Jewish Inroads in Muslim Quarter
Settlers' Project to Alter Skyline of Jerusalem's Old City

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.

That partnership has been revived in pursuit of identical goals. The same settler groups are working now in tandem with the government as they purchase Palestinian property at a time of deep recession in the occupied territories, build new housing and promote the Jewish historical claim to the Old City and Holy Basin. The Israeli government plans to spend $106 million in the area on housing development, tourist centers and historic renovation near contested religious sites through 2013 -- money that began flowing last year.

"The conflict is being reduced to its volcanic core," said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and critic of Israel's land-use policy in the city.

The Old City

A short walk along sloping alleys from the Flowers Gate compound, the Via Dolorosa joins al-Wad Street, forming the crossroads of three faiths.

On any Friday afternoon, families of ultra-Orthodox Jews stroll among Muslim men, each heading toward the plateau that Jews know as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. Christian pilgrims walk among them tracing Jesus's final steps, monitored by some of the 400 closed-circuit Israeli police cameras that continuously watch over the Old City.

Along the way, new signs depicting the sanctuary's 1,300-year-old al-Aqsa mosque hang above entrances to shawarma shops and boutiques. Funded by an Islamic organization in Israel as a response to new Jewish settlement activity, the signs emphasize the Islamic character of the quarter.

Ateret Cohanim, an organization named for the crown worn by members of the ancient Jewish priesthood, seeks to rebuild the Temple on the al-Aqsa site and is the primary settler group working within the Old City walls. To move Jews into the Muslim and Christian quarters, the group buys property in ways that have been challenged in court over the years. The 1992 Klugman Commission named it as a prime beneficiary of illegal government help.

"Our goal is to reestablish the Jewish presence in all of the Old City," said Ezra Waner, 26, a student at the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, which has existed periodically in the Muslim Quarter for 120 years. "Slowly, slowly, we want to bring the Jews back."

Jews control 75 to 80 buildings, homes and single stories of apartment complexes in the Muslim and Christian quarters, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. Most of the properties, a small fraction of the total in those areas, are along routes to the Western Wall, where Jews pray at the base of the Temple Mount.

"Sometimes it takes 10 years of work just to buy one house," said Waner, who moved to Israel from South Africa 14 years ago. "And even then the Arabs will take everything out of it, even the electrical wiring, before turning it over."

The yeshiva entrance runs through a low, damp tunnel, just down al-Wad Street from the several-story building that Ariel Sharon, then Israel's infrastructure minister, bought in the 1980s. He purchased the place to create a symbolic Jewish presence in the Muslim Quarter, where Waner said 3,000 Jews lived during the British mandate that preceded Israel's founding in 1948.

Drifting out from behind locked gates, student prayers echo from crowded rooms where antique chandeliers provide young men the light to study the Torah and Talmud. During the 1936 Arab riots, the yeshiva's 100 or so students collected the Torah scrolls and fled. Waner said an Arab watchman held the keys, handing them to yeshiva officials after the 1967 war.

"Before the war there was no Muslim Quarter and no Jewish Quarter," Waner said in a book-lined room overflowing with young men. "We tell our stories. Soon all of them here will learn."

Adnan Husseini, the Jerusalem director of the Waqf, the Islamic land trust that has authority over the al-Aqsa mosque complex, traces his Palestinian family's Jerusalem roots back 800 years. His office overlooks the olive grove and cypress stands of the Haram al-Sharif, his centuries-old walls rising into vaulted ceilings above his cluttered desk.

"They have failed to control the city," he said. "And they will never succeed."

Husseini, a 59-year-old engineer wearing gold-rim half-glasses and a cardigan, said Jewish settlers with help from the Israeli government are "destroying the scale of the city" by pushing large symbolic projects in the Muslim Quarter and in contested religious areas.

He cited the Flowers Gate synagogue, which requires several more layers of approval, and the project to build a wider ramp from the Western Wall plaza to the Mugrabi Gate, the entrance to the mosque complex used by Israeli soldiers and tourists. Walls dating to the 7th-century Umayyad rule are threatened by the work, and Muslim concern prompted last week's protests.

"They want to create a new situation, a new conflict," Husseini said. "Jerusalem is in danger."

From the Old City ramparts above the Flowers Gate project, Jon Seligman, Jerusalem director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, looked toward a horizon spiked with spires and minarets. The only Jewish buildings that once appeared there were a pair of synagogues, destroyed by Jordan during its nearly two-decade reign.

"Whether a Jewish presence on the skyline is appropriate is something that can be legitimately raised," said Seligman, referring to the Flowers Gate synagogue. "It is something that is present for all other major religions here except Judaism."

More than half of Seligman's budget comes from construction projects that require preliminary excavations, which at the Flowers Gate site have revealed the thick stone walls of a 600-year-old Arab neighborhood. Plans call for the synagogue to be built above it.

The Holy Basin

Just outside the Old City walls, the beige limestone hillside dips sharply to the Kidron Valley floor. Homes with arched windows and iron balconies are packed tightly along narrow streets, where Jewish settler groups have been buying Palestinian property and moving in behind high fences and guard towers.

But the hillside expanses of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, strips of parkland and the remnants of ancient stone walls have given Jewish settler groups in the Holy Basin more to work with than in the cramped confines of the Old City -- open land and an abundance of archaeological sites useful in promoting the historic Jewish claim to the area.

Stone steps 2,000 years old rise from the Siloam Pool, climbing into a tunnel toward the Western Wall hundreds of feet above. Among the few people who have seen the recently discovered steps is David Beeri, a spry 53-year-old whose organization is financing the excavation.

"Every step is important," said Beeri, founder of Elad, a private organization that moves Jewish settlers into the Holy Basin, oversees its main archaeological sites and finances new digs. "Every step is a story."

The story that brought Beeri to this place began before his birth. His father was saved from a firing-squad pit at Auschwitz by a German officer he had befriended -- giving his future son "a mission" to work on behalf of Jews.

Beeri first saw the City of David in the 1980s as a soldier disguised as an Arab in an army undercover unit. After the first Palestinian uprising ended with the 1993 Oslo accords, he moved his wife and six children into a hillside house he said he bought from a Palestinian family through a third party.

Beeri pointed to large holes at the edges of the steps that revealed a musty tunnel beneath. Israeli archaeologists have discovered food-storage jars and coins dating to the 1st-century Jewish rebellion against the Romans. According to Roman histories, soldiers pulled escaping Jewish rebels from a tunnel, slaying them with swords. Beeri believes this is the place it happened.

"The Romans are no longer here, but we have come back," he said.

Beeri's organization, Elad, works with the National Parks Protection Authority, the Jerusalem municipality and the Jewish National Fund, an agency that controls large tracts of land in the Holy Basin purchased in the 1920s by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. The Klugman Commission said government agencies gave Elad privileged access to at least two dozen houses in the area, including some seized from Palestinians under the absentee-property law Israel imposed after the 1948 war.

Elad says it and its partners control more than 55 percent of the Holy Basin. The organization owns the City of David visitors center, the entrance to some of Jerusalem's most important archaeological sites. Elad officials say 250,000 visitors came to the center last year -- a tenfold increase from 2001.

Beeri's house is on a path paved with cut stones and lined with the same street signs seen in the city's western neighborhoods. Israeli critics say the intention is to make the neighborhood indistinguishable from West Jerusalem.

"This area poses enormous challenges for the Palestinian national movement," said Meir Margalit, a Jew and former Jerusalem councilman now with the nonprofit Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. "The biggest problem here is temptation. The settlers come with suitcases full of cash and say, 'Take it.' "

Elad sometimes offers three times the market rate for homes near important archaeological sites, Beeri said. "We must do this in a legal way on the free market. And in doing so, we think we can change the future of this part of Jerusalem."

Over the years, several dozen Jewish families have moved into homes that Elad has purchased from Palestinians, some of whom faced demolition orders from the Jerusalem city government for building or expanding without proper permits.

"At times we are pushed to despair," said Fakhri Abu Diab, 44, a Palestinian who heads a homeowners group in the area along the Kidron Valley floor. His house, set in a courtyard of lemon and olive trees, sage and wild thyme, is among 88 in the area slated for demolition to make way for an Israeli national park.

The demolition orders were frozen two years ago, amid protest. But they have not been lifted, and Abu Diab and his neighbors continue to pay fines for building without permits. Margalit, the former Jerusalem councilman, said only about 120 permits were granted in East Jerusalem last year.

That is one-tenth the number needed to accommodate growth, Israeli critics say. They contend the dearth drives Palestinians to look elsewhere for room to raise families. Just up the hill, Beeri is adding a new floor and more rooms to his house.

"A human being is at the end only a human being, and there is only so much he can take," said Abu Diab, the Palestinian, who grew up swimming in the Siloam Pool, where the Bible says Jesus cured a blind man, now behind locked gates controlled by Elad and the park service. "But the majority of us remain steadfast."

Most Palestinians have resisted offers to sell their homes, facing deadly reprisals if they accept. But settler leaders said two recent developments have made it easier for Jews to acquire Palestinian property.

The international aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority imposed after Hamas's election a year ago has ravaged the economy in the territories, prompting more Palestinians in East Jerusalem to sell their land out of financial necessity. In addition, they said, the 24-foot-high wall Israel is building around Jerusalem has nearly sealed the city off from the West Bank, home to armed Palestinian groups opposed to selling property to settlers, offering a sense of protection for those who do sell.

But the threat has not disappeared. In April, a Palestinian father of eight, Mohammed Abu al-Hawa, sold his apartment building in the A-Tur neighborhood of the Mount of Olives, which lies on Israel's side of the wall. Days later his body was found tortured and burned near Jericho. The purchase marked the first Jewish foothold in the neighborhood, which has a vivid view of the Temple Mount stretching across the ridgeline to the west.

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