Will Israel accept UAE donations to East Jerusalem?

Former Fatah member Mohammed Dahlan appears to have caught Israel by surprise with an announcement of a $70 million donation from the UAE for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

al-monitor Birds fly on a foggy day near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Jan. 2, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Apr 26, 2018

Mohammed Dahlan is known for his expertise in raising funds from leaders of the Gulf states for Palestinian residents of Gaza Strip and West Bank refugee camps. The loyal associates of the Gaza-born politician and former senior member of Fatah call themselves Jamaat Abu Fadi — that is, Abu Fadi’s group, using his Arabic honorific. They recount proudly how he charms emirs, princes and oil tycoons in the Gulf principalities and mobilizes their assistance for his people, primarily the 2 million Gaza residents now suffering under an Israeli and Egyptian siege of more than a decade.

Dahlan's opponents, loyalists of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, claim that his fundraising for the refugee camps is designed to strengthen Dahlan’s standing and garner sufficient support for him to replace Abbas when the time comes. Nevertheless, Abbas has not dared block the funds raised by his rival for West Bank refugee camps, lest he be accused of harming West Bank residents just to poke Dahlan in the eye. Meanwhile, Gaza's Hamas rulers credit Dahlan with the successful reconciliation between the Islamist group and Egypt, restored deliveries of diesel and other fuel from Egypt to Gaza and grants for infrastructure improvements, as well as aid for the needy, help for young couples, arrangements for mass weddings and housing assistance.

Israel is officially encouraging donor states to mobilize for Gaza’s reconstruction, fearing that a deeper humanitarian crisis in the enclave will result in an escalation of violence in the region. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, took part in an emergency meeting of Western and Arab donor states in January in Brussels and a previous meeting, in New York last September, urging them to help Gaza.

As long as “Dahlan’s funds” reached Gaza, and even the West Bank, everyone was satisfied. Israel even turned a blind eye when Qatar provided funding for projects to benefit Israeli Arab citizens, including the construction of a football stadium in the Galilee town of Sakhnin named after the Qatari capital, Doha. In an April 23 tweet, however, Dahlan signaled that he is no longer content with channeling funds to Gaza and the West Bank and has found a new target — Jerusalem.

Dahlan praised leaders of the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates for their generous $70 million donation to help the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and to strengthen what he called the “city’s Arab Muslim identity.” Part of the money is intended for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides crucial aid to Gaza and has had funding cut by the United States.

Unlike Israel’s acceptance of Dahlan’s involvement in fundraising for Gaza and the West Bank, his attempt to gain a foothold in Jerusalem is an altogether different ballgame. Although Dahlan did not mention where the sizable UAE donation was going, it is likely to be used to help the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods close the tremendous socio-economic gaps with their Jewish neighbors, who are funded far more generously by city authorities.

One of Dahlan’s associates in the West Bank, who requested anonymity in part because he and his friends are hounded by the Palestinian Authority (PA), told Al-Monitor that the idea is to establish a central foundation to funnel assistance to local neighborhood councils in East Jerusalem. These, in turn, will distribute the money to welfare, education, sports institutions and facilities for the elderly. “That is exactly what the Jerusalem municipality should be doing but does not do,” the associate said.

Dahlan is making his move as the ongoing struggle for Jerusalem’s identity hits a peak following President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December and the planned inauguration of the US Embassy there in mid-May. At the same time, Israel is seeking to suppress every Palestinian vestige in the city. Every Palestinian office or institution thought to be promoting the PA’s interests in the city is handed a closure notice. Police, sometimes aided by Shin Bet operatives, act with determination to shut them down and indict their owners.

The latest round of arrests in East Jerusalem took place in November, with police rounding up 17 Palestinian residents of the city and the West Bank on suspicion of helping the PA conduct a census in Palestinian neighborhoods. A police statement said the arrests were the culmination of an undercover investigation of suspicions that the PA was operating within the boundaries of municipal Jerusalem in violation of the law. The Palestinian al-Hakawati Theater in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has received several closure notices over the years. In December 2016, police raided the theater, claiming that a memorial gathering for a 17-year-old teen killed in demonstrations in the Silwan neighborhood had been organized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, an organization Israel has outlawed. 

This is just a limited sampling of events and institutions targeted by Israeli police and Shin Bet out of fear that the PA is trying to create a presence in East Jerusalem, which would provide it with a future foothold in the contested city. While Dahlan is not associated with the PA, Israel regards his involvement with Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods as a potentially troubling precedent. Israel has never confronted the funneling of Arab money to the city, certainly not from an Arab state or emirate and not when the funds are meant to strengthen the city’s Arab Muslim identity.

Al-Monitor sought the reaction of the Jerusalem municipality, but its spokespeople claimed to be unfamiliar with the issue and asked for time to examine it thoroughly before responding. Al-Monitor also asked Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman whether his office knows of Dahlan’s intention to channel UAE money to the city. In 2015, foreign media reported that Liberman had met with Dahlan and would be happy to see him succeed Abbas. So far, Liberman has not responded. Dahlan’s tweet seems to have caught the Defense Ministry by surprise.

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