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‘We are not second class citizens, we are fifth class citizens’: Interview with Educational Bookshop owner Mahmoud Muna

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Mahmoud Muna (Photo: Pamela Rillon)

Mahmoud Muna (Photo: Pamela Rillon)

There it was, in the middle of the frenzy of Salah Eddin Street, the oasis called “The Educational Bookshop“.  Highly recommended to me in my home country of Chile, the recommendations fell short. I was dazzled. I loved its spectacular modern architecture, bookshelves, coffees, muffins and an atmosphere that only the magnificent city of Jerusalem can offer. Every time I went, Mahmoud Muna was attending the cash register. As a manager of the family business he always greeted me with a quiet and Zen moderation. A patience that contrasted with my hyperventilating Latina blood that fueled me to buy books as if the world were ending. With infinite patience, Mahmoud helped me buy piles of books (book tax in Chile is 19%), and assisted me in locating difficult to find publications that Chilean-Palestinians friends had requested I bring back for them.

During the long hours that I spend at the bookstore, I wondered about how is it to be an Arab resident in East Jerusalem. One day my journalist soul couldn’t hold it anymore. I asked for an interview. I thought I would have to argue why. He did not resist.  Jerusalemites know they are world news.

The Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Pamela Rillon)

The Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Pamela Rillon)

Raised in the city’s schools and having done three years of studies in local universities, he did not finished due to the political situation.  After the last Intifada, Mahmoud leaves to study in the UK. From Europe he returned more open minded, and with a degree in Computer Science, a MA in Digital Media from the University of Sussex and a MA in Communications and Public Relations from Kings College in London. Mahmoud was very happy in England. The multiculturalism really captivated him, as did the dream of staying ten years there to establish a career. However, he also knew that wish was impossible to reach. Any citizen of the world with a job offer can stay in any country, as long as he wants, but not him. He doesn’t have that right; instead, he has a duty.

Living Inequality

In a corner of the bookshop we talked and sometimes laughed. Well, I laughed, and he with his usual parsimony, smiled. Two words into the conversation and I knew I was in front of a highly educated person, but at the same time very grounded and practical.

Is there a dilemma of being a Jewish and democratic state?

It’s a big discussion now. You can’t have a Jewish and democratic state. I don’t consider Judaism as an ethnicity; I consider it as a religion. For me anyone can be Jewish, and any person can stop being Jewish. This seems different than the views of the state of Israel, which believes that you are born Jewish. This a very important junction, because it make a huge different in how we perceived the state and how they perceived us.

How does the state perceived you?

For them, there is not a problem of saying a Jewish state for the Jewish people, because for them Jewish people is like talking about a nationality. It’s like saying France is for the French, Germany is for the Germans, Israel is for the Jewish people. For me, Israel statement is unadaptable to democracy, because Judaism is a religion and in the 21st century we don’t have religious states. We have the Vatican, Iran, we have Saudi Arabia, but I don’t thing the world is very happy with them. In the 21st century we are looking for democratic states that represents everyone regardless their religion, color, ethnicity…

Many countries in Latin America call themselves Catholic, but they are democratic.

Exactly, because the laws of the countries are civic. The people who decided on what it is possible, what is allowed or not are not the people of the church, are the people in the parliament. In Israel we have a parliament, but it is hugely influenced by the religious institutions. How can we be non-Jewish in a Jewish state? We will definitely be discriminated against from the start. Because we belong to a state, that doesn’t belong to us technically. Because if you say a Jewish state and I’m not Jewish, then it is not my state.

If Israel separates religion from the state more, would you accept it as a Jewish state? 

Then you wouldn’t say a Jewish state. Because you don’t say in Chile, a Christian state.  You say the state of Chile with a majority of people being Christians. You can say the Israeli state, but not the Jewish state. Just like Jordan or Syria or Egypt are democratic states –to some extent, of course- but they are not Muslims states. The problem here is that Israel is not defining itself as an Israeli state, is defining itself as Jewish state.

If they would give you equal rights…

Personally, and this probably is not the case for many people, I wouldn’t mind belonging to the state of Israel if it decided tomorrow not to be a state for the Jewish people, but a state where anyone can live equally.

You wouldn’t mind the symbols, the flag, the star…? 

I don’t mind the star… because I´m not religious anyway. It doesn’t matter as long as I´m equal to anyone else in this state.

You wouldn’t mind to become an Israeli?

I mind being an Israeli now, under the framework that exists now. But generally if we speaking about a state that is fully democratic, that just happens to be called Israel, that just happens to have a flag with a Jewish star, I don’t care. Because all of these are just symbols.

Is your way of thinking, consider too liberal in your community?

Maybe, but I got over the emotions that it has to be called Palestine, it has to be the flag of Palestine (he sighs). I don’t think it matters. Once we are equal, we have to get busy with our daily lives, we can get busy of having a decent economy, making good for our country, taking care of the environment, taking care of each other, like any other state. In the end, it´s all about having a decent life.

Mahmoud Muna 032The Status of Palestinians 

In Israel/Palestine if you are an Arab, you are going to be classified in general in four different categories. You can be either a citizen of Israel (the ones that remained within the Israel borders when Israel was founded in 1948); you can be a resident of Jerusalem (Palestinians that became part of Israel, when Israel occupied the city after the Six Days War of 1967). You can be a Palestinian of the West Bank and in the last place of the pyramid a Palestinian from Gaza. According to Mahmoud, Palestinians of Jerusalem, live in a real limbo. “We are residents, but not citizens. This a very weird situation, because if I go to Chile and spent five years, I will become a resident and if a stayed another five years I would became a citizen, in here we are residents, we never qualify for the next step”. 

It is a permanent status?

No, actually we have to renew it every two years. So that’s why if we leave the country for four or five years our residency becomes a question. You live in a country, you pay taxes, but you always remain a resident and all because you are not Jewish.

What does this residency allowed you?

It allows as to travel inside historic Palestine, inside Israel and inside the West Bank, it allows us to own land, buy and sell houses as if we were citizens, but it doesn’t allow us to vote in the Israeli Parliament and doesn’t allowed us to live anywhere else outside Jerusalem, because the minute we leave anywhere outside Jerusalem we lose our residency.  So all people in Jerusalem fight day and night to stay in Jerusalem and the state always asks us about our documentation to prove that we live in here. So we always have to collect our tax payments, our bills, electricity, gas to prove that we live within what Israel define as the borders of Jerusalem.

Do you feel that your options are limited? 

It limits your options of where to live, where to work, where the kids go to school, it limits your life. And this it is not something for a few years, this is your whole life, where you have to make the decision or either continue to live in Jerusalem or somewhere else.

Is that the reason why you returned from the UK? 

After my studies in the UK I would have liked to stayed for ten years to establish my career a little bit more and then come back to my country. That’s what I envisioned for myself. But I couldn’t do this. Because if I stayed for ten years in the UK, I wouldn’t be allowed to come back. So I would have to stay forever in the UK.

What did your friends say about your decision of coming back? 

Most of my friends not even understand why would I leave the UK to go back to the misery of living in Jerusalem.

Why you did it?

I have a duty. I’m an educated guy, if I leave Jerusalem, then the city will not have very educated people. I can’t lecture the world on the problem of Palestine. I myself can’t forfeit this fight that is strong and difficult. And this means that I have to confine my life in Jerusalem. If I compare it to the UK, then this is a downgrade for my career, for my life. But at one point I was thinking, eventually I am going to have a family, have kids. I can’t take away their right to live in Jerusalem. And on the national level it is letting go the battle.

Mahmoud Muna 055At the Hilton for 120 Years

The problem of land in Jerusalem is dramatic. Mahmoud says that land prices have increased hugely. “About 1,000 square meters in Jerusalem costs not less than two million dollars, it is an amazing amount of money. In the West Bank you can buy the same for ten thousand dollars”.

What do people do?

People start building on top of their houses, building expansion. But to do so, you required Israeli permissions. And this is a long, long and expensive procedure. So what do you have to do? You build without permission. And then the State has the excuse to come and destroy your house.  For Europeans it could sound perfectly normal for a democratic state to do that, but the problem is that Israel omits that they don’t give permits.

What happen if you follow the procedure?

If you comply with the long Israeli system, it could take — like with my family — eight years to get the permit. Just the paper work cost us half a million dollars. I calculated that for that amount of money, my whole family could have stayed at the Hilton Hotel for 120 years. That is to give you an idea of how expensive it is to build houses.

Why do you think Israel is doing this?

Israel wants to push the Palestinians outside Jerusalem. They want to make our lives so difficult, so expensive, so impossible, that you have to live outside the city. Once you live outside Jerusalem you lose your residency.  And you are not associated in anyway to the state of Israel. So the state becomes more Jewish and less Arab.

Where is Israel pushing you?

To the West Bank, like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, or any place in the world.

Can you move to another place in Israel?

No, if you leave Jerusalem, you can’t live in Israel. You can’t become a citizen; your residency is in Jerusalem. So moving to Tel Aviv is like moving to another country. You lose your residency.

To Vote or Not to Vote

Regarding political representation, the Palestinian of Jerusalem don’t vote in Israel and their vote in the last Palestinian elections was just symbolic — “to establish that Jerusalem is Palestinian.” They are not represented by the Palestinians or the Israelis. “We are lost,” claims Mahmoud.

Can you vote for municipal elections?

Even though we pay taxes, we decide not to vote because we don’t want to give authority to the municipality over us. If we vote, we would have to recognize the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. If you engage in the system, it is one step towards the recognition.  We are 30% of the voting power of Jerusalem. But we don’t have a single way to influence the Israeli municipality.

Have you thought about maybe changing the strategy?

(He sighs) This probably needs a revision.  Might need to rethink it. Maybe we should engage, so we can change it.  Meanwhile we suffer.

Loving Local

Mahmoud laughed when I suggested that this system must have affected the marriage market. “You want to go personal” he said.  “Of course”, I answered mischievously. He told me that this point is really important, because if you marry outside Jerusalem, “she can’t come here and if you go outside to live with her, in a few years you lose your right to live in Jerusalem”.  He maintained that historically the university was the place for love, but this has stopped. “Because now people can’t move between the cities anymore. Now the place where the person lives is one of the criteria when you meet someone”.

So you ask friends not to set you up with someone that is not from outside Jerusalem?

Basically the parents do the match making. It’s a bit weird. But your mother is in charge of finding someone from the city. But I think these types of limitations are not healthy in any society. There is an increase level of diseases. Because this entire people are from the same pool of genes.

So this system has affected you in every way possible.

The birth rate is dropping and this is not because of modernity, it is because of the political system. The occupation has gone into every small element of our life. Even in how we get married, choose our love, or what we choose to study.

What is the effect on education?

When you choose what to study, you need to know that you are going have to find a job in Jerusalem, so you need to study something that can secure you a good life here. It’s not about your dream, your passions, what you love, it is about in which direction is the economy of Jerusalem going and I think this is catastrophic.  On the other hand, universities are not international, not even national. Everyone knows each other, they are either family or neighbors, the teacher is from the same city. The university education is dropping as well because of the situation. The occupation is a political structure sitting on your neck that one day will be over, but the effects of it are going to stay with us for generations.

Fifth Place

Mahmoud has to run. He has received a lot of phone calls. He is a busy man. I keep him for the last questions.

Do you think Palestinian in the West Bank are in a better situation that the residents of Jerusalem?

In some ways it’s better and in some ways worse. It’s better because people in Ramallah can move to Bethlehem, to Jenin, and then go back because you have this continuity within a state. They have more freedom, but limited. Because the minute you want to do something that the occupation doesn’t allow you to do, you remember that you are not free.

In what way are you in a worse situation?   

I have to interact with the Israeli occupation every day. I have to pay taxes, if there is a crime I have to go to the Israeli police… I get reminded every day that these people are occupying me against my will. And they don’t treat us very well. If I go to the bank, for example, I can bring them a lot of money, but they’d rather not have my money at all, they are forced to open an account for me.

What do you think about the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel?

They are an example that we might want to adapt. They accept Israel as their state, and they try to change it from within. A lot of things had happened to their identity, they don’t speak Arabic that much, they speak Hebrew. They became part of the system, even though the system still refuses them, but it does it in a less harsh way than they refuse us. In Jerusalem we have this choice in front of us. Basically it is being more Palestinian or being more Israeli. For now we are in the limbo. A lot of people think we have to join the Israeli example, the problem with this is that those guys have been in this fight for 60 years and they haven’t achieved anything.

Do you think they are second class citizens?

No, not second. Because first you have the Ashkenazi, then the Arab Jews, then the black Jews.

So they are fourth class citizens?

Yes, actually they are. It’s quite funny.

So you are the fifth class citizens?

Yes, we are the fifth, and then come the Palestinians of the West Bank and then the ones in Gaza. (We laugh).


Pamela Rillon
About Pamela Rillon

Pamela Rillon is a Chilean journalist and holds a Masters in International Affairs from the University of Chile.

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22 Responses

  1. just
    just on May 6, 2014, 9:54 am


    Many thanks for this wonderful interview & very thoughtful piece, Pamela.

  2. Ecru
    Ecru on May 6, 2014, 9:57 am

    A first class “resident” living in a no-class state.

  3. chocopie
    chocopie on May 6, 2014, 10:43 am

    Great interview. Ethnic cleansing and apartheid up close and personal.

  4. Walid
    Walid on May 6, 2014, 11:03 am

    Great interview. Don’t know if I should be angry or sad.

  5. Palikari
    Palikari on May 6, 2014, 11:09 am

    He’s a liar. Arabs from East Jerusalem can become Israeli citizens, but they refuse to do so, just like they refuse to vote in the municipal election, because they don’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city. Of course, he hasn’t the same rights than Israelis, because he’s not an Israeli citizen. In no country non-citizens have the same rights than citizens.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka on May 6, 2014, 3:18 pm

      “He’s a liar.”

      You should mind your place, slanderer. Nowhere did he lie.

      “Arabs from East Jerusalem…”

      They’re called “Palestinians.”

      “…can become Israeli citizens,”

      Yes, “can become.” That’s the point. They have to swear allegiance to your racist Apartheid state in order to live in their own homes with the rights that should be theirs as humans.

      “…because they don’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city.”

      Because Israel doesn’t have sovereignty over the city. It legally occupies the Western half and illegally occupies Arab East Jerusalem, but is soverign over none of it.

      • wes
        wes on May 7, 2014, 6:10 am

        people of the book should take a closer look

        woody says

        “Because Israel doesn’t have sovereignty over the city. It legally occupies the Western half and illegally occupies Arab East Jerusalem, but is soverign over none of it.”

        “Jerusalem entered the 19th century with about 9,000 inhabitants. In 1840, Jews became the largest single community in the city — accounting for a majority of Jerusalem’s residents by 1880. In 1860, Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore established the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood, the first quarter outside the Old City walls. Eventually, this project was followed by many others. In 1900, the city’s population reached 55,000; 60% of whom were Jews.”

        no sovereignty.well just a little here and there

        “During their Mandatory administration of Jerusalem, the British did demonstrate considerable concern for the special character and atmosphere of Jerusalem. The British did, however, pursue policies which promoted conflict between the various populations of Jerusalem — such as always appointing Arab mayors, although the Jews had long constituted the city’s majority.”

        well they tried there best ,the brits,impossible situation what with all these jews and such

        “The British ultimately forfeited the Mandate, and departed on 15 May 1948. United Nations Approves Partition On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states — and to make Jerusalem a “separate body” (corpus separatum) under a special international regime, with “suitable guarantees for the protection of Holy Places.”

        The Jews accepted the resolution, but the Arabs — both those living inside and beyond the territory of the Mandate — rejected the partition resolution and the plan to internationalize Jerusalem, thereby nullifying the proposal.

        Between November 1947 and April 1948, Arab bands attacked Jews in Jerusalem itself and on all roads into the city, killing 296. The Arabs also imposed a blockade on the city — denying food, water and medical supplies to its Jewish population.”

        well what can say -never ending story,absolutely barbaric,but then mr mahmoud,s bookshop is in jerusalem,hopefully his shop will not share the same fate of this library

        Who’s Afraid of Lebanon’s ‘al-Sa`eh Library’?
        BY MLYNXQUALEY on JANUARY 4, 2014
        On Friday night, a historic bookshop in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli was burned, destroying thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of books and manuscripts. Today, salvage efforts have begun:

        IMG-20140103-WA0018_490781_largeAlthough several news outlets were quoting an AFP report that “a pamphlet was discovered inside one of the books at the library that was insulting to Islam and the prophet Mohammad,” there was no apparent claim of responsibility and numerous denunciations.

        According to NaharNet, this wasn’t the first time the place was targeted. The day before, “Bashir Hazzouri, an employee at the library, was shot and wounded on Thursday in the old souks of Tripoli.”

        The library is run by the Greek Orthodox priest Father Ibrahim Srouj, and is apparently the largest in Tripoli and second-largest in Lebanon. According to library supporter Natheer Halawani, “The library has over 80,000 titles, not copies. The total amount of books exceeds this figure by far.”

        According to Blog Baladi, Al Sa’eh Library was founded in 1970 by the Orthodox Youth movement and consisted of a single room. Now, it has more than 80,000 books, of which 400 are rare.

        Numerous book-lovers expressed sorrow and dismay:

    • just
      just on May 6, 2014, 4:45 pm

      Uh huh.

      See ya around, “Palikari”.

    • Eva Smagacz
      Eva Smagacz on May 6, 2014, 4:54 pm


      So he should accept Israeli citizenship, help with the whitewash of Nakba, help Israel in its illegal annexation of Jerusalem ( which is legally corpus separatum, remember?), and trade his position from being fifth class citizen to being forth class citizen?

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka on May 6, 2014, 5:35 pm

        Eva, that is exactly what Palikari suggests. But of course he/she only wishes that a limited number of Palestinians do that, but not so many that the Jews would be forced to share power with them.

    • AGL
      AGL on May 6, 2014, 5:00 pm

      ¿How legal is the sovereignty over the city? If he become an Israeli Citizens, tacitly approves the occupation…

    • talknic
      talknic on May 7, 2014, 9:06 pm

      @ Palikari “Arabs from East Jerusalem can become Israeli citizens, but they refuse to do so, just like they refuse to vote in the municipal election, because they don’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city”

      Correct. East Jerusalem isn’t in Israel. UNSC res 252 has EIGHT reminders to Israel, giving the Jewish state NINE opportunities in that instance alone to abide by the law. UNSC res 476 is one of those reminders encapsulating Israel’s legal obligations quite clearly

      Alas, Israel has never taken advantage of the opportunities it has been offered, preferring instead to break the law.

      ” In no country non-citizens have the same rights than citizens.”

      Uh uh. Say, can you name any other state that grants citizenship and rights in territory that does not belong to that state.

  6. Interested Bystander
    Interested Bystander on May 6, 2014, 4:54 pm

    Here is a May 2013 IRIN article that suggests Palikari is correct. This should be a readily fact checked item. Even if residents must apply for citizenship and 30% are turned down, it’s a relevant fact that should be mentioned.

    • chocopie
      chocopie on May 6, 2014, 9:45 pm

      It “should be mentioned”: why? Because becoming an Israeli citizen under duress is such a wonderful option that it should be explored more fully in this interview?

      You have an interview here, exploring in some detail the web of legal cruelty that Israel has spun to ensnare a bunch of people who have done nothing wrong other than being born in Jerusalem while not Jewish. Why would they want to become citizens of a Zionist state? If 70% of them become Israeli citizens tomorrow don’t you think Israel will annex the area? Who is going to say they can’t? And then once it becomes Israeli territory what do you think will happen to the Palestinians living there, the 70% who are “allowed” to be Israeli citizens and the 30% who are not allowed. Any guesses? Foresee any possible problems?

      Just look at this web of legal treachery. Why do you think all these laws are in place? Do you think Zionists just haphazardly and good-naturedly created some random laws that unintentionally made the lives of East Jerusalem residents a Kafka-esque nightmare? Look closer, because it’s apartheid and ethnic cleansing Zionist style and there’s no escape.

      • Interested Bystander
        Interested Bystander on May 8, 2014, 1:24 pm

        Chocopie: Because we would rightly rake the NYT over the coals if they made such a gross omission of a relevant fact. Omitting the fact makes the situation less murky, less complicated. The fact that the UN White Papers on this don’t mention the citizenship issue and deal with it, does not reflect well on their integrity. Taking MSM to task for such omissions, and not fact checking an interview here for similar omissions is hyprocisy. We should not be hypocrites. We should lead by example.

  7. Kay24
    Kay24 on May 6, 2014, 5:19 pm

    Strong shades of apartheid, racism, and the arrogance of the majority.

    Israel is known for treating minorities like dirt. Didn’t the racist owner of the
    Clippers say that blacks are treated like dogs in Israel?
    Israel the only “democracy” in the Middle East? Yeah riiiiight!

  8. Daniel Rich
    Daniel Rich on May 6, 2014, 6:26 pm

    Thank you Pamela, for being a beacon of light in a rather dark and bleak world.

    A side note; During the long hours that I spend at the bookstore – make that spent [past tense].

  9. wes
    wes on May 7, 2014, 5:44 am


    “Clippers say that blacks are treated like dogs in Israel?”

    owner of clippers donald sterling said it —-clippers do nails…. clip clip

    anyway i tell you a funny story that someone told me.
    couple kids i know went on birthright and while they were staying at a hotel 2 of the youngsters got into the lift with this tall african guy from nigeria.part of a touring christian group
    for them this was a new experience
    anyway he says to them are you jew
    and they say yes worriedly
    and he says-i want to to be a jew,how can i be a jew.
    they got off the lift and and wondered what was that all about.

    true story

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