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Entitlement Runs Deep in East Jerusalem

Of the three major religions in the region -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- all lay claim to their slice of the Old City. Holy sites, including The Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reside within 0.35 square miles of the city's outer wall. Layers upon layers of ancient civilizations form the foundation upon which present-day synagogues, mosques and churches stand.

Despite a skyline that portrays a peaceful city of worship, East Jerusalem is at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tensions are flaring in Palestinian neighborhoods surrounding the ancient city, as those who live in the region say Israeli archaeological digs, demolition notices and new housing developments are pushing them out.

Talk of a Third Intifada (uprising) surfaces in conversations with Palestinians who live in the region, and many fear that such a reaction could result in Israel acquiring even more land beyond the "Green Line," a key political boundary that has divided the West Bank and Israel for decades. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to further develop the region, unveiling plans last month for 1,600 new homes.

"East Jerusalem is at the volcanic core of the conflict," said Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, an organization working to achieve a solution between Israel and the Palestinians. "Israel can't be serious about negotiations if it continues to change things on the ground."

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Since then, Israel has supported construction in the region despite United Nations Security Council Resolution 478, which essentially declared that Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem was in violation of the law. The Israeli government maintains that the region is part of its "eternal and indivisible" capital.

Israeli archaeological digs are at the center of the debate in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Rolling green hills, manicured cypress trees and smiling tourists are depicted on partition walls surrounding a dig site adjacent to where Palestinians live.

"This area is problematic on many fronts. Palestinians do not have the option to build new homes in East Jerusalem and many feel the archaeological digs are another way for Israel to deepen its possession of the land," said Orly Noy, a spokesperson for non-profit organization Ir Amim, which focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem.

Armed security guards stand at the entrance of the City of David archaeological site, a tourist attraction where King David and his disciples supposedly once roamed more than 3,000 years ago.

The organization that funds the site, Ir David, has four key initiatives: archaeological excavation, tourism, residential revitalization and education. Critics say the organization is using its archaeological digs as a rationale for pushing Palestinians out of East Jerusalem while establishing a greater presence for Jewish settlers. Ir David would not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Friedman said Jews and Israelis have a right to excavate their history, but it is problematic when "the settlers are running the archaeological digs and conflating it with settlement plans."

Ronnie Reich, a professor of archaeology at Haifa University who has worked on the City of David digs, defends the site as an important link to the past, not a political agenda. "I am a scientist interested in science," said Reich, noting that more credibility should be given to the historical significance of the digs. "But at this point, what might be a significant discovery for me, would probably not be a significant discovery for somebody else."

Such arguments are cryptic to Faqhri Abu Diab, a Palestinian who received a demolition notice for his home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Al-Bustan. Diab said there are plans to demolish more than 88 homes to make room for an Ir David-funded "biblical park."

"I was born here. I pay municipal taxes and this is how I am treated," said Diab, speaking at a makeshift Silwan community center constructed of two-by-fours and loosely draped tarps. "How are my kids supposed to think and feel about Israel when it is demolishing our homes and forcing us to leave?"

Between 2000 and 2008, Israeli authorities demolished more than 670 Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem. Of these, approximately 90 structures were demolished in 2008, displacing about 400 Palestinians, according to a report released in April 2009 by the United Nations.

Even though Israeli authorities called for the demolition of homes because they didn't have permits, "it's really a battle over sovereignty," said Daniel Luria, a spokesperson for Ateret Cohaniem, an organization that focuses on strengthening Jewish roots in Jerusalem. "Jerusalem has been at the center of the Jewish world for thousands of years, and no matter how much the Arab world tries to eradicate our connection ... this is part and parcel with who we are as a people."

Luria also has his doubts about Jews and Palestinians living in peaceful coexistence. "There is a religious war that is simmering underground and it is going to explode at some point in time," said Luria, his back facing a hillside of Palestinian rooftops in Silwan. "It's never going to be Jews intermarrying Arabs or vice versa. We have got trouble here because there are many Arabs who don't want us here. We are destroying their pan-Arab dream."

Not all Palestinians share that dream. Some say they prefer to live peacefully among the Jews because the region historically has been a mutual homeland. But emotions usually trump peace.

Ahkmad Quareen, 39, said he was recently shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier because he questioned an altercation between his son and Jewish settlers. The truck driver's home also sits adjacent to an archaeological site, which Quareen claims is causing structural damage.

"I can't leave my home. The Al Aqsa Mosque is in my blood," said Quareen, who walks with a limp. "I don't have anything against the Jews. I am friends with many of them. But Israel is playing with fire."

Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist and founder of an alternative tour group in Silwan, finds his career path often straddles both sides of the conflict. He understands the significance of artifacts that could change the present and future but is concerned that the City of David digs are doing more damage than good for the community of Silwan.

To change tourists' perception, Mizrachi attempts to present "archaeology without ownership" by incorporating Palestinians who live in Silwan into his tour. "Archaeology should be presented as part of a place's heritiage, not something that belongs to a specific religion," Mizrachi said. "Yes, Judaism is part of my culture, but it is important to learn from other cultures as well. "

Excavations aren't the only instigators of a deepening rift between Israelis and Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The reopening of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem's Jewish quarter last month further proved an increasingly polarized community of Jews and Muslims.

Since the destruction of the Jews' second temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, it is hypothesized that the Jews will build a third temple on the same site as al-Aqsa mosque. Some Muslims thought the Hurva's reopening was a step in that direction.

Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), encouraged Palestinians to converge on al-Aqsa to save it from Israeli attempts to destroy the mosque and replace it with the third temple. "We don't want another cycle of violence, but they (Israel) know that what they are doing is a provocation," said Ibrahim Khriesheh, member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Construction of the Hurva, which stands for "ruin" in Hebrew, dates back to the 1700s by a group of Polish Hasidic Jews. But lack of funds rendered the synagogue unfinished until 1864. Standing as a domed beacon in Jerusalem's skyline for the next eight decades, the synagogue was eventually destroyed during Israel's War of Independence in 1948. Nearly 60 years later, the Hurva stands again, wrapped in Jerusalem stone with a stained glass crown.

Israelis say the notion that the reopening of a synagogue is triggering such tension among Muslims is troubling.

"All of this fuss is unnecessary. This is about celebrating the restoration of a historic building," said Naomi Tzur, deputy mayor of Jerusalem. "And instead, the synagogue's reopening is being interpreted as an act of provocation."

But acts of provocation appear throughout East Jerusalem.

Mohammad Sabbagh never intended to go into public relations after decades of work as a pipe installer. In the last year, he has become the unofficial spokesperson for Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that is another flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Media descend upon the Palestinian neighborhood in search of good sound bites and dramatic footage. Sabbagh's approach is more subtle, preferring to sit quietly in a plastic chair on the sidewalk as Orthodox Jews and Palestinians trade dirty looks in the street.

"Yes, it is true, Israeli authorities are trying to evict us," said Sabbagh, who keeps his home in eyeshot from where he sits. "I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to live here, so I need to fight this thing as long as I can."

Sabbagh said he received an eviction notice from Israeli authorities several months ago after living in the neighborhood for nearly half a century. He is fighting the eviction with an attorney but is fearful that recent activity in the neighborhood will work against him.

Jerusalem police have been making arrests of key activists related to recent protests in the Sheikh Jarrah.

"We are hopeful people will hear us, but eviction seems unavoidable unless some other country like America helps," said Khaled Gawee, a former neighbor of Sabbagg who was evicted from his home several months ago. Gawee points to a house about 50 yards from where he is sitting. "That's where I lived," a Jewish menorah now adorning its rooftop.

Sparking even more discontent, the Jerusalem municipality has given approval for a settler group to construct 20 apartments in the area.

But not all intersections of Israelis and Palestinians are at odds with each other in East Jerusalem. Back in Silwan, a group of children are sitting down for a drum lesson at Madaa Silwan, a center where Israeli and Palestinian music teachers are seemingly interchangeable. Danny Felsteiner, an Israeli who teaches at the center, said Madaa's goal is to help build a knowledgeable and involved Arab community.

"This isn't about politics over here," Felsteiner said. "It's about education and music, and helping people in need."