OPT: Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem a real threat to peace

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by Yudith Oppenheimer

JERUSALEM - In the last few weeks, six more Palestinian families received notices that they are to be evicted from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. And once again we can expect to witness scenes that have by now become almost routine: settlers accompanied by police troops forcefully evicting residents and throwing them and their belongings into the street. These images will be seen by friends of Israel all over the world who will once again find it difficult to understand how they go hand in hand with the Israeli government's declared commitment to the peace process.

A similar fate awaits about 20 Palestinian families in the neighbourhood who lost their housing rights in an exhausting and prolonged legal process vis-à-vis a settler's organisation, after the courts accepted their claims to ownership over the land and their assertion that the Palestinian families living in the houses have not complied with their obligations as protected tenants. The settler groups plan to demolish the homes and build a Jewish settlement with 200 housing units in their place.

For the Palestinian families this is the second time they have become refugees. The first time was in the 1948 war. They have been living in Sheikh Jarrah since 1956 after the Jordanian government, which ruled East Jerusalem at the time, agreed to UNWRA's request to house thirty Palestinian refugee families in the site.

Those who observe the current events in East Jerusalem find it difficult to see the connection between the government's declarations and the reality on the ground. In reality, East Jerusalem is becoming an arena where extremist organisations take over property in questionable ways, deploy a private security force funded by the government-which, according to the Ministry of Housing, cost about 80 million shekels in 2008-all the while working to stir up tensions with the Palestinian residents.

Sheikh Jarrah is a telling test case: The houses in question in this neighbourhood are situated only a few hundred metres from the Shepherd Hotel, the same building about which the prime minister said that it is unthinkable that a Jew cannot be allowed to purchase a house in Jerusalem, which is itself a stone's throw away from what is called "the Glassman compound"-one of the recent purchases by the settlers in the neighbourhood and close to the Mufti's Vineyard, Emek Tsurim and Beit Orot-all settler projects that surround the neighbourhood.

The attempt to present the settler activities in East Jerusalem as a random collection of private real estate transactions, is motivated by a desire to conceal what is really happening from the eyes of the public and the world at large. In practice, the governments of Israel over the past few decades have been collaborating with settlers who take over properties in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods and turn them into settler islands which enjoy outrageous building subsidies and live in constant discord with their surroundings, sometimes even with the rule of law.

What is at stake is not whether or not Jews have a right to purchase properties in this or that neighbourhood, but rather the struggle over Jerusalem and the chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

More than one prime minister and a long list of senior Israeli politicians in the last few years have publicly acknowledged that resolving the conflict will necessitate a compromise in Jerusalem. "There is nothing new" said Foreign Ministry sources last week when they heard to their relief that the European Union decided not to declare East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. But in saying this, the Israeli officials once again confirmed their commitment to negotiating about Jerusalem.

At the same time, however, the government of Israel is lending support to extremist groups who work tirelessly to make sure a future agreement will be very difficult to achieve and are creating intentional provocations to heighten tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, to inflame the conflict in Jerusalem and to shift it from the negotiating table to the streets.

A government which declares its commitment to a peace process and at the same time lends a hand to groups whose declared intention is to pre-empt a solution, will lose its integrity and may find itself one day in the middle of a second Hebron, this time in the capital of Israel.

When it comes to Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government tries to portray itself as one which does not bow to dictates from the United States or Europe. But one must ask oneself if its conduct reflects an Israeli interest or the will of the Israeli people? Unlikely. The Israeli public, according to the peace index of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, and other polls, consistently supports a two-state solution and is prepared-if this would bring an end to the conflict-to accept a painful compromise in Jerusalem. The public also understands that East Jerusalem is not a real estate market and that every action in Jerusalem that changes the demographic and territorial status quo carries serious political consequences.

A reasonable government must clarify its real intentions regarding the peace process and tell the voters honestly that it is not possible to reach a resolution without an agreement on Jerusalem. It should carry out the business of running its capital out of a sense of responsibility and gravity that would not enable private interests in the guise of real estate rights to dictate policy.

* Yudith Oppenheimer is the executive director of Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO working to change Jerusalem into a more viable, equitable city and promoting its political sustainability. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 December 2009, http://www.commongroundnews.org

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