Tsur Baher Community Dialogue

Emergency Services in the Storm of the Century – MiniActive and Emergency Response Networks Join Forces

December 12 – 15, 2013. More than a foot of snow falls on Jerusalem over 2 days. It’s the worst December snow storm in Jerusalem since weather conditions began being recorded more than 100 years ago. Trees were down, electricity and telephone lines were knocked out, roads were blocked – all over Jerusalem. Residents were without electricity and telephone service for days. In a region where one snowstorm is considered unusual (Before the snowstorm in January 2013, the previous last snowstorm to hit Jerusalem was in 2008.), a storm of this magnitude had the potential of being devastating and disastrous, especially for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, where physical infrastructures lag far behind other areas of Jerusalem and Israel.

We are proud to have 2 programs – MiniActive and Emergency Response Networks – that took leading rolls in helping the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem weather the storm, again. It can even be said that in the chaos that the storm brought, the networks we cultivated (MiniActive and Emergency Response Networks, see below) were the only ones that actually functioned. Not only did they function, they joined together to help residents weather the storm.

MiniActive set up virtual and real ‘situation rooms’ that coordinated the onslaught of reports and problems from the field, via its hundreds of volunteers throughout East Jerusalem. Those in the situation rooms were in constant contact with the appropriate service providers – from the electric, telephone and gas companies, with the Emergency Response Networks to try and clear roads and deliver vital goods to stranded families, to the municipality, reporting fallen trees – to report damages and find solutions to these and other urgent problems. Updates were uploaded to the MiniActive Facebook page.

Special cars used to help residents

Special cars used to help residents

The Emergency Response Networks that had been organized in a number of Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in and around Jerusalem were as ready as they could be. The populations of these areas had already been mapped (to know where all the doctors, nurses, social workers, contractors, owners of tractors and 4X4 vehicles were, etc. See here for more information). Practice drills had already taken place. So when the snow began to fall, the Networks knew what to do. They worked throughout East Jerusalem, from Jebel Mukaber and Sur Baher in the south to Silwan, and Sheikh Jarrach to Beit Hanina and Shuafat in the north, and even extended beyond the security fence to Kufr Aqeb. They succeeded in recruiting all the local 4×4 vehicles, tractors and other heavy machinery to clear away snow and provide aid to individuals in need. They cleared snow and alerted others to hazards. They helped go door to door to deliver emergency assistance to those in need.

Besides the immediate emergency relief, both programs cultivated communication between residents, and between residents and service providers. Residents gained confidence in their ability to take care of themselves. The end result – community solidarity toward improving their everyday future, together.

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Neighbors as Your Safety Net: Community Empowerment toward Emergency Readiness

Neighbors can be problematic (click here for a recent post about such neighbors), but they can also save your life, especially in an emergency. In the Emergency Response Networks program in east Jerusalem, we are helping bottom-up grassroots initiatives of residents to build the skills and capacity for emergency preparedness.

Imagine an earthquake. Especially in an area such as east Jerusalem, where infrastructure is poor – roads are narrow and poorly kept on good days, many buildings and additions did not take into consideration building codes and safety standards.

There is no time. Buildings have crumbled. Pipes and gas lines might have burst, power lines might be down. People might be trapped, and time is not on your side. All around the world, experts say that for the first few days – the community cannot hope for rescue teams to come from somewhere else. The formal rescue teams are going to be busy, very busy.

The best solution for these first few days is a team of local volunteers, who are responsible for the Emergency Response Network of the neighborhood. This team is trained in advance. As a part of their preparation, they create a detailed plan to have in place. All relevant infrastructure and equipment in the neighborhood will have been mapped – the schools and other public buildings, the health clinics, ambulances and other medical equipment, bulldozers, trucks and other heavy machinery, everything possible in the neighborhood that might help in an emergency. All relevant professionals in the neighborhood will also have been mapped and coordinated – from nurses and doctors to social workers to construction workers and engineers. They will have been organized into clusters by a number of resident-cluster heads. The Israeli police and other rescue workers will also have been notified, so that they know who from the neighborhood is in charge and so that rescue efforts can be streamlined.

We’ve been working to develop such Emergency Response Networks for the past 3 years, and currently there are trained teams in the neighborhoods of Jabel El-Mukaber and Silwan, Abu-Tor and Sur Baher, covering tens of thousands of east Jerusalem residents (out of 300,000 residents in East Jerusalem). Today they undergo practice simulation exercises like those described above. An earthquake is just one example of such an emergency to be prepared for. The concept of local team based on residents is novel. Usually in Israel these “local teams” are based on professionals who work in the community. But many of them reside outside the community, and it might be that in an emergency such as an earthquake, they will find it hard to come. The intensive mapping of resources is also unique to East Jerusalem – in neighborhoods that were originally villages of a few large families, where most people knew each other anyway, mapping and recruitment of community members that have expertise and tools (As bulldozers) is easier.

But we were frustrated…. The current training model enabled us to cover just 10% of East Jerusalem over 3 years. So now, based on what we’ve learnt so far, we are improving our pace. Utilizing a ‘Train the Trainers’ methodology, we are on the brink of training teams in all east Jerusalem neighborhoods over the next 2 years. Starting next week, on May 20, we are supervising the training of 12 Emergency Response Network trainers. These leaders had been trained before to be in their own local emergency team; now we are training them to train others. When these trainers complete the 40 hour course by the middle of July, they will then be able to organize and train volunteers in each of the neighborhoods, and survey the physical and human infrastructure in the neighborhoods. That work will take time (albeit, much less than in our previous model), but the results will be well worth the wait.

What is fascinating about this project is that neighborhoods do not only learn to save lives and save their neighborhoods in the case of an emergency. They also get to know one another and pool local resources. They are been empowered to help their community, whether they are doctors, social workers, teachers or construction workers. They are their own safety net. In the week of flood this winter (that ended with a full-blown snowstorm), these teams helped a lot in solving local problems of closed roads etc., whenever the citywide limited resources could not get in. This week showed the importance of these networks, even without major emergency situation.

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A New Model for Resident Participation in East Jerusalem – an Article

We just published an article, together with the Alquds Dialogue Center, at Search for Common Ground (SFCG) Newservice, on our model for resident participation in East Jerusalem. Here are the links and the text:

SFCG: English, Arabic, Hebrew.

PDF (English).


A new model for resident participation in East Jerusalem
by Fuad Abu Hamed & Hagai Agmon-Snir

03 September 2009

JERUSALEM – All over the western world, community empowerment programmes encourage resident participation by involving community leaders and organisers in decisions about the city in which they live. What could be better than the authorities and residents coming together to take joint responsibility for municipal challenges? It seems that in East Jerusalem, all this is not so straightforward.

For those who aren’t familiar with East Jerusalem, the Palestinian residents living in this part of the city constitute a third of its population. Their neighbourhoods and villages have been neglected for years by the Israeli establishment. In fact, significant discrepancies between East and West Jerusalem exist in every area of life.

In theory, the Palestinians could take action and change their situation. Most of them hold permanent residency rights and are eligible to vote in municipal elections and run for municipal office. They can also join a variety of frameworks that would allow them to influence municipal institutions such as parent committees, activist groups working to improve infrastructure together with municipal officials, committees within community administrations which encourage resident involvement and more.

Yet their level of involvement is very minimal. Instead, frustration and despair, and, to a large extent, passivity and acceptance of the situation have taken over. However, if we speak to residents across the city, we will discover that they are very aware of their rights and obligations. In order not to lose their residency rights, they pay municipal taxes consistently (if they don’t pay this tax, they could lose proof of residency within the city boundaries) and are very keen to realise their rights to healthcare, education, housing etc.

There are many reasons for their lack of involvement. First, any cooperation on the part of the residents with the Israeli authorities may be construed as a stamp of approval for the continuing occupation. Secondly, the various arms of the Israeli establishment discourage leadership in Jerusalem which “could get out of hand”. And third, regional and local chaos generates a sense that circumstances are determined by events that are beyond their control. As a result, the dominant approach is to refrain from involvement, while waiting for an outside source to come and save them.

So when seeds of a new approach emerge it is important to take note. For example, in the neighbourhood of Tsur Baher, which is a village in the southeast of Jerusalem, a group of residents came together a few years ago and set up a “committee supporting education”. The committee works to improve the educational systems in the village which are operated by various elements – the Jerusalem municipality, the Islamic Waqf, UNRWA etc.

Instead of waiting for change, the group held a week of educational activities in the village, the pinnacle of which was a day of discussions in the form of “an open space meeting”, which was moderated by the Jerusalem Intercultural Center. The event was widely attended by local residents, principals, teachers, students and key figures in the area of education in the village and beyond, including senior education officials from the municipality.

In other cities this would not constitute anything new but in Jerusalem an initiative led by residents of the eastern neighbourhoods is rare and many people within the establishment were surprised by its success.

What was novel about the event was the statement that informed the whole event: “We are partners to the change that has to happen in the village”. Instead of just accusing the authorities and demanding that they take action and allocate resources, there was a request to look for joint solutions – to be shared by both the authorities and the residents.

In a city like Jerusalem, this kind of development tends to give rise to a great deal of suspicion. The education administration within the municipality which is responsible for East Jerusalem panicked because collaboration with residents is no small nuisance for a dysfunctional system. In the village itself there were voices calling to boycott any dialogue with the municipality which is part of the apparatus that serves the occupation. There were quite a few figures from both the village and the municipality who did not attend events organised by the residents – the necessary conceptual shift that they would have needed to make was too far-reaching, at least for now.

To overcome these suspicions, the activists turned to two organisations to mediate between them and the establishment: the “Al Quds Dialogue Center”, which is a Palestinian Jerusalem-based organisation, and the “Jerusalem Intercultural Center”, a pan-cultural Jerusalem-based organisation. On the one hand these organisations work to persuade the establishment that collaborative efforts with the residents will assist in the provision of services. On the other hand, for the residents, they help clarify the distinction between collaborative efforts on the one hand, and accepting the occupation and cooperating with its messages, on the other.

The process makes for a very delicate balancing act in an extremely sensitive political climate. The tense atmosphere gives rise to mutual suspicions. Are the groups of activists what Israel calls “a hostile terror-supporting organisation” or are they “collaborators, agents of the Israeli occupation”? These suspicions have concrete implications. Any mistake could put the activists in harms way. Therefore, mediating organisations are extremely important in making a collaborative effort possible.

Education in Tsur Baher is just one example. Similar initiatives are beginning to emerge in other neighbourhoods and areas of life such as rubbish disposal, a mother and baby centre in the village of Silwan, Arabic translations of municipal forms, pedestrian crossings and road safety programmes for school children.

We hope we are witnessing the development of a new model for the advancement of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, a mechanism that can improve their quality of life until a permanent and just solution is found for the city and the region as a whole. Perhaps also this type of model could be implemented in other places in the world which share a reality similar to that which exists in Jerusalem.


* Fuad Abu-Hamed, a resident of Tsur Baher, is the chairperson of the Alquds Dialogue Center (http://alquds-dc.org), a businessman and a social activist. He can be reached at bsafafa@zahav.net.il . Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir is the director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center ( JICC, http://JICC.org.il) and can be reached at hagai@jicc.org.il. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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Tsur Baher – educational issues – February 24, 2009

To continue the community process around education in Tsur Baher, we had today a special meeting in the village. All relevant stakeholders were present – school principals, Ministry of Education inspectors and Municipality officials including the head of the Municipality Education Department and Pepe Alalo, Jerusalem Mayor Deputy who is responsible for Education in east Jerusalem. Mr. Alalo, who was elected in November, came to learn about the process and its potential outcomes. Also in attendance were formal representatives of Tsur baher village, and representatives of the JICC and the Jerusalem Foundation.

To be honest, we were disappointed with the meeting. We felt that even though many promises were made by the municipality last December, not much has been done since then. The excuses of some of the municipality and government officials made the impression that the commitment to make a sincere change in Tzur Baher is lacking. We all understood that the head of the municipality education department must make a considerable effort in order to recruit his staff into the process. Otherwise, our more than a year old pilot project will lead us nowhere.

It is our role at the JICC to facilitate such community dialogue processes. Regression is to be expected at some points during such initiatives. It is our duty to help the sides see when is the process at risk, and we did just that at the meeting, ensuring that meetings will be conducted in the coming days to find out how can we put this important process back to track.

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Tsur Baher – educational issues – December 1, 2008

To continue the community process around education in Tsur Baher, we held today another meeting at the office of the head of the municipality Education Department.

Yet this was a different meeting, where the Tsur Baher school principals were invited to present their schools, including facts and issues that can affect decision-making in the future. This was the first time that a group of municiapl officials and community residents sat together to listen to such comprehensive presentations.

The meeting lasted two hours. At its conclusion it was decided that the next meeting in January will be held in Tsur Baher and will focus on responses to the main issues raised in the presentations.

After a year-long process it seems at this point that some trust and common understanding is shared by the stakeholders of this process.

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Tsur Baher – educational issues – October 6, 2008

Short background: Mr. Fouad Abu-Khammed, a businessman who was on the JICC board for many years, is one of the main lay-leaders of Tsur Baher – a Palestinian/Arab village in South-East Jerusalem. The JICC helped Abu-Khammed in establishing a connection between the lay-leaders’ education committee that he heads in the village, and Jerusalem municipality high officials. As a result, a unique process for improving the education system in Tsur Baher has been instigated, and a project coordinator, Carol Kasbari, was hired especially for this task. With the help of the Jerusalem Foundation and the Municipality Education Department, results are being seen on the ground. The JICC played a significant role in creating an enabling setting for the inter-cultural talks between the sides, which in Jerusalem are so often linked to global politics. At this point, the JICC serves as a consultant to the process and as an inter-cultural problem solver.

Today, we held one of the monthly meetings at the office of the head of the municipality Education Department. Representatives of the Tsur Baher lay-leadership, the Jerusalem Foundation, the municipality, and of course ourselves, heard Carol’s report on the achievements to date. Following a year and a half of discussions, many of which dealing with issues of inter-cultural communication and conflicts, today’s meeting revealed growing tendency for partnership and for understanding of the shared mission. Although many current solutions focus on “low hanging fruits”, these are very important, for example investment in laboratories and in classroom assistance. The strategic plan will have to tackle issues such as quality of teaching, violence and discipline. The role of the principals in leading the process was emphasized, but it is important to note that one of the original challenges in Tsur Baher was the lack of trust between these principals and the residents (although some of the principals reside in the village).

In November we will hold another meeting, and we’ll be able to see whether the positive attitude is still sustained in this important process.

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