JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government and private Jewish groups are working in concert to build a human cordon around Jerusalem's Old City and its disputed holy sites, moving Jewish residents into Arab neighborhoods to consolidate their grip on strategic locations, according to critics of the effort and a Washington Post investigation.
The goal is to establish Jewish enclaves in and around Arab-dominated East Jerusalem and eventually link them to form a ring around the city, a key battleground in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its Jewish and Muslim holy sites, according to activists involved in the effort and critics of the campaign.
Despite lack of permits, crews worked last year to expand the West Bank settlement of Maleh Adumim. The built-up area of Maleh Adumim is in the background.
(John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)
The Israeli government has sometimes violated its own laws and regulations to advance the encircling effort, the Post investigation found. Critics of the plan charge that the government is subsidizing and protecting Jewish groups that are deliberately scuttling peace efforts by establishing Jewish enclaves in overwhelmingly Palestinian neighborhoods.
As part of the effort, the Israeli government began work on expanding the West Bank's largest settlement, Maleh Adumim, without required building permits and in violation of the settlement's master development plan. The work was ordered stopped in September after Post inquires about the project.
In addition, Israeli security forces seized a Palestinian-owned hotel on the border of eastern Jerusalem after expelling its owners and declaring them absentee. Nearby, a private Jewish organization has bought and occupied two illegal houses that the Israeli government is paying private security guards to protect.
"There's a dovetailing of government actions and settlement activity," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who has fought numerous court battles against Jewish takeovers of Arab-owned houses and land. The government, he said, has adapted its pro-settlement policies "to service messianic groups" that are moving into Arab neighborhoods.
A report by the State Attorney's Office that has not yet been released concluded that almost every major ministry in the Israeli government assisted in the construction, expansion and maintenance of illegal settlement outposts, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. The report found that "every echelon, from minister to low-level clerks, ignored settlers' violations of the law . . . bypassing the zoning laws and master plans" and improperly funneling state money to settlement expansions, even after being ordered not to by Israel's attorney general, according to the newspaper.
In meetings with senior Israeli officials Sunday on her first trip to the region as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned Israel not to take unilateral steps that could influence the city's status. "We do believe that unilateral steps in Jerusalem, particularly those that might appear to prejudge future discussions, would be unhelpful at this time," she said in a television interview with Israel's Channel 1.
Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, one of the most prominent private groups involved in moving Jews into Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, said a main focus of his organization was returning Jews to property their ancestors had abandoned during Arab riots in the 1920s and '30s. He said the group's goal was not to block Palestinian access to Jerusalem's Old City or prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But he asserted that both results were inevitable and desirable side effects of the group's activities, which he described as creating "the shield of Jerusalem."
"If, as a result of what we do, it means the city can't be divided, fine, Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people," Luria said. "It would be the biggest disaster for the Jewish world if Jerusalem were divided and a Palestinian state was created on Jewish land."
Effie Eitam, a leader of the pro-settlement National Religious Party who was housing minister from March 2003 until last June, said the government was a full participant in the campaign to encircle Jerusalem, key parts of which he claimed to have initiated. "It's all done under the eye of the state," he said.
But Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the government was not coordinating its moves with any private groups and was not involved in any illegal activity. "There's no collusion against the law by the government with these people," he said.
Making Room for Settlers
On a barren hillside just outside Jerusalem, yellow backhoes and bulldozers spent about six weeks late last year leveling a space the size of four football fields for a new police station -- the first step in expanding the settlement of Maleh Adumim to reach the edge of Jerusalem, less than two miles away.
But the work was illegal, according to the Supreme Planning Council, Israel's highest development authority in the West Bank. Israeli army Lt. Talya Somech, a spokeswoman for the West Bank's civil administration, said that without building permits or approved plans, the project "violated the laws of planning and construction." It also violated Maleh Adumim's master development plan.