As a result of the Israeli occupation, and specifically after the Oslo Accords, East Jerusalem has been isolated. Jerusalemites have become political orphans, unable to connect with their natural leadership in Ramallah, while not being allowed to develop their own local leadership. Palestinian institutions, like the Orient House, the Chamber of Commerce and others, have been closed upon orders of the Israeli forces that used the 1945 British Mandatory Emergency regulations. Any event that has the smell of the Palestinian government or the Palestine Liberation Organisation is immediately and brutally banned by Israel. At one time, Israeli forces closed down the national Palestinian theatre because it was organising a children’s puppet festival that was funded by Norway by means of the Palestinian ministry of culture.
The one institution that has largely been spared from this direct Israeli carnage has been the Jordanian awqaf (endowment), which is responsible for administrating Islamic holy sites and institutions in Jerusalem. But for years, the awqaf council has been largely manned with religious leaders who have no political backbone or will to confront the Israelis and defend the rights of Muslims in their own mosque.
This orphanage drought appears to be ending as a result of two events. The first is a popular act by the people of Jerusalem, and the second a governmental decision by the Jordanian Royal Palace.
The popular act was the confrontation by the people of Jerusalem to the Israeli attempt to place metal detectors at the entrance of Al Aqsa mosque. An 11-day stand-off in July 2017, which witnessed Muslim worshippers refusing to enter the mosque under the new Israeli restrictions, ended with the Israelis capitulating and removing the controversial metal detectors.
The decision by the Jordanian Royal Palace was carried out in the form of appointing a new council for the Jerusalem awqaf. The new five-year council was appointed at the regular expiration of the previous council. The new council has been expanded from 11 to 18 members, includes some of the local religious and political leaders who were active in the July 2017 stand-off and hosts a wide array of leaders, including members who represent higher education institutions, media practitioners, think-tank experts and political symbols reflecting Palestinian nationalists’ tendencies.
What was impressive was not only that the newly-established awqaf council had an array of members representing different local leadership portfolios, but the fact was that the new council hit the ground running. On its very first meeting on February 17, the council decided to hold part of its first session at a location within the 144-dunum Al Haram Al Sharif that Israel has unilaterally banned Muslims from using since 2003, despite regular calls by Jordan to rescind this decision. By leading in action, the newly-established and empowered council showed that it is willing to take concrete steps to protect and defend Palestinian and Muslim rights in Jerusalem.
The setup of the new council indicates that it will be more than a simple religious council. The Jerusalem awqaf owns and administers schools, vocational training centres and other social activities. Therefore, the council is well within its power to create an entity that includes experts in various fields.
It is not clear where the present crisis will lead or whether it will have wider implications as far as the status of East Jerusalem, as far as issues regarding the daily life of Palestinians in the Holy City. But what is clear from the popular positive reaction from the people of Jerusalem is that this new council will help provide a workable reference point for the political orphans of Jerusalem. It remains unclear whether the inauguration of this council will spell the end of this political orphanage or not.