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Eyewitness Report on the Judaization of East Jerusalem

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From now on, I can never say I didn't know. This, thanks to Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now's "Settlement Watch," who spends four hours schlepping us around East Jerusalem to see Palestinian properties that have been expropriated by the Israeli government or by Jewish settlers. We're a six-member delegation from Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. counterpart of Ofran's group, and we've come to assess the damage.

All the world knows by now that Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced the approval, during Vice President Biden's visit, of 1600 new housing units to be built for Jews in Ramat Shlomo. But Ramat Shlomo is just the tip of an iceberg that expands by the day as ultra-Orthodox and radical right-wing settlers work overtime to Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

When Israel unilaterally annexed the area in 1967, creating a metropolis three times the size of Jerusalem's pre-war borders, its 70,000 Arab residents were given residency status, not full citizenship. Today there are 250,000 Palestinians in the city, a third of its population. They pay taxes and receive social security and health benefits, but can't hold passports. They have voting rights in the municipality; theoretically, they could win a third of the seats in the Jerusalem City Council, but they don't exercise their vote as a statement of opposition to Israeli control.

Despite the annexation of East Jerusalem, which has never been recognized by the international community, the city has for years remained two separate entities. Arabs didn't wander about in Jewish neighborhoods and Jews rarely ventured into the Arab section. Then the settlers started planting themselves here, there, and everywhere, to advance their "undivided Jerusalem" agenda, and with their presence to make all Israelis feel the whole city belongs to them. Like settlers in the West Bank, those in East Jerusalem are busy creating "facts on the ground" to interrupt Palestinian contiguity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and prevent the Palestinian Authority from claiming the Arab part of the city as their capitol (a quid pro quo for any permanent agreement).

As the settlers take over one Arab house and hilltop after another, they demand security protection for themselves and their large families, further draining Israel's strained budget. According to Hagit Ofran, Peace Now's settlement watchdog, for every settler house, the government has to fund three round-the-clock guards, private police who perform like an escort service. In the Old City, Ofran has seen two little boys running down the street with two big guards with guns running after them to protect them. Protecting settlers costs Israeli taxpayers 54 four million shekels a year.

Since 1967, the Jerusalem municipality has issued five times as many housing permits for Jews than for Palestinians. Lately, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has been condemning as "illegal" Palestinian homes that no Israel government paid attention to before. Because East Jerusalem never had zoning laws or urban planning oversight, Palestinians simply jerry-built their houses to accommodate their growing families. Suddenly, the authorities are closing in.

On past trips to the Territories, I've toured the large settlements initiated by the government on land confiscated beyond the Green Line to create a ring around the city and isolate it from West Bank. Today, with Hagit Ofran, we're looking at Jewish enclaves stuck smack in the middle of Arab neighborhoods expressly to Judaize East Jerusalem and make it difficult for any government to negotiate a shared city. Chutzpah is too tame a word for this behavior. My mother would have called it a shonde (disgrace).

Case Histories

Nof Zion. The new Jewish neighborhood in the Palestinian village of Jabel Mukaber looks like a gated community in Arizona. A sign advertises "3, 4, and 5-room luxury apartments." The development overlooks a Palestinian village and has a view of the Temple Mount. One hundred twenty units have been built, only thirty sold. Recently, a wealthy Jew bought the unsold units and lowered the price for each unit to 1.5 million shekels. (About $400,000)

Abu Dis. A large house stands atop a bare hill near the abandoned Palestinian parliament building. Built in the '90s when the town was to become the capitol of the new state, the Parliament was never occupied because the Oslo Accords were never fulfilled. The present residents of the house on the hill are settlers from a group dedicated to establishing Jewish residences in Palestinian neighborhoods, mainly in the Muslim quarter of the Old City -- Ateret Cohanim, whose supporters advocate destroying the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa mosque, two sites sacred to Islam, and replacing them with Israel's Third Temple. Ateret Cohanim has filed plans to build eight hundred housing units in Abu Dis.

Beit Yonatan. You can't miss the six-story building towering over its Silwan neighbors. Draped with an enormous Israeli flag, and named for Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel, Beit Yonatan was built by Jewish settlers without a permit. After years of litigation, the structure was finally declared illegal. The Supreme Court ordered it sealed, the inhabitants evicted, the building demolished, yet settlers continue to live there, guarded by Israeli security. Somehow, when Jews want to build a park or a parking lot, the Jerusalem Municipality manages to declare Palestinian homes illegal and confiscates or destroys them. But the occupants of Beit Yonatan have dug in their heels and the building still stands because Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, and Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior (who embarrassed Netanyahu when Biden was there) have thrown up obstacles to the court order every step of the way.

The King's Garden. Mayor Barkat has announced plans to demolish eighty-eight Palestinian homes to make way for King Solomon's garden, an archeological park in the Bustan neighborhood of Silwan, the biblical site of the City of David. Though the mayor said the park would be created "for the benefit of the world and for the benefit of tourists and for the beauty of the city of Jerusalem," on March 2nd, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked him to postpone the demolition because of the "distorted picture" the king's garden might present to "parties interested in sowing discord."

The Elad Association. Just south of the Temple Mount, lie the remains of the wall that enclosed Jerusalem before the Old City existed. A remnant of the ancient wall is set deep in the earth at the base of large hill that workers are excavating with huge, ear-splitting machinery. Hagit Ofran says the government has assigned control of this and other archeological sites to the Elad Association, a powerful organization dedicated to the Judaization of the area. Elad paid the Israel Antiquities Authority for the license to dig, but much of its excavation has been carried out illicitly or in secret and extended beyond the area licensed. An Israeli flag flies at the excavation site. To establish it as a tourist attraction, Elad appropriated public land and put pressure on Palestinians to sell their houses or property. Some Palestinians sold because their houses were "illegal," or they needed the money, or the settlers came up with legal documents and the Palestinians couldn't prove their ownership.

A Palestinian house purchased by the Jewish National Fund for Elad to use as a visitor center proved too small, so the Association blasted into the hill to carve out more space. In the process, they found caves and structures that predate King David's reign -- exciting, but not enough to justify aggressive, dangerous, illegal excavations. A year before our visit, one of their tunnels collapsed.

I notice a group of tourists on a porch high above us listening to a guide. "Elad clearly understands the potential of archeological sites to connect Jews with their history and cement their feelings of attachment to East Jerusalem," says Ophran. "The Palestinians also have a history here but they can't sell it to tourists or tell their story." As we leave the site, we notice a barrier across a road. Turns out it's the road to a mosque and it was closed because Elad found something here from Herod's era. "They take the public domain and make it their own."

Mount of Olives. The graveyard's Visitors Center stands on illegal ground in the most sensitive area of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. "Elad encourages Jews to come and pray on the graves of their ancestors and the great rabbis," says Ophran. We're looking at a house in the middle of the cemetery with settlers living in it. Thus far, the government has given the cemetery ninety-five million shekels.

Ras el-Amud. The former police station in this East Jerusalem neighborhood was bought by the Shalem Foundation, a subsidiary of Elad, in partnership with an association of Bukharan Jews. They filed a plan to demolish the building and replace it with 104 housing units but the planning procedure for such a large compound can take years. So in the meantime, they've applied for a permit to build fourteen units in the vacated building, a less onerous proposition since, by law, owners who make use of an existing structure don't have to file a building plan.

Beit Orot. This compound on the Mount of Olives was bought by the right wing American millionaire Irving Moskowiz back when Teddy Kolleck was Mayor of Jerusalem in a deal that required Jews to build a Palestinian school if they wanted to build a yeshiva. The yeshiva exists. The Palestinian school is still on paper

The Wholesale Market. Locally known as Al-Hisbe, the market that overlooks the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley is slated to become a shopping mall, hotel, and parking lot, the construction of which requires the demolition of a Palestinian kindergarten.

The Glassman Campus was financed by a Canadian couple who say they're committed to establishing Jewish hegemony from Highway #1 through Sheik Jarrah to Mount Scopus. Their next plan is to develop a four million shekel Biblical Park to strengthen the area's "national and religious elements."

Sheikh Jarrah. We stop at the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a sage from the time of the Second Temple, whose name will be given to a 200-unit development in Sheikh Jarrah if the radical settler organization which has already evicted several families succeeds in demolishing an entire Palestinian neighborhood. This is the enterprise that sparked an international protest and brought 3000 people out to demonstrate last Saturday night.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of nine books, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, and a past president of Americans for Peace Now.