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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 2, Issue 8: "The Battle for Jerusalem's Old City and Holy Basin"

Settlements in Focus The Battle for Jerusalem's Old City and Holy Basin (Vol. 2, Issue 8)A publication of Americans for Peace Now What are the settlers up to these days in and around the Old City? In recent months Israel has begun allowing the most extremist Jewish settlers to take control of some of the most highly contested areas of Jerusalem. In some specific cases, government authorities are clearly abetting the settlers' efforts. Perhaps ...

Settlements in Focus

The Battle for Jerusalem's Old City and Holy Basin (Vol. 2, Issue 8)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

What are the settlers up to these days in and around the Old City?

In recent months Israel has begun allowing the most extremist Jewish settlers to take control of some of the most highly contested areas of Jerusalem. In some specific cases, government authorities are clearly abetting the settlers' efforts.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the case of the large national park that surrounds the Old City on its south and east. Israel recently handed de facto control of this national park - and the many religious and historic sites it contains - to the extremist settler organization El Ad (which for years has led efforts to establish a Jewish presence in the neighborhood of Silwan, also known as the City of David. For details, see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 4). As reported recently in Ha'aretz newspaper, visitors to the sites buy admission tickets from El Ad employees, admission fees go into El Ad coffers, and tour guides and staff at the site preach El Ad's own brand of extremist, exclusionist history. The Jerusalem Municipality website's page on the City of David refers visitors to a link to the El Ad website; the link no longer works, since El Ad is in the process of launching a new, sophisticated and evidently well-financed site, which thus far lacks any English-language content.

Another national park northeast of the Old City, to be placed under the control of Jewish extremists, is in the planning stages. In addition, in recent months the Jerusalem settlers have once again begun taking over Palestinian properties and intensifying activities in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, in Silwan, and in the areas around and overlooking the Old City (sometimes referred to as its "visual basin" or "the Holy Basin").

For details regarding the delicate balance in the Old City, see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 8.

Is this activity new?

No. It is a resurgence of a controversial and blatantly illegal campaign to take over homes and property in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that peaked in the 1980's. As noted in Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 4:

"The most significant Israeli government support for such activities took place from the mid-1980's until 1992. During this period there was a covert Israeli government policy of targeting properties in Palestinian neighborhoods and turning them over to settler organizations like El Ad (whose activities focus exclusively on Silwan) and Ateret Cohanim (whose focus is the Old City). As revealed in an Israeli government-commissioned report, the tactics included declaring Palestinian property to be absentee property (i.e., property whose owners were in "enemy" territory at the end of the 1967 War, and whose assets thus reverted, under Israeli law, to the State of Israel) and turning it over to settlers; and using government pressure to convince Palestinian owners to sell to settlers. The primary player orchestrating this policy was Ariel Sharon, who was Minister of Infrastructure during much of the period in question and who in 1987 acquired the lease on an apartment deep inside the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, opening the way for the settler organization Ateret Cohanim to begin aggressively targeting properties in the same area.

"The situation changed in 1992, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin commissioned the Klugman Committee report - an interdepartmental report on settlement activity in East Jerusalem issued by a committee headed by Haim Klugman, then-Director General of the Ministry of Justice. The report revealed the extensive covert and largely illegal government activities to expedite settlement inside East Jerusalem neighborhoods, bankrolled by the Israeli taxpayers without their knowledge. As a result of the Klugman Report and ensuing scandal, government support for settlement activities in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ceased abruptly in late 1992, and while support resumed several years later when Binyamin Netanyahu took over as Prime Minister, it was at a much diminished level."

Who is supporting these activities today?

Thus far it is not clear how and with whose support the settlers have re-launched their efforts in East Jerusalem. From the scope of the efforts, the covert manner in which they are being undertaken, and the involvement of properties that are controlled by the state of Israel, it does appear clear that this new campaign involves the consent and active support of some elements within the Israeli government. The Antiquities Authority, the National Parks Authority, the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of infrastructures, for example, are clearly complicit, in varying degrees. Given former Prime Minister Sharon's strong past support for and direct involvement in such efforts in the past (as documented in the referenced editions of Settlements in Focus) some observers believe it is not a coincidence that this resurgence of activity arose during his tenure as Prime Minister. However, until there is greater investigation - and possibly a new commission of inquiry - it is likely that the full extent of the government's role will remain murky.

Nonetheless, there is clear evidence of active Israeli Government support for the settlers. For example, in 2005 the Knesset approved NIS 60 million (around $13.5 million) per year for 7 years to fund restoration of the Old City and its environs - funds that some experts argue are tantamount to a slush fund for settler activities in the area. In addition, the decision to give settlers control over various public areas, like the national park discussed earlier, and an historic quarry, discussed below - indicate clear support from at least some elements in the Israeli government (since the decisions and authorization had to have come from within the government).

In addition, past experience suggests that the extremist settler groups are receiving substantial assistance from groups and individuals outside Israel, including from sources in the United States (where such assistance is tax-exempt).

What areas exactly are the settlers targeting?

Settlers are targeting sites in key areas of the Old City and the Holy Basin, including some areas that the settlers have never in the past succeeded in penetrating:

The Old City:

Muslim Quarter: The Government of Israel is preparing to move ahead with a plan to build a new settlement inside Herod's Gate, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter (discussed in detail in Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 8).

Muslim Quarter: The Government of Israel recently handed over to the Ateret Cohanim settler organization a new project to "restore" a 3000 year-old quarry running under the Old City, from Herod's Gate 280 meters toward the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The project is being funded by, among others, the Ministry of Infrastructure, from monies budgeted for the rehabilitation of quarries (funds ostensibly meant to deal with the blight on the land left by modern quarries, not the transformation of a 3000 year-old underground quarry into a tourist site run by far right-wing settlers).

Jaffa Gate: In 2005 settlers claimed to have acquired - under questionable circumstances that are now the subject of legal proceedings- two Palestinian hotels located at Jaffa Gate (for details see: Settlements in Focus Vol. 1, Issue 4). This is the entrance to the Old City that will under the best of circumstances (like those envisioned by the Geneva Initiative) require the most delicate and complicated arrangements, since it represents a key point of control, with access to all four Quarters of the Old City.

The Holy Basin:

Sheikh Jarrah (north of the Old City): The Shepherd's Hotel, a property formerly owned by the Mufti of Jerusalem, came under Israeli control in 1967 and was used for years as an Israeli Border Police station. In recent years the site has stood vacant, but the building is to be demolished imminently to make way for a new privately funded settlement compound, funded by a company controlled by Irving Moskowitz, a wealthy American businessman and longtime patron of the far right-wing settlers in Jerusalem.

North of the Old City: A national park is being planned for this area, and will reportedly be turned over to the settlers to run.

A-Tur (Mount of Olives): In April 2006 settlers took over - under dubious circumstances - two large buildings in the neighborhood of A-Tur on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. This is the first time since 1967 the settlers have succeeded in acquiring property in this densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood. Details of this case are included in this Ha'aretz article. The circumstances of these takeovers are of highly questionable legality, and the subject of legal proceedings.

Ras al-Amud (Mount of Olives): The recent commencement of construction of the new Israeli police station in E1 means that the current police station in Ras al-Amud will soon be turned over to the settlers. Reportedly the settlers are funding the construction of the new police station in order to facilitate the handover of the property in Ras al-Amud, where the settlers plan to construct a large new settlement complex. (For more details see Haaretz article)

Kidmat Zion (Abu Dis): There is a government-sponsored plan, approved by the Jerusalem Municipality, for the construction of several hundred housing units in this area, located in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu-Dis - an area isolated from any other Israeli presence. Two new houses (one built illegally) have already been turned over to settlers.

Silwan (south of the Old City): In March 2006 settlers took over a Palestinian home in Silwan. Earlier attempts to evict the family living in this home in the late 1990s were abandoned after they drew critical media coverage. The media at that time reported in detail on the history of the family living in the home - a family that had been celebrated for intervening during Arab riots in 1929 to save Jewish lives.

Silwan (south of the Old City): As mentioned earlier, the Government of Israel has handed control of the major elements in the national park adjacent to the Old City to the settlers.

Abu Tor (south of the Old City): Settlers recently took over a Palestinian property in this neighborhood. The site they took over was being used to serve the mentally disabled.

From these activities, what can we infer about the settlers' goals?

The patterns of settlement activity in Jerusalem reveal three "rings" of settlements; two of these reflect religious/messianic ideology, and the other reflects a political/strategic plan for the city. Clearly, there is a "thermal map" of Jerusalem - not all areas resonate equally for the settlers (and other Israelis). The settlers concentrate their energies on those areas that resonate the most strongly.

Ring 1 - the Old City: Plotting the settlement activities inside and immediately around the Old City, it appears clear that the settlers are focusing their activities on a band of settlements extending from Herod's Gate, through the Old City, to Silwan. By establishing a presence in these areas, the settlers appear to want to "ring" the Temple Mount (where the messianic settlers aspire to rebuild the Jewish temple) and cut it off from the Palestinian population.

Ring 2 - the Holy Basin: Plotting the settlement activities in the areas beyond the Old City but still within Jerusalem's municipal borders, the settlements clearly delineate the larger area of greatest importance to religious and messianic Jews - the Old City and its visual basin (i.e., the surrounding areas and those areas looking out onto the Old City from the Mount of Olives). These are the areas which resonate with Jewish history (and also with Christian and Muslem traditions).

Ring 3 - Greater Jerusalem: Plotting settlement activities further from the Old City, on the periphery of the municipal borders, reveals a third ring of settlements - one which defines the shape and scope of former Prime Minister Sharon's concept of Greater Jerusalem - consistent with his long-held view that blocking geographic contiguity between the West Bank and East Jerusalem is necessary to ensure that there is no political contiguity between the two (for more details about settlements in Greater Jerusalem, please see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 2, Issue 7). In the past there has generally been a clear distinction between these largely government-planned and -supported settlement activities throughout East Jerusalem and on its periphery, and the activities of the messianic settlers in and around the Old City. However, these two parallel lines of settlement appear now to be converging, with the increased (or renewed) government support for the activities of the extremist settlers in and around the Old City (discussed above), and with the extremist settlers becoming active in the drive for the large settlements in other areas as well, in particular with respect to new massive governmental settlements planned on Jerusalem's southern flank.

Given the Hamas victory and the unlikelihood of any peace agreement in the near future, why should Israel worry about settler activities in the Old City and Holy Basin?

There is a very delicate balance in the densely populated Old City and Holy Basin. This geographically tiny area is home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and within it are located countless religious and historical sites of deep significant to Jews, Christians, and Muslims (see map).

Most observers would agree that past negotiations over Jerusalem were a failure; some Jerusalem experts (like Ir Amim's Daniel Seidemann) argue that they failed because the negotiators treated this area like regular "real estate" - measurable in square meters, and divisible horizontally, vertically, or on an angle. As Mr. Seidemann recently told audiences in Washington, DC:

"Negotiations failed precisely because this not regular real estate and it resists being treated as such. It is sacred space - an arena of sacred narratives, wherein reside two overlapping and conflicting national narratives, and three overlapping and conflicting religious narratives."

Mr. Seidemann went on to explain the dangers of disrupting the peaceful coexistence of these narratives:

"The conflict is being reduced to its volcanic core - the Old City and the surrounding areas - at precisely the same time that Jerusalem is being hermetically sealed along its borders by settlements and the security barrier. A time when the only Muslim men who can come to pray at Islam's third holiest site, the Al Aqsa Mosque, are Israeli-Arabs and Palestinian men over the age of 45. It is happening precisely when Hamas and its own deadly brand of fundamentalism is ascendant, and when there is a deepening rift between Islam and the West. It is happening at a time when Christian pilgrims cannot travel between the physical embodiments of the two existential poles of Christianity - Nativity, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to Crucifixion, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - without first standing in line and being searched by Israeli soldiers. It is happening at a time when extremist evangelical Christians in the United States are supporting and bankrolling radical settlers in Jerusalem, in the hopes of hastening the onset of the Apocalypse.

"And most troublingly, it is happening at a time when the government of Israel has decided to allow, and even abet, the efforts of the most extremist, messianic Israelis to take physical control of this sacred space. These are Israelis who want to transform the situation from one in which mutually incompatible narratives coexist peacefully, if uneasily, in the same space, to one where a single narrative - the Jewish one - establishes physical dominance over the area, to the exclusion of the other narratives. These activities of these Israelis are the seed that could transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a nasty but manageable and ultimately soluble territorial conflict into a nasty, zero-sum religious conflict with the potential to spill over into the region and around the world."

Isn't this a little overdramatic?

Looking back through history, it should be recalled that most of the major periods of violence in Jerusalem in the past century were detonated by events in the Old City. These included the 1929 Palestinian riots, caused by a dispute over prayer arrangements at the Western Wall; the 1969 riots, after an Australian tourist set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque; the violence on the Temple Mount in 1990, after messianic settlers laid a "cornerstone" for the Temple; the riots in 1996 following the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel; and the riots in 2000, following Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

In the words of Mr. Seidemann:

"Jerusalem has the reputation of being nitroglycerin - undeservedly. It is not every random bump in the road that sets it off. Jerusalem is more like an atomic device - it needs critical mass and a detonator. Current developments are building that critical mass, and the settlers seem intent on providing the detonator."

Do most Israelis support El Ad and similar groups?

The efforts of the messianic settlers in Jerusalem do not enjoy wide popularity among the Israeli public or even within the Israeli Government. Very few Israelis want to see the conflict with the Palestinians transformed into a religious conflict (a sentiment mirrored in the Palestinian population).

With respect to the Israeli Government, it should be recalled that, historically, all Israeli governments have recognized the importance of respecting the unique multi-religious, multi-cultural balance of the city. It seems likely that with some prodding from the international community, the new leadership of Israel would be amenable to restoring such a policy.

At the same time, while the messianic settlers are not well-liked or widely-supported in Israel, many people in government fear them, since they are well-organized, well-funded (including substantial tax-exempt funds coming from supporters in the U.S.), and single-minded in their focus. Historically, Israeli officials appear to have often decided that it is easier to let these settlers have their way than to expend the time and effort to fight them and all of their supporters. Thus, real pressure - both domestic and international - will likely be a key element to ensuring a change in Israeli government policy to check the dangerous and destabilizing activities of these settlers in Jerusalem.

Produced by Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now, in collaboration with Daniel Seideman, Ir Amim, Israel