorities are responsible for the current situation, they issue demolition orders instead of planning, or authorizing plans and resolving the situation.

  • Would registering Issawiya's lands signify that residents accept Israeli sovereignty?

    No. It's a civil matter and shouldn't be linked. I think the municipality should plan East Jerusalem's neighborhoods regardless of political negotiations. I think most people agree. People want to live, even while they wait for the issue of Jerusalem to be resolved. Health and quality of life are linked with a solution. Harming infrastructure, and that's what the municipality is in effect doing, harms security and the residents themselves. Quality of life is related to the political situation and to personal security. Nobody is benefitting from the current situation. If you want to live peacefully, you'll need neighbors who aren't violent or hungry, and that's what happens when you choke them.

  • In your opinion, why doesn't the municipality approve plans or resolve the current situation?

    Our agreement with the municipal officials included the borders of the new plan that was prepared for Issawiya and spans about 700 dunams. Municipal officials retracted their approval. Please understand, this is privately owned land in the neighborhood, not the land expropriated by the state that we are asking to return to the neighborhood.

  • Could you please explain what you mean by expropriated land?

    Issawiya's land is much of the area now called E1, running up to the neighborhood itself, some 12000 dunams. Much of this land, around 9000 dunams, was expropriated by [Israel] after the war in 1967, when Issawiya was conquered.

  • What is the goal of Bimkom's Issawiya project?

    The main goal of the project is to raise the standard of living of the people. Urban planning is very important for people's sense of safety. I will give you an example: a mother worries when her child goes to school by himself because she knows that the road he takes is half a meter wide and isn't paved. The physical planning is part of the people's social security, standard of living, and sense of belonging. You realize that people are often ashamed to admit they are from the Old City [of Jerusalem] or the Shu'fat refugee camp because of the stigma and prejudice that these areas suffer from. The physical planning of residential areas has an effect on people's feelings. I plan to study the psychological and social effects of urban planning in East Jerusalem on its residents. This issue is very important and directly affects people in terms of the prejudices, anxiety, and poverty there. This also applies to Issawiya. We are trying to assist the village in overcoming this by expanding the residential area, creating green areas, and public services. More than 90% of the women of Issawiya are unemployed and there is no outlet for children's energy, so physical space is necessary, in addition to emotional space. In order for women to go out with their children, they need safe places and parks to comfortably spend time in. Currently, there aren't such spots in Issawiya and people are forced to stay in their small homes, which causes physical and mental suffocation. This is what we focus our efforts on.

  • What are the main difficulties you face in your work?

    One difficulty is that there isn't an elected representative body in Issawiya. We had to create a body of representatives from the main families of Issawiya. But these representatives weren't elected by the people of Issawiya and therefore have no authority.

  • What were your criteria for choosing representatives?

    The criteria were the extent of their cooperation and their willingness to work with us. The representation of the community is still a major difficulty we face. The residents of the neighborhood constantly challenge the authority of the representatives we chose. In other words, the people did not recognize the people we chose to represent them. Another difficulty is the communication with and among the community itself. There is a lot of indirect communication and lack of trust. The residents of Issawiya deeply mistrust the local council because it never tried to build trust. The local council has constantly issued fines and demolition orders in response to unauthorized building, and never provided the people of Issawiya a legal alternative. The problem of mistrust between the residents of Issawiya and the City Council concerns us because although Bimkom is an organization working on civil and human rights, it was regarded as part of the governing authority and City Council. We invested a lot of effort in proving the opposite. I am a Palestinian working with Bimkom, which is mainly Jewish. The work we do is joint Arab-Jewish work. My identity is Palestinian, but circumstantially my nationality is Israeli.

  • Can you talk more about the dynamics between the residents of Issawiya and Bimkom, an Israeli organization?

    At first there was mistrust and fear because of who we are. The residents initially feared we were here to work against them or to serve our own interests. At first there were a lot of doubts. Many negative feelings were channeled towards me, personally. In every community there are different groups that belong to different NGOs and planning committees and there are internal disputes. I worked with the Mokhtar of the neighborhood, Darweesh Darweesh, with whom I established a personal relationship. My relationship with him made other people feel excluded and they spoke out against me, and when I worked with those people, others claimed that they were being excluded so I ended up between a rock and a hard place.

  • How did you deal with this challenge?

    We were forced to sit down and talk about it. I clarified that we weren't working against anyone and weren't choosing sides, and that our intentions were to work with the entire neighborhood and create a comfortable working atmosphere in order to progress with the project. I encouraged them to express their thoughts and complaints, because it is impossible to progress without communicating. [At Bimkom] we clarify that when public buildings and roads need to be built on someone's land, someone will have to pay the price. It can't always work out fairly to everyone, sometimes someone is affected [negatively]. We don't intend to hurt anybody, but our work takes into account topographical and engineering considerations. Israel and the [Jerusalem] City Council also set conditions for our work. We don't work in a vacuum, we face many limitations. We explained the technical considerations to the residents and invested a lot in improving communication between us. Today there is trust between me and the residents of Issawiya, and they invite me to their homes. There is so much trust that they talk to me about personal matters and ask for my advice in solving problems. Gaining people's trust wasn't difficult for me, but the work itself was extremely difficult. A writer once said that a meeting between two people is similar to the reaction between two chemical elements. And I don't meet with one other person, I meet with hundreds.

  • You talked about working to prove to the residents of Issawiyah that Bimkom doesn't represent the municipality although you work cooperatively with it. How do you do this, and what are the challenges?

    It's complicated because of the bad feelings the residents have in terms of the municipal authorities. Residents view them as hostile: they deny them services, demolish their houses, refrain from planning the village. The residents all knew about Bimkom, even though for them a Jew is automatically perceived as belonging to the authorities, so it was important for us to explain we have no connection to any formal authority, that we are a civil society organization. We were careful to get this message across and it wasn't easy.

  • What role does your identity as a Palestinian citizen of Israel play in your work? Was accessing the community easier?

    That's a good question. Being a Palestinian and speaking Arabic, I was able to easily interact with the Palestinians, with whom I identify and sympathize. But my Israeli nationality didn't have a negative effect. I think my Israeli nationality and Palestinian identity had a positive affect on my performance because I understand both sides: because I am a Palestinian I can interact with the residents of Issawiya, and because I am a citizen of Israel I understand Israeli internal systems and politics. I speak Hebrew and can understand the Israeli culture. My dual identity helped me to adapt to and balance the two sides. I wouldn't agree to work with Bimkom if there was an atmosphere of racism there. I also would never agree to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and represent Israeli policy. This affects my sense of belonging. I am an Israeli citizen who lives according to Israeli law and rule, but simultaneously I am a Palestinian Arab, part of the Arab culture and history. These two identities sometimes collide, and this shakes the delicate balance. There are Israeli Arabs that adopt Israeli behavior and speak with a Hebrew accent. I think this is negative and motivated by their sense of inferiority. Many Arabs suffer from this sense and think that being "cool" and superior is achieved by mimicking the behavior of others.

  • What do you need in order to work with Israeli organizations?

    I am a human being. How could I work with someone who says we don't have the right to live here and that we should be deported? How could I work with someone who calls for our genocide? What kind of dialogue could I have with such a person? The logic of deprivation is very hard for me to deal with. There is no option for dialogue if your partner hopes for you to die or be deported. I can't have dialogue with people who directly or indirectly wish for my death, who want to deprive me of my pride, honor, and humanity. It isn't a matter of terms; it is a matter of the humanity of the other side. When someone wants to create a social bond, first they seek a common denominator. It is the same with dialogue. I seek dialogue with rational people who possess certain human characteristics and a certain level of flexibility allowing them to accept the opinions of others even though they don't agree with them. I can understand the Israeli suffering and sympathize with the Jewish historical tragedies, but I will never accept the use of their suffering as an excuse for what they do to us. I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel and may not physically suffer at the hands of the occupation on the personal level, but every day I witness the atrocities on TV and the discrimination and oppression in Jerusalem. I conduct my daily life in this climate. I am a person with honor and pride, and so are the Palestinians. We Palestinians have the ability to say "No" and "No" again.

  • Some people claim that part of what motivates people to work in joint projects is the financial aspect and claim that some organizations have turned into businesses. What do you think about that?

    I disagree, because Bimkom is different. We are professionals. It is true that our work is conducted by both Israelis and Palestinians, but is illogical that someone like me, for example, work 60 or 70 hours every month voluntarily. I have other responsibilities and commitments. At first I did ask to work as a volunteer. I didn't want money because I worked elsewhere, but when I was told that this work required extensive effort and work hours I began to work here full time. Maybe some people view the work with such associations as business, but I believe otherwise. I think that the financial aspect is important, nobody can deny this, but I also think that social and cultural issues are no less important. During our negotiations with an organization from Tel Aviv there was a woman who was only interested in her paycheck at the end of the month and another woman who tried to convince her of the importance of the social aspects I talked about. There are many perspectives concerning this issue, and therefore we can't generalize and say that these associations only have a financial side.

  • What are the most important lessons you've learned through this work?

    I learned not to generalize; not all the Palestinians are the same as not all the Israelis are the same. I learned not to think in absolute terms; not everything is black and white, there is also pink, green and red. We should try to see the whole picture, not only part of it. For example: if there is an Israeli who called us cockroaches and animals, this doesn't mean all the Israelis think of us in this way, and if a Palestinian describes the Jews as animals, he doesn't represent all the Palestinians. If a Palestinian caused harm to the Jews, that doesn't necessarily mean he did this because he wants to hurt the Jews. Rather, maybe he caused harm because of the oppression he endured. I am not justifying these actions; I am only explaining the motives. If an Israeli says he hates the Arabs, I can understand why he says this, but I don't legitimize such views. Another lesson I learned is that despite the harsh circumstances and situation there is still a chance for co-existence in the region. In order to achieve this we must end this state of extremism. If Israel and the Zionist movement stole our land, for example, we shouldn't aim to erase them totally; we should seek other ways.  Despite the pains of the past, the realistic fact is that they are present here. An example of an alternative way to total war is for Israel to claim historical responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy, in order to live together. This is an example of the desired flexibility. The same is true about the Palestinian leadership. We can understand and sympathize with the pain of the Jews, but we will not accept their actions against us.  At the same time we don't seek to destroy them. The matters should be more integrative.

  • What is you vision for a solution?

    The ideal solution in my opinion is a bi-national state from Ra'as Al Nakora to Rafah which would also include the West Bank. This state should be democratic and have one elected government and parliament. There can be a division of power in the form of a Palestinian prime minister and an Israeli president, etc. This idea is difficult to implement, especially when it comes to legislation, which is a philosophical issue only made harder by the cultural differences between the two peoples. A bi-national state is the best and only solution.

  • What is required in order to reach this solution?

    This is a hard question. Israel rejects this idea, the main reason being their fear of becoming a demographic minority. This contradicts the main base upon which the state of Israel was created, as a Jewish state that is a home for the Jewish people. There is a difference between the ideal solution and the realistic solution. The realistic solution is the two state solution with a Palestinian state on the lands of 1967 alongside the state of Israel. Yesterday I was joking with a colleague in Bimkom while discussing a recent survey that showed that 40% of the Israelis supported the transfer of the Palestinians.1 I said that this is a good idea, if the Israelis would build us an upper floor to live on. She said she feared the floor the Israelis would build us will be underground.

    • 1See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/mar/24/israel

  • Do you think you will live to see peace during your lifetime?

    I am now 31 years old. If I live to be 70, there is a good chance.