Jewish settlers occupy homes in blow to talks

October 10, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Until the Jewish settlers arrived yesterday, the small stone building perched on a steep hill in the village of Silwan was merely a house.

When settlers and several members of Israel's Parliament moved inside before dawn, vowing not to leave, the house became one of the devices that the extreme right uses to make clear they will insist on expanding settlements even at the cost of regional peace talks. U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is coming here next week to help prepare for these talks.

Settlers attempted yesterday to occupy at least a half-dozen buildings in Silwan, a Palestinian section of East Jerusalem close to the walled Old City and the holiest sites of Islam and Judaism.

At midmorning, police demanded that the settlers leave. While some complied, four members of Parliament insisted that police did nothave the right to force them to leave and stayed.

A compromise was reached in midafternoon when police cleared most of the buildings after agreeing that two members of Parliament could remain until the attorney general determined the ownership of the properties.

But police were clearly unenthusiastic about the settlers' presence. Officers complained that if the settlers were allowed to stay, a force of at least 100 officers would be needed around the clock to protect them.

For the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the housing takeover threatened to highlight the tensions between Israel and the United States, and the tensions within the Cabinet, over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The Bush administration has characterized the settlements as obstacles to peace and has stopped just short of formally demanding they be halted. It also has angered the Israeli government by refusing to recognize its claim to East Jerusalem, part ofthe territory Israel captured in 1967.

Settlement policy has also caused Mr. Shamir unending problems within his Cabinet. He has been either unable or unwilling to control the actions of his right-wing partners, and especially of Housing Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Sharon, as holder of the purse strings for housing projects, is the country's most effective advocate of settlements and the most powerful opponent of the U.S. plan for peace talks. He maintained that the settlers' actions in Silwan were well within the law.

His office issued a statement saying, "It is the right of Jews to live in any area of united Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, like any other place in the land of Israel."

Of the five members of Parliament who visited with the settlers, one belonged to Mr. Shamir's Likud party and four to Tehiya, a small far-right party that is Likud's partner in the government.

Yuval Ne'eman, minister of science and leader of Tehiya, praised the settlers for the damage they could cause to the peace process.

"If one result will be that it will be harder to convene the peace conference," he said, "I certainly won't be sorry about it."

There were ample signs the settlers were planning a long stay.

As police watched, settlers armed with pistols and automatic weapons spent the afternoon installing high-intensity lights, welding protective screens on windows and unrolling reels of barbed wire. They were moving into a house with four bare rooms and without running water.

"We're here because it belongs to the Jews," said Boza Entin, one of about 100 Israelis who had arrived in Silwan at 3 a.m. "Each place that belongs to Jews -- especially in Jerusalem -- should be settled by Jews."

Their Palestinian neighbors sounded resigned to the settlers staying.

"I heard them in the morning and thought someone was coming to arrest us," said Resek Rawadi, whose house is downhill from the settlers. "I don't think they will ever leave."

The arrival of the settlers was not a complete surprise to the government. They had discused their intentions with the police but rejected a request to delay the takeover. The police did not want any provocative actions to occur around Tuesday, the first anniversary of a clash between the police and Palestinians on the Temple Mount, when 19 Palestinians were killed.

"The police commissioner asked them three days ago not to do this," said Tami Paul-Cohen, spokeswoman for the police ministry. "He asked them not to go in, but they did."

Settlers said they had legally obtained 26 houses in the neighborhood, a claim they supported by showing deeds and other documents to police. "They knew what they were doing," Ms. Paul-Cohen said. "They really bought that property."

State radio reported that the buildings had been purchased by a government housing corporation and rented to the settlers and that the corporation would file trespassing charges if Palestinians tried to live in them.

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