House by house, street by street, Israeli families are taking over an area that Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Armed with eviction notices and backed by police, settlers are forcing Arabs from their homes. Hamida Ghafour reports from Jerusalem's new flashpoint
The City of David excavations just outside the southern wall of Jerusalem's old city had brisk and efficient air about it. About a dozen young Israelis, including some archaeology students formed a line passing buckets of dirt to one another which they dumped in a skip. Several dozen metres below was a large archaeological site where some historians believe King David built his kingdom and palace 3,000 years ago. But the dig for the ancient Israelite kingdom is taking place in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem which Palestinians want as the capital of their future sovereign state. At the bottom of the steep hill running from the excavation site to al Bustan, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood, residents are angry. Fakhri Abu Diab, an accountant whose home is among the approximately 80 threatened with destruction by the Jerusalem municipality partly because it wants to build a park linked to King David, just found out the Israeli courts have given him a temporary reprieve. He has until May 30 to save his house. "They say my house is illegal," he said. "But I will not leave even if they demolish it above my head. I was born here. This is politics not archaeology. They don't want Arabs in this area. They want to give East Jerusalem to the Jews only." The latest flashpoint for the Arab-Israeli conflict is unfolding on the streets and houses of East Jerusalem. The recent announcements of new Jewish settlements is exacerbating tensions and driving a wedge between the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his country's most powerful ally America which is impatient for the two sides to start talks with the US as mediator. The chasm was illustrated this week in Mr Netanyahu's disastrous visit to Washington. The secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned Israel would have to make "difficult but necessary choices" if it wanted peace. Mr Netanhayu declared that Jerusalem would never be divided because "the Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today." They are doing so house by house, street by street. Israel considers all of Jerusalem its undivided capital and it is the seat of government. However, most international definitions of a peace settlement envisage two capitals, East Jerusalem for the Palestinians and West Jerusalem for the Israelis. Human rights groups on both sides say the Israeli government is determined to impose a predominantly Jewish identity and consolidate its hold on all of Jerusalem by building settlements in such a way that the holy city can never be divided into two.
Not all Israelis agree with their government. "It is far simpler to utter sage words about an undivided city than to tear down walls of discrimination and isolation," wrote Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist for Haaretz newspaper. The old city is increasingly encircled by Jewish-only neighbourhoods and poor Arab enclaves. Jewish settlers are also moving into the old city's Islamic quarter and into Palestinian neighbourhoods, backed by court eviction orders that are enforced by the police. Mr Abu Diab, a father of five, pointed to his neighbour's home, a pile of five-foot high rubble. It was destroyed last year. "The family are homeless, and a different family take them in every month." In Mr Abu Diab's front garden stood a lemon tree and a pet peacock perched in a corner. "Even the peacock's house is threatened," he said sardonically. He says his family bought the property in 1962. After years of unsuccessfully applying for a permit to extend the building to accommodate his growing family in 1992 he added four rooms. Last year the local authorities declared it an illegal building, hence the demolition order. But Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation which promotes peaceful relations, has pointed out that since 1967 fewer than 20 construction permits have been issued to Palestinians in this area, forcing them to build illegally. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Six Day war. The occupation of East Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law and the status of the holy city is the cornerstone of any future peace deal. Approximately 250,000 Jews have moved into East Jerusalem settlements built since 1967. All are considered illegal under international law although Israel disagrees with this. One of those neighbourhoods is Sheikh Jarrah, north of the old city. Hours before Mr Netanyahu met President Barack Obama on Tuesday, the municipal government gave final approval for the building of 20 new homes for settlers on the site of the old Shepherd hotel. The building once belonged to the mufti of Jerusalem but is owned by a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements. Construction may begin at any moment. "Are you happy? Thief, sinner!" yelled Maryam al Ghawi, 50, at a man who pulled in front of her two-storey house. She is among at least 53 Palestinians who were thrown out of their houses in Sheikh Jarrah last August after an Israeli court ruled a Jewish association had historic claim to the land. The Palestinian families, however, have lived here since 1956. Mrs al Ghawi was forcibly removed in the middle of night by settlers who staked their claim to her home by putting up a large menorah on the roof. In a French accent one of the settlers said he did not want to speak to journalists. "I am very happy here," he said as he got out of the car. Moments later, a young woman pushing a pram emerged from the garden, two young children in tow. "They forced us on the street without our hijabs," Mrs al Ghawi said. Rallies are held every Friday to protest the evictions but most days the homeless families gather in the front garden of the al Kurd family across the street from the al Ghawi home. Maysa al Kurd also has unwelcome neighbours. A group of male settlers have taken over her brother Nabil's home which is attached to her house in the family compound owned by their mother. They were able to do so under the pretext that Nabil's home was built without proper permits. The settlers come every night at midnight and sleep for a few hours, leaving before dawn. Sometimes she can hear them snoring on the other side of the wall. "This is our home, my children were born here. I was born in Jerusalem. I don't know any other home," said Mrs al Kurd. "The American government can control or pressure Netanyahu. But the Israeli government thinks it is above the law." An official from the Palestinian Authority arrived. The women crowded around him, talking at once. He appeared overwhelmed. "We have no jurisdiction here," he said before leaving. "Apart from paying for lawyers."
Sheikh Jarrah is the location of Orient House, symbol of statehood for the Palestinians. It has been shut down by the Israelis. The PA has a governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Husseini. His office is in Al Ram, a village on the northern outskirts of East Jerusalem which has been severed from the city by the infamous concrete barrier that snakes down its main road. Israel says it prevents suicide bombers from attacking Jerusalem but for Palestinians it has isolated and imprisoned them. To reach his constituents Mr Husseini crosses a Israeli military check point and shows papers to prove he is allowed to enter Jerusalem. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem must have Israeli government issued identity cards which gives them the right of residency, but not citizenship. That is changing, too. In 2008, the authorities confiscated 4,500 cards. Mr Husseini still has his. "We are convinced the Israelis don't have an agenda for peace," he said. His office has an expansive view of the imposing barrier. "We are negotiating on land while the land is being taken. It's not a matter of a home here and there." Last November Israel announced a 10-month partial freeze on new settlements in the West Bank. But Jerusalem was exempted. That is not good enough for the PA. They want all settlement building to stop before agreeing to begin proximity talks brokered by the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. "If we negotiate now it will give legitimacy to what is going on on the ground," he said. He spotted a grey Israeli military jeep circling the area near the concrete wall. "What is he doing there?" he asked bitterly. "They say the wall was to keep Israel there and Palestine on the West Bank. But they just want to show us they are in control and they can do whatever they want to us." Einat Wilf, a Labor member of the Knesset, said both sides will start negotiating when they realise they have no alternative. "A lot of people when they look at the conflict - especially when they do not live in conflict zones - believe as long as they can make the other side go away without compromise or consensus it will be solved. But each side begins to compromise when they feel they have no choice." When will that be reached? She looked frustrated. "No idea, to tell you the truth." Back in Al Bustan many Palestinian homes have become unstable because of a network of underground tunnels which are being dug as part of the City of David excavation work. A girls' school which partially collapsed last year, wounding the school children, is in danger of falling down again, said Mr Abu Diab. But the site's enormous significance to Jewish national identity was highlighted by Mr Netanyahu in his speech on Tuesday night to a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. He told the crowd that in his office was a 2,800 year-old signet ring found next to the Western Wall which was the seal of a Jewish official named Netanyahu. "The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied." Mr Abu Diab was worried about more practical matters. "According to them King Solomon and King David walked in this neighbourhood so they want to turn it into a park. We are not against King David or King Solomon but what is more important, people living 3,000 years ago or today?" @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org