Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
December 6, 2008 - 1:00am

A series of recent Israeli actions in the mainly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem have raised tensions there, with Palestinian and Israeli critics contending that they are part of a wider plan to “Judaize” historically charged areas around the Old City.

The actions, ostensibly unconnected, include the demolition of two Arab homes in Silwan, a neighborhood adjacent to the Old City above the ruins of an ancient Jewish site; the start of a controversial infrastructure project there; and the eviction of a Palestinian family from its home in Sheik Jarrah, another neighborhood coveted by Jewish nationalists near the Old City.

None of these actions in themselves are that unusual here. But the spate of high-profile, highly symbolic moves in the past few weeks has reignited concerns that an increasing Jewish presence in Arab areas will further complicate the chances of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian political agreement based on a two-state solution, which calls for a division of powers in a shared capital.

And they come as a new Jerusalem mayor who has vocally supported expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem takes office.

“East Jerusalem must be the capital of the Palestinian state,” said Hatem Abdel Qader, an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad. “Israel is trying to create facts on the ground and determine the results before we reach any solution.”

Some believe that the Israeli authorities and Jewish nationalists, who are increasingly gaining footholds in the Arab neighborhoods, are intentionally exploiting the period of political transition in the United States, as well as the political vacuum in Israel before the February elections.

“Several elements combine to make the situation in Jerusalem much more dangerous,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli group that opposes Jewish settlements in areas that are expected to be part a Palestinian state. The conditions are ideal, she said, “for settlers to seek to force their agenda without fear of challenge or repercussions.”

A spokesman for Jerusalem City Hall, Gidi Schmerling, rejected the accusations, saying that municipal enforcement is carried out equally and according to the law in the eastern part of the city and the predominantly Jewish western part. He added that the demolition of the houses, which were built on public land, was carried out after the residents lost their appeals in the district and supreme courts.

The home demolitions in this part of Silwan, where a volatile mix of about 7,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Jewish ultranationalists live in cramped quarters on steep hillsides above the ruins of the ancient City of David, set off a riot. They were the first of 88 homes to be razed in a compound built without proper permits where Israeli planners want to expand a national archaeological park.

The infrastructure improvements, in ordinary circumstances, would be welcome news in a poor and neglected neighborhood like Silwan. But in the charged atmosphere of East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from the Jordanians in the 1967 war and later annexed, some perceive even municipal road works and new traffic arrangements as part of a larger plan.

In late November, Jerusalem city authorities and East Jerusalem Development, an Israeli government company, began a project to lay new water and sewage pipes and to repave one of Silwan’s main roads. The road, known to Arabs as Wadi Hilweh and renamed by Israeli authorities as City of David Steps, runs roughly from the main entrance of the City of David site down toward the compound known as the Bustan, where the demolitions took place.

Many local residents oppose the traffic changes, which have already been instituted, as well as plans to turn empty spaces along the road into parking lots, saying they will benefit the tourists to the detriment of the local residents.

“We lack schools, playgrounds, everything,” said Jawwad Siyam, an activist in Silwan. “The Israeli government and Jerusalem city are now like tools in the settlers’ hands.”

With the help of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a human rights group, Mr. Siyam and several other residents have gone to court to try to halt the work. They told the court that they feared that the road works would turn up archaeological finds, requiring a salvage dig “that could paralyze life in the area for years.”

Eli Shmuelyan, the deputy director of East Jerusalem Development, dismissed the complaints. “We’re creating parking lots for the residents as well,” he said, “so the streets will be clear and the buses can move.”

Perhaps the opponents of the project “enjoy traffic jams,” he said.

But what the opponents see is a pattern, a direct line extending from the City of David and the Bustan — where the demolition orders were issued in 2005 but were delayed, largely because of international pressure — to the eviction of the Palestinian family in Sheik Jarrah.

The family, the Kurds, who had lived in its home there for more than 50 years, was evicted in early November. A Jewish association claims ownership of the land and has plans to build a large Jewish housing complex there.

For years, the Kurds had refused to pay rent as protected tenants in their own home, as they had been ordered to do, pending the outcome of a protracted legal battle against the Jewish claimants. Religious Jewish nationalists had already moved into an extension of the Kurds’ small, single-story stone house.

Just days after the Kurds’ eviction, the family patriarch, Muhammad al-Kurd, 61, who suffered from diabetes and heart problems, died. His family moved into protest tents on an empty lot near the house where they received mourners, but the tents, too, have been dismantled by the Israeli authorities several times.

The Kurds’ home is adjacent to a site held by Jews to be the ancient tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, or Simeon the Just, a Jewish high priest from the days of the Second Temple. A Jewish organization has reclaimed the land based on property deeds whose authenticity is disputed, and which date back to the 1870s, long before the Jewish state was established in 1948.

Another 27 Palestinian families are threatened with eviction on the same grounds.

“People in the neighborhood are very upset and fear they will be next,” said a resident, Mahmoud Abu Turk, who was visiting the mourning tent.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, is responding by trying to assert its presence.

Mr. Abdel Qader and Rafiq Husseini, the director of the president’s office, took a group of foreign consular officials on a tour of Silwan, Sheik Jarrah and other problematic areas of East Jerusalem last week.

The tour was “symbolic,” Mr. Abdel Qader said, a “message to Israel” that the Palestinian leadership can also operate in Jerusalem.

Others note that the Jewish reclamation of pre-state property in East Jerusalem could open a political Pandora’s box of counterclaims. In a symbolic protest on Thursday, Muhammad al-Kurd’s widow, Fawziyah, 56, accompanied by Palestinian and Israeli activists and two Arab Israeli members of Parliament, briefly set up a tent in the affluent West Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh.

She said that her parents abandoned a home there when they became refugees in 1948.


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