Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year received some overwhelming global opposition, leading to the UN to resoundingly reject the declaration. InQuire’s Jake Metcalf interviews University of Kent student Ahmad Muna, a native of Jerusalem, about Trump’s statement.
Please can you say a bit about who you are: where you live, your connection to Kent, your job etc.
My name is Ahmad Muna. I was born and brought up in East Jerusalem. When I was 18, I went to study Accounting and Finance at the University of Kent, and I also completed my Masters in Financial Markets at the same University. Since [returning to Jerusalem] I have joined my family business which is a bookshop where I am now a store manager. I have recently started working on a new start up which is a tea company, basically producing new herbal tea blends from the Holy Land which we are going to sell abroad. We’re still in the very early stages but we will soon be open, I think.
How long has that business been in your family?
This business started in 1986, so 31 years. It is a three branch business. One is the stationary and Arabic bookstore, the second one is an English bookstore and a coffee shop. It’s a three story building and on the bottom floor we do events like book readings, movie screenings and talks. The last branch is the small English bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. We have books that discuss various issues on the region of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict from all aspects: women’s issues, war crimes, historical novels, graphic novels, cookbooks, maps.
Trump has recently declared that the US government is to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, what does that mean for Palestinians?
He did two things. He recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and he has given orders for the US embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Now, to Palestinians and to Jerusalemites, Jerusalem is the bottom line. There are two things i would like to mention on this: first is the Oslo agreement signed in 1993. It states that over the following five years, various topics would be discussed as part of the peace process, one of them was Jerusalem. A final settlement was to be made but it wasn’t decided what was going to happen to Jerusalem: whose capital it was going to be. Then the peace process stopped and nothing has, since, been agreed.
Why is what Trump has done dangerous? It is dangerous because the issue of Jerusalem can only be decided through the framework of the peace process and two-state solution. Both Palestinians and Israelis should have a say on this issue, not Mr Trumpwho is not a Palestinian or an Israeli. He lives 8,000 miles away: he is a failed businessman, he is a capitalist, he does not come from a political background and he is certainly not the most knowledgeable about politics.
I wanted to know what you thought of the recent EU leaders’ responses, they were rather mild it seemed.
Yes, they were not firm, but the issue is that these governments cannot force Israel, a country which defies international law. There is some sort of rudeness involved in running the state of Israel that I have not seen in any other country. And they have the US at their back: through the Israeli lobby and a President who is very much aligned with Israel.
How do you see the US’s relationship with both and how important do you think that is?
It’s very important because it is the country that we count on, or used to count on, in terms of brokering the peace deal. However, the US position has never been as clear as it is now. I can’t trust the US anymore to bring me a fair and just solution for my country because it has automatically given the other party something that I was very concerned about.
We’ve spoken about what governments can do, is there an answer perhaps in what ordinary people can do?
If you were to ask me I would ask people to write to their MPs, to boycott Israeli products; I would ask people to educate themselves and others. While the issue has become more mainstream in recent years, there are still a lot of people who are not really educated about this conflict. You may be informed about this issue but your neighbour may not be. Or they may have a different opinion than you, they might also have been brainwashed by the media. Therefore I would encourage you to talk about it and raise more awareness.
I wanted to talk about your personal experiences. Your family, are they in Jerusalem? What have your experiences been living in Jerusalem and what have their experiences been?
As far as I can remember, going back to my ancestors, they have all lived in Jerusalem. I feel at home here, I know these streets and I have an attachment to Jerusalem. But living here has not been easy, there are limitations. In London for example, you have your Oyster and the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. The chances of you being stopped by the police are almost zero. Whereas I experience checkpoints every day: last year it took me an hour to get to work and normally it takes me ten minutes. Also last year, I got off my motorbike at a checkpoint and everything was taken out of my pockets and I was stripped in the street because the police thought I had a knife with me.
What did they say their evidence was for doing this?
There was no reason for this. When you are on your way to work and you have somebody closing the road and they have rifles and guns, you don’t want to be asking the wrong question.
Even in terms of committing traffic offences there are issues. Last Saturday, I came back home from work and as I passed through four traffic lights: at each one there were two police cars. It’s crazy, there were eight police cars in total over a distance of four miles. It’s like somebody is waiting for you to make a mistake.
So you feel like you are being watched at all times and if you’re not totally adhering to rules then they may do whatever they want and even if you don’t do anything wrong then you may also suffer the consequences of someone else’s anger.
Yes, collective punishment is an approach that Israel has used forever. You know, somebody in your neighbourhood does something that Israel doesn’t like, for them it’s easy, they just punish the whole neighbourhood. A few years ago, they sprayed the shops on a main commercial street with skunk water. Skunk water is the dirty water from the sewage.
Could you provide an example of the other side, an aspect of Jerusalem that makes you feel comfortable?
There are more feelings than actions. It’s where my family comes from, that heritage that I carry with me. I think a lot of this feeling comes from the fear of losing it because, this is exactly and precisely what is dangerous about this announcement; you always fear that you will one day not be able to come to Jerusalem. There’s actually a law in Israel that states if you live outside of Israel for seven continuous years then you lose your residency. I am a Palestinian, who lives inside Israel basically, but I am not an Israeli; I don’t have Israeli citizenship and I don’t have a Palestinian citizenship either . I have an Israeli residency that allows me to stay in Jerusalem but it can be lost – this is a weird law and it doesn’t exist anywhere else and people have lost their residency because of this law. This is crazy, especially when you think about the EU and how freely people can move out of any country and go back at any point in time.
This is why a lot of people are very angry about the declaration because of the thought of losing your home. Imagine, for instance, that Macron (French president) decides tomorrow that London is going to be the capital of Germany. It’s that crazy.
Jerusalem has a mixed demographic of nationalities and faiths. Can you talk about your interactions with those that do not share your religious and national background?
So Jerusalem has about just under a million inhabitants and about a third of them are Palestinians, two thirds are Israelis. The Israelis are Jews, the Palestinians are mostly Muslims but there are also some Christians. I think about 5% are Christians. There is a lot of interaction amongst the Palestinians, regardless of their religion. In terms of the Jewish population, the interaction is not based on religion but it’s rather the identity of being an Israeli with a government that occupies us. So it’s very rare that you have Israeli friends that you will go out for a drink with in Jerusalem. A lot of the interaction is just for business purposes, or when you renew your passport, you have to go to the Israeli authorities because they’re the ones who issue travel documents and your ID and so on.
Would you say that the government’s attitude towards Palestinians has trickled down to most of the population in terms of how the Israeli population sees Palestinians?
Yes but it’s not only that. This doesn’t just start when you have to deal directly with the government and its institutions after 18, this starts in your geography book and in your history book when you’re in primary school. For example, how do you explain to kids why Palestine is not on a map, or why in the West Bank they don’t have a sea? So you get quickly into politics at a young age, its not only the government, it starts at home, it starts on your way from home to school and you pass by a checkpoint, it’s all these encounters that affect you on a daily basis that build up your opinion. If you’re a kid and you ask why you’re being stopped and you’re told that it’s because you’re Palestinian, that’s enough. It’s enough for you to understand how things work, who has power and who you can or cannot trust. And on the Israeli side, it is similar, it is what you are a being taught about the Palestinians and in their history there are a couple of books written about the Israeli school books and what they are being told about Palestinians and their history and so on. I can tell you that it’s not pleasant; it’s not appreciative, on the contrary, it is hostile
Do you think that this attitude is dying out amongst younger generations of Israelis?
No. I can’t tell you its being taken away, I can’t tell you that. I can’t tell you its decreasing. The action of apartheid and the action of occupation is very vivid in people’s minds because it happens everyday.
What are your hopes for an end to the conflict and for peace?
At the end of the day, I don’t want something that is unreasonable; I want to live in dignity. I certainly don’t want to bring up kids and to have to tell them they have to be back home early when they’re fifteen or sixteen and want to go out with their friends. I don’t want to be that parent that tells them that they have to be home at eight or they can’t go out at the weekend because I’m afraid something is going to happen. And living under occupation you are forced to do so. You are also forced to constantly think that something bad can happen any minute.
I’m not the kind of person that goes out to throw stones in the clashes or encourages incitement of violence, on the contrary. But because of the collective punishment, you’re a target without even doing anything. I don’t want to live anymore of that. I am someone who wants to see a solution during my lifetime. Having said that, I am not going to compromise on my rights. If I have rights, under international law, then Israel has to comply.
Is there anything that you’d like to say that you feel hasn’t been covered?
I think that when we look at Trump's announcement in the future – it is unclear at the moment – but I think that it will be the day that officially marks the end of the peace process, or at least this process as we know it now. The peace process as we know it, based on the Oslo Accords is to have Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and Israel. But Trump didn’t make this distinction: he just said Jerusalem. And Israel, now, is going to talk about Jerusalem as a whole.
People say that if you want peace then you will have to compromise, what do the Palestinians have left to compromise on? What is left that you need from the Palestinians? How can Trump take sides in this conflict and still say that the US is committed to finding a solution? He has clearly taken a side in this conflict, and the Palestinians are the ones left to suffer after all.