The Jewish takeover of several Arab homes near the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City has heightened fears among Christians and Muslims of increased confiscation of private and religious property throughout East Jerusalem.

With the consent and protection of Israeli government and military officials, 200 ultra-Orthodox members of the Ateret Cohanim movement seized seven Arab homes last fall in the village of Silwan, near the biblical Shiloah Springs. At 3 A.M., intruders forced occupants out of their homes at gunpoint. The next day, four Knesset members joined the activists, taking up residence in one of the appropriated houses to lend parliamentary immunity to them. The settlers were finally evicted from the other homes pending court inquiries. The incident occurred just days before U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Jerusalem to complete arrangements for recent Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Making Deals

At least 60 other buildings or locations—all within the Old City but outside the Jewish quarter—have been taken over by Jewish settlers during the past two decades. According to Albert Aghazarian, a lecturer in Middle East history at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, Jewish buyers usually deal with tenants rather than property owners, often eliciting technical delays or deceptive agreements to win cases in court.

“Ever since 1967,” Aghazarian says, “the Likud party, together with sympathetic groups of Christians and Jews alike, have been taking over property throughout the Old City—in the Muslim Quarter, along the Via Dolorosa, in the Christian Quarter—wherever they can lay their hands on it.”

One campaign, led by teams of Jewish scholars, is attempting to prove that Jews once lived in certain Old City houses, and then to reclaim them for Jewish occupancy. Small, chiseled-out spaces have appeared on the walls of scores of buildings between the Third and Fifth Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, pointed out by Jewish tour guides as niches that once sheltered mezuzahs (small wooden or metal cases that hold Scripture). It is proof, they say, that the buildings were originally Jewish.

In the Christian Quarter, the highly publicized April 1990 occupation of Saint John’s Hospice, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is still unresolved in Israeli courts. The Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, which occupied the building, claims it purchased the house legally, while the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate owners insist that the sale by the hospice’s tenant was illegal. The Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem protested the incident by an unprecedented one-day closure of all holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Al-Haram Al-Sharif Mosque.

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Some 80 percent of the land in East Jerusalem is owned by religious groups, almost equally divided between Christian and Islamic institutions. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, a court fiat reverted the Muslim-owned holdings of the Jewish Quarter, representing 11 percent of the Old City’s property, to government ownership.

“Jews don’t imagine that anyone else has a right to live here,” says Adnan Husseini, a senior official from the Islamic Trust. “But Muslims have had the right ever since Muhammad came here.” Islamic tradition marks the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as the site of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, making it the third-holiest shrine for Muslims.

Christians have also expressed dismay. “There is a clear Israeli government policy to turn Jerusalem into a Jewish city,” says Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian lawyer and an active Anglican layman. “People don’t realize the inherent racism and discrimination, the denial of the rights of Christians and Muslims inherent in such a policy.”

“Anybody who owns land in East Jerusalem soon learns that it requires a high level of alertness to protect and defend that land,” says David Johnson of Augusta Victoria Hospital, which is administered by the Lutheran World Federation. Officials of the hospital, which is located on the Mount of Olives, have clashed repeatedly with yeshiva students who live adjacent to the property. They charge that the students frequently trespass on their property. The Jewish enclave, established in August 1990, is the first on the Mount of Olives.

The Rabbis for Human Rights movement in West Jerusalem has also condemned the recent takeovers in Silwan, “to the extent that Arab families have been displaced.… No Arab land should be appropriated, under any circumstances,” they say.

Since the Gulf War, Israeli authorities have accelerated the confiscation of Palestinian property throughout the West Bank. In April, 54 percent of the total property was held by Jews; by October, the amount had risen to 62 percent.

Government officials say some confiscations are necessary to ensure security around Jewish holy sites, such as buildings overlooking the Western wall. At the same time, not all Israeli officials support the property confiscations. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek’s longstanding policy has called for the preservation of the traditional “quarters” of the city and property ownership.

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However, Yuval Ginbar, a representative of the Israeli human-rights group B’tselen, asserts that the problem is based squarely on “government ideology, which states that the entire land belongs to the Jews alone.”

“Purely Jewish”

The goal, in Kuttab’s opinion, is simply “the Judaization of Jerusalem—making the Holy City purely Jewish and free from non-Jews. It’s a legitimate public purpose in the State of Israel today. There’s nothing legally that can be done to challenge it.”

Kuttab believes that a perceived weakening of U.S. support for Israel is accelerating the takeover of property. “They are afraid that American churches are becoming more aware of the plight of the Palestinian Christians, so they want to squeeze us out as quickly as they can. They want to create new realities, so that when someone calls them to account, they can say, ‘This neighborhood is already Jewish.… Are you trying to kick Jews out of Jerusalem?’ ”

Just four days before the Silwan takeover, the office of housing minister Ariel Sharon leaked a projected map for Jerusalem to the Israeli press. Covering a two-mile radius in East Jerusalem, the map detailed some 4,000 new Jewish apartments to be constructed on Palestinian property. Shaking his head over this news, Audeh Rantisi, an Anglican minister in Ramallah, said, “Israel is hungry for land, not for God.”

By Barbara Baker in Jerusalem.

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