JERUSALEM — Israeli officials inaugurated a Jewish heritage center Wednesday in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, escalating an already fierce legal battle between local residents and Jewish settlers who also claim the land.
Amid high security, senior Israeli ministers and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a staunch supporter of Israel, attended the ceremony on a narrow, trash-strewn street in the Silwan neighborhood, a recent flash point for tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israel government says the center will honor Yemenite Jews who lived here in the 19th century and has allocated $1.2 million to develop the site. But Palestinians say the center is part of a larger effort by Jewish settlers and their allies in the government to consolidate control of Arab neighborhoods in the city.
More than 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including scores who live in Silwan. The settler group Ateret Cohanim has spearheaded efforts to settle Jews in Palestinian areas, including the Batan al-Hawa quarter of Silwan, where the heritage center was opened, according to human rights groups and reports in Israeli media.
“They returned to the land that they had left 2,000 years ago, and established a strong and vibrant community,” Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said of the Yemenite Jews, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported.
The neighborhood’s significance lies in its proximity to Jerusalem’s Old City, rights groups say. And its high population density and low economic status make it “one of the sensitive and volatile areas of Jerusalem,” according to Ir Amim, an Israeli nonprofit group.
“We know that this was a well-orchestrated plan to force us to leave,” said Yakoub al-Rajabi, a Palestinian resident of Batan al-Hawa. “And if we stay, it will paralyze us and isolate us in our homes.” He said the presence of Jewish settlers has resulted in increasing patrols by Israeli security forces in the area, making life difficult for Palestinian residents.
Rajabi is a member of the local committee challenging the center’s opening. The residents’ legal petition objecting to the center is before Israel’s supreme court.
The dispute over the neighborhood involves some of the most contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the final status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to reclaim land.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The final status of Jerusalem, which is sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths, is to be negotiated in peace talks. But Israeli law allows Israeli Jews to claim assets in the annexed territory if they belonged to Jews before the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation.
Palestinians, however, are not afforded similar claims to property they once owned in West Jerusalem or other cities and towns in Israel. And rights activists say this imbalance undercuts prospects for peace.
In Batan al-Hawa, Ateret Cohanim has given eviction orders to Rajabi and other families to clear room for the center and for expanded Israeli settlements. Rajabi and more than 100 others have disputed the orders, claiming that Israel’s government unlawfully transferred the land to representatives of Ateret Cohanim more than a decade ago. The settler group says the land once belonged to a Jewish trust assisting migrant Yemenite Jews.
“They had one prayer in their hearts: Jerusalem forever and ever,” Regev said at the ceremony Wednesday.
On a recent day, the center was defaced with swastikas painted on its external walls. Armed guards peered out of a fortified metal door, and armored vans transported settlers on steep, rocky roads.
Something as small as a parking space dispute or a wrong look can devolve into clashes between neighbors, residents say. Palestinians have thrown molotov cocktails at Jewish homes and vehicles. Settlers have harassed Palestinians, cutting off water and electricity and asking Israeli police to arrest local residents.
“When the settlers came, our lives changed dramatically,” said Zuhair al-Rajabi, Yakoub’s cousin and the head of the local committee in Batan al-Hawa. “Now it will only get worse.”
Sufian Taha in Silwan contributed to this report.