Jewish Inroads in Muslim Quarter

Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem's Old City pass the entrance of a Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter. The Israeli government took control of the quarter nearly four decades ago.
Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem's Old City pass the entrance of a Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter. The Israeli government took control of the quarter nearly four decades ago. (By Ilan Mizrahi For The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 11, 2007

JERUSALEM, Feb. 10 -- From the roof of his home just inside the Old City walls, Palestinian landlord Nasser Karain has a view of the valleys and plateaus where scriptures say Solomon built the first Temple, Jesus was betrayed and Muhammad rose to heaven.

A new landmark may soon rise next to his family compound.

The Israeli government is funding the first construction of a Jewish settlement in the Old City's Muslim Quarter since taking control of it nearly four decades ago. The Flowers Gate development plan calls for more than 20 apartments and a domed synagogue that would alter the skyline of the Old City.

Karain's property is at the center of an accelerating campaign by Jewish settler organizations to change the ethnic and physical character of this city's oldest Arab neighborhoods. The Israeli government is financing projects that dovetail with the settlers' goals, which they say are to secure the Old City and an adjacent valley for Israel in any final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Resistance is growing. Last week, Palestinians protested throughout the West Bank over an Israeli renovation project in the Old City, leading to some of the worst clashes with Israeli police in years. Surrounded by crenelated walls, the Old City is divided into four quarters -- Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- that contain some of the holiest sites in Christendom, Islam and Judaism.

The Flowers Gate development would expand a nearby enclave where two Jewish families now live in red-roofed bungalows just feet from Karain's home. The settler organization Ateret Cohanim has begun showing prospective residents the strip of land designated for the synagogue and apartments.

Karain is watching the project encircle his compound. He said Jerusalem city officials have denied his many applications to add a second story to his home as his family has grown to include 33 grandchildren. His new neighbors, whose children are escorted to school by armed guards, have offered several times to buy his property for millions of dollars. He refused the most recent bid just months ago.

"I wouldn't want anyone in this place except family now," said Karain, born 63 years ago in the house he inherited from his father. "I'd be afraid they'd sell to settlers."

The settlers' parcel-by-parcel campaign is unfolding within a single square mile bordered by ancient ramparts and sheer valley walls. Israel seized the Old City, the adjacent valley known as the Holy Basin and the rest of East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, later annexing them. The move gave the 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem residency status and the right to vote in local elections, but the annexation is not recognized internationally.

The Jewish population of the Old City makes up about 9 percent of its 35,400 residents, nearly all concentrated in the Jewish Quarter. Under a U.S.-brokered agreement reached in January 2001, Israel would have maintained control of the Jewish Quarter and part of the Armenian Quarter. The Muslim and Christian Quarters would have come under Palestinian authority in the deal, which collapsed soon after.

Only a few dozen Jewish families live among the approximately 20,000 Palestinian residents of the Holy Basin, a picturesque crescent that encompasses the Kidron Valley, parts of the Mount of Olives, and the hillside neighborhood that Jews call the City of David and Palestinians call Wadi Hilweh. Israel suggested international oversight of the Holy Basin at the 2001 talks, an informal proposal the Palestinians rejected.

The effort to expand the Jewish presence in the Old City and Holy Basin, a cause of violent protest over the past century, had been largely dormant since a 1992 state commission found that government agencies were illegally channeling public funds to private settler organizations and allowing them insider access to seized Palestinian property.

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