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MIDEAST: ‘Poetic Justice’ in Jerusalem

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

OR AKIVA, Israel, Apr 12 2010 (IPS) - President Barack Obama has made plain he means to deconstruct Israel’s 43-year-old grip on East Jerusalem. But, for all Washington’s pressure, Israel seeks to tighten its hold on the occupied part of the city.

Since annexing East Jerusalem in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israel war there have been five aspects to Israel’s take-over of Palestinian Jerusalem: building (new Jewish neighbourhoods), curbing (Palestinian building), evicting (Palestinian families), demolishing (so-called illegally-built Palestinian homes), and settling (Israelis in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods).

Yet, U.S. pressure has borne some dividend: For nearly six months the demolitions have unofficially ceased.

Building and settling in East Jerusalem are at the core of U.S. demands of Israel in advance of pending new talks with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under Washington’s whip to provide answers on the issue.

As he faced Obama’s trenchant criticism, while in the U.S., Netanyahu stated bluntly that building in “all parts of Jerusalem” would go on unhampered.

At a festive gathering here concluding the Jewish Passover holiday, Netanyahu couched his defiance more carefully: “We will continue developing in the north and the south of the country, and we will certainly do so in Jerusalem.”

At the same time, supported by his government, the drive into Palestinian neighbourhoods by ultra-nationalists is intensifying.

Now, settler groups have begun a push to evict two more Palestinian families from their homes.

They let it be known their move in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah near the walled Old City dovetails with a broader Israeli municipal plan to demolish Palestinian homes in the area designed to make way for 200 new apartments earmarked for Israeli Jews.

They claim that the properties from which the Arab families are being evicted have been acquired “in a legal manner”. Their ownership claim is based on Ottoman-era documents allegedly proving that the contested land belonged to Jews a century ago.

The Palestinians families began living there as “refugees” following the 1948 War when Israel came into existence. That war concluded with Israel in control of West Jerusalem.

After the 1967 War, the original owners of the buildings – the Community Committee of Sephardic Jews – granted a settler-linked organisation the right to administer the properties.

A court-brokered arrangement classified the Palestinians living there as protected tenants. But, in at least one case, tenants were evicted after failing to pay their rent.

So far, the settlers have managed to evict three Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and create instead a mini-settlement.

The latest case provides a glimpse into the settlers’ modus operandi.

They applied to the Jerusalem magistrate’s court, seeking backing for the Palestinians “to clear immediately the property… of all individuals and belongings.”

The settlers accused the Palestinians of “regularly disturbing and/or bothering and/or threatening their neighbours” as further ground for their eviction.

Altercations erupt nearly every day between the new settlers and the former tenants (who have been living in tents in a field adjacent to their homes), and between the settlers and a mix of Israeli, Palestinian and international demonstrators.

In the court application the settler group reaffirmed its commitment to build additional houses in their Sheikh Jarrah enclave.

A spokeswoman for Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO monitoring Israeli policies in Jerusalem, told IPS that the eviction of more Palestinian families [over and above the 53 people who have already lost their homes] was “dangerous and potentially destructive. It will also derail the prospect of a negotiated future in Jerusalem.”

There are reported plans in the pipeline for no fewer than 50,000 new homes to be built for Israelis all over East Jerusalem; that would double the present number of Israelis who live in the occupied part of the city, overtaking the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem which Israel has kept constant at around 250,000.

The throwing out of the first three families and the turning over of their homes to the settlers created an international furore.

But it was the announcement that the Jerusalem municipality had approved the building of 6,500 new homes for Israelis in north-east Jerusalem which sparked the ongoing confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu.

Previously, even while demanding that Israel stop completely its settlement building in the West Bank, the U.S. remained deliberately ambiguous about the future of the major settlement blocs in East Jerusalem.

“You could call it poetic justice: Netanyahu chose to back Israel’s claim over the entire city by backing the ultra-nationalist entrenchment in the densely populated Palestinian quarters,” says leading Israeli political analyst David Landau. “He has been hoisted on his own settlement petard.’’

“Had Netanyahu not supported the madcap schemes of the ultra-nationalists, Obama may well have left U.S. policy on Israel’s future in East Jerusalem hanging. Now, they hold him accountable for every single new home he builds anywhere in East Jerusalem,” Landau told IPS.

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