The many hopes and challenges in the life of an Arab-Israeli mayor
Mansour, 51, was elected mayor of Taibeh, Israel’s second largest Arab city, in 2015.
An Arab in Israel. Shuaa Massarweh Mansour, mayor of Taibeh. (Noreen Sadik)
2017/09/17 Issue: 123 Page: 13
Taibeh - When Shuaa Massarweh Mansour decided to run for mayor of Taibeh, the second largest Arab city in Israel with a population of 50,000, he knew exactly what challenges he would face if he won.
He had been running a successful law office in the city. But “after 28 years of working as a lawyer, I wanted a change,” he said.
Mansour, 51, was elected mayor in 2015 and has been able to help the city resolve serious problems, including exceptionally high debt.
“In 1999, a committee was appointed by the Ministry of Interior to manage the city and help pull it out of debt but, at the same time, only a small amount was invested into the city,” he said.
In 2006, the ministry took away the democratic rights of the citizens to vote for their own leadership and, for nine years, four different government-appointed mayors, none from Taibeh, managed the city.
“I knew that the people of Taibeh needed better than what we had and I think that I can do a lot for the city,” he said of his decision to run for mayor in 2o15 after the Israeli Supreme Court cleared the way for new elections. “While I was living in Europe I learned a lot, and I have started to apply some of it to Taibeh.”
For Mansour, being mayor is not just a job. His past 22 months in office have been a whirlwind: He makes the hour-long drive to Jerusalem to meet with government officials every week, negotiates with officials to try to meet the needs of the city and works to champion the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“Many challenges face the Arab mayors,” Mansour explained. “We Palestinians make up 21% of the population and are an oppressed minority in Israel. We understand that we will never reach equality with the Jewish citizens but every minority has rights.”
He added: “In the last 30 years the government has not made master plans for the Arab cities. Since 1948 (with the creation of Israel), 700 new Jewish cities have been established and not one new Arab city. Overcrowding is a big problem in Arab cities.”
“One of the biggest obstacles that we face in the Arab sector is the lack of town planning and building,” he said. “Unfortunately, the government treats us as third- class citizens. It can take up to 12 years to receive approval for town building plans. In the Jewish towns, approval can take one or two years.”
Because it is so difficult to obtain building permits, people are forced to build homes illegally. Approximately 50,000 homes in the Arab sector are at risk of demolition; 400 of them are in Taibeh, studies show.
Mansour has been working with the government to get more money put into developing the city.
In December 2015, the government approved Resolution 922, a five-year economic development plan for the Arab sector that aims to close major gaps between Jews and Arabs in education, transportation, welfare services, employment and housing.
“I was lucky because the government’s plan to close Taibeh’s debts was decided on before I started my work and I was able to use Resolution 922 to start rebuilding the city,” Mansour said.
In a short time, Mansour’s administration has built three schools and kindergartens, opened after-school clubs and a theatre, improved infrastructure, built a walking path, paved more than 30 roads and brought branches of ministry offices to the city. Plans for a sports hall are also in the works.
“Education is our weapon,” Mansour said. “I believe that building people is more important than creating a building, for with education a person is capable of doing anything they want. We must close the gap (between Arab and Jewish sectors) that has grown in the past 68 years.”
“We used to own 90% of the land and now we own only 2.5% of it,” Mansour said. “However, we believe in co-existence and that we can live in peace with the Jews. For 68 years we have lived in peace but we must be able to live in dignity and maintain the rights to our land and homes and not be treated as enemies.”