Dangerous Developments in East Jerusalem

By Yudith Oppenheimer, Executive Director, Ir Amim

In the early morning on August 2, 2009, as residents of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem slept soundly, a group of Israeli settlers accompanied by a large police force broke into two homes, forcefully removing the residents and their belongings. Within hours, the settlers had moved in and began treating the homes as their own. Pictures of the eviction were seen all over the world, prompting Israel's friends everywhere to wonder how such scenes could be squared with the Israeli government's repeated declarations of commitment to the peace process. A similar fate awaits other Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood who recently lost the right to their homes after long and exhausting legal battles with well-heeled settlers' groups, who make no secret of their goal -- to demolish these homes and build a Jewish settlement of around 200 residential units in their place.

The Palestinian homes now under threat are located just a few hundreds yards from the Shepherd Hotel, the contested building referenced by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he said that "it is unacceptable that a Jew should not be able to purchase a home anywhere in Jerusalem." These homes are just around the corner from "the Glassman campus," another recent acquisition by the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah and within a stone's throw from the "Mufti's Grove," Emeq Tzurim and Beit Orot -- all ongoing and future settlers' projects that are encircling the neighborhood. The attempt to represent these and other settlements as individual, disconnected real estate transactions is intended to hide the true situation in East Jerusalem from the Israeli public and the world. In reality, Israel's governments have been in league with the settlers for decades. They have helped the settlers acquire properties in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, and turn them into settlers' enclaves that are privileged with scandalous building permits. The settlers in these enclaves live in a constant state of confrontation with the surrounding Palestinian population and with the Law.

In Jerusalem today, the right of Jews to buy a home in one neighborhood or another is not being threatened, but the future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. In recent years, Israeli politicians and heads of state have publicly acknowledged that the conflict can only be resolved with a compromise in Jerusalem, yet the government is extending a supportive hand to extremist elements, which are working tirelessly to create facts on the ground that would make a future compromise difficult if not impossible. They use all kinds of provocations to incite tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, to cause the conflict in Jerusalem to boil over and to push it from the negotiating table into battles played out on the street.

Jerusalem today bears no resemblance to the sane and balanced image being promoted by the new government and municipal leaders. In reality, it is becoming an arena for unchecked action by extremist groups that acquire properties by questionable means, operate private police forces with State funding, and seek confrontation with the Palestinian population. A government that declares its commitment to peace and at the same time winks in support of groups whose stated goal is to prevent a negotiated solution and shuts its eyes to open transgressions against public law and order, should not be surprised to find itself with a situation like Hebron, where ideological settlers have gained control over a significant portion of the city's property and live by their own laws, in the heart of its capital city.

The Netanyahu government insists that its conduct in Jerusalem cannot be dictated by Washington. But one must wonder whether its actions reflect Israel's real interests or the wishes of its public. The Israeli public has persistently supported a two-state solution, and is ready to accept a painful compromise in Jerusalem if that would bring the conflict to an end. The Israeli public understands as well that Jerusalem is not just a real estate market, and that any action that changes the geographical and demographic status quo in the city carries grave political consequences. A responsible government must clarify its real intentions concerning the peace process and promote a reasonable, well-considered policy concerning its capital city. It must not allow extremist elements to dictate policy under the pretext of property rights.