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Jerusalem Blitz (latest news and analysis)

Special report from Daniel Seidemann and Lara Friedman

As more reports of new settler activities and settler plans in East Jerusalem accumulate now on an almost daily basis, it is becoming clear that we are in the middle of a Jerusalem settlement blitz.  

This blitz is part real and part hype.  The motivation behind the blitz is clear: fear that the peace process will take root.  The goal of the blitz is also clear:  to prevent this from happening.  

The good news here is that the nature of this blitz - consisting of a combination of relatively obscure, small projects and projects that are unlikely to actually be implemented - demonstrates how few cards the settlers and their supporters have to play in Jerusalem. 

The bad news is that every report of new provocative plans in Jerusalem - even reports that are mostly hot air - represents a very real and tangible blow to the effort to re-launch the peace effort.  As such, the Obama Administration and the international community cannot let the Israeli government off the hook in Jerusalem - even as the Israeli government will try to disclaim responsibility, assert that it has no authority, and will try to downplay the importance of these Jerusalem provocations.  Jerusalem is the first and best test of how serious the Netanyahu government and the international community are about peace.

More details on Beit Orot project:  A few days ago a new settlement project on the Mt. Olives, adjacent to the Beit Orot yeshiva, came to light.  It has now been determined that the site in question belonged originally to the Armenian Church.  About 15 years ago a rogue Armenian Patriarch sold the property to Irving Moskowitz, going into hiding with the proceeds.  The site is located adjacent to the existing Beit Orot compound, nestled between the Lutheran World Federation offices and the Papal Nuncio.  While the land is owned by Moskowitz, the project developer has been determined to be Elad (the settler NGO focused on the Silwan but now branching out to the rest of the Old City's Historic Basin).  While these details have not yet made it into the English-language press, they have made the German-language press (google translate does a great job with this page).

NEW CONTROVERSY - the Seven Arches Hotel:  It is being reported in the Hebrew-language press today that the Seven Arches Hotel (aka the Intercontinental) was sold to the settlers, who in turn plan to hand it over to the IDF to be used as a military academy.  The report has not yet made it into the English language press, but was picked up by the same German-language press report.

This report has not been confirmed and is likely inaccurate - the sale of this property (which legally is absentee Jordanian government property) would create a major confrontation between Israel and Jordan.  Moreover, legally any such sale would have to be subject to a public announcement/bidding process.   

Nonetheless, the reports should set off serious alarm bells:  it has been known for some time that the Jerusalem settler have coveted this property - located at the edge of the Mount of Olive and overlooking the Old City.  Indeed, for some time settlers have been increasingly using the hotel as a favorite site for public events and to house visitors, and it is featured prominently on one of the Elad websites (as the first of a series of "panorama" sites on the Mount of Olives).  

The fact that the reports refer to a plan for the settlers to be granted ownership of the property in a deal that would grant immediate-term use of the site to the IDF should also set off alarms.  As part of their ongoing - and generally successful - effort to use ideologically-driven "tourism" to make their highly controversial goals part of a new pseudo-consensus, they are already giving tours of Silwan/City of David/Mount of Olives to upwards of 45,000 Israeli soldiers and officers (as part of a policy viewed by many as problematic, if not illegal).  Thus, even if the report proves inaccurate, it discloses very real settler aspirations regarding the hotel and its environs: to take control of a key property at a strategically sensitive site, to extend their ersatz-Biblical hegemony over the public domain in its environs by means of fundamentalist tourism, while receiving the legitimacy bestowed by the association with the IDF.

NEW CONTROVERSY - Shuafat:  It is being widely reported in Israel that the municipality has approved the establishment of a new settlement (50 residential units) in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat.  The facts of this story are the following:  First, there is no "news" right now, other than the fact that the protagonists in this affair have selected this moment in time to go public with their plans.  The story is really about something that happened in March 2009, when the Municipality approved 20-30 town plans for East Jerusalem.  It appears that one of these town plans included an area where there is Jewish-owned land that well-known settler provocateurs -  associated with the right-wing settler organizations of East Jerusalem - want to develop for Jewish housing in the heart of Shuafat.

There appears to be no reason to assume that the approval of the town plans in March was a covert initiative to approve right wing settler schemes in Shuafat.   However, assuming ownership of the land is not at issue, the settlers' right to try to develop the land according to the town plan is not at issue, either.  

Without in anyway underplaying how problematic this story is - and the settlers are doing everything they can to make as much noise as possible and to make this plan appear as grandiose as possible - it should be recognized that the plan is likely to fail.  Jerusalem settlements that succeed (in the sense of getting Jews to move into Palestinian areas) fall into two categories: major government-backed settlements (Gilo, Neve Yaacov, etc) and messianic settlements at sites that have clear religious resonance (Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, Ras al Amud).  Private sector efforts to develop non-ideological settlements in East Jerusalem (like Nof Zion, which boasts beautiful views of the Old City) have fallen flat.  Similarly, ideologically-motivated efforts to establish settlements in locations that do not have religious/messianic resonance (As-Sawahra, the outskirts of Gilo) have likewise failed.  With the Shuafat plan, you have a private initiative that has no economic potential - non-ideologically motivated Israeli Jews are not going to move to the middle of Shuafat even for cheap housing - and you have a site that has no religious/messianic resonance to attract ideologically-motivated settlers.