Palestinians protest prayerfully against Israeli housing project Reaction is muted to 6,500-unit project in southeast Jerusalem

March 01, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- It was a different kind of protest. No stone-throwing. No bullets.

The men of Umm Tuba lined the soccer field with their prayer rugs and knelt. Facing the rocky slopes of Jabal Abu Ghneim, they asked God to save their pine-forested mountain from the Israelis.

The Palestinian villagers arrived at this disputed hillside for the noon prayer yesterday, the Muslim holy day. In two weeks, bulldozers might appear at the foot of the mountain to begin work on a new Jewish neighborhood.

Israel gave the go-ahead this week to build the 6,500-unit project in southeast Jerusalem on the hill Israelis call Har Homa. The government confiscated most of the land from Jews. But Palestinians lost property, too; Arabs have historically lived here.

Dr. Nayim Abu Tair, a physician from Umm Tuba, considers the mountain "occupied land" -- Israel took control of the former Jordanian land after the 1967 war with the Arabs. He and about 200 of his neighbors came to pray here yesterday to demonstrate that this is their mountain.

"We have the right to defend our land. We have the right to exist. We are not second-class citizens," said Abu Tair, a physician who was raised in nearby Umm Tuba.

Their protest, small and peaceful, stood in contrast to the angry confrontations predicted by Palestinian leaders after the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved construction of the Har Homa project Wednesday.

The gathering also seemed a commentary on the Palestinians' ability to stop the project. As the prayer service ended, young men and boys marched to the mountain and scaled the rocky hillside. Palestinian women, their head scarves as white as the mountain stone, watched from above. Sheep grazed under a big blue sky.

Then a voice in the crowd called to the young men.

"Don't go there," the voice boomed through a megaphone. "Young men, come back here. We are unarmed. We can't face them. Please come back here. We came here to prove it's an Arabic mountain. We don't want to provoke them."

Across the valley, Israeli soldiers and police lined a ridge, their machine guns at their sides. Police vans and military jeeps patrolled the area.

Fearing a replay of last fall's deadly clashes with Palestinians, Israel increased the police presence in Jerusalem after its approval of the project. Concerned about possible trouble during the Muslim noon prayer service, police stepped up patrols outside Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, located in the Old City.

But the prayer service, attended by thousands of Muslims, as is customary, was uneventful.

Despite the warning by Palestinian leaders that the people would react violently, protests have been sporadic and small. Some have attributed this to the imminence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's trip to Washington, which has already objected to the Israeli construction project.

And though the United States rebuked Israel for proceeding with Har Homa, the Clinton administration also voiced its objection to a recurrence of the violence that swept Palestinian areas in September after Israel opened an access route to a tourist tunnel adjacent to Islamic holy sites in the Old City.

To appease the Palestinians, Israel approved plans to support construction of 3,015 housing units in Arab neighborhoods. Netanyahu acknowledged that a housing shortage exists for Palestinians.

But Palestinians and Israeli peace activists say the promised housing is a sham.

Since 1967, Israel has built 38,500 housing units for Jews on lands expropriated in East Jerusalem, according to a report by the Israeli peace group B'Tselem. "But not one housing unit was for the Palestinian population," the report said.

The B'Tselem report also estimated the housing shortage among Palestinians to be in excess of 20,000 units.

Even if Israel makes good on its pledge to build the streets, sewers and other infrastructure needed for new housing, Palestinians say that the cost of building permits is too expensive.

Khalil Tafugji, a Palestinian land planner, also contends that the Arab neighborhoods identified by the Israelis for housing projects have little land on which to build. He says Palestinians will be able to add only to existing housing.

Given the housing needs of Palestinians in Jerusalem, Yusef Abu Tair, a factory owner in Umm Tuba, argued that Palestinians need to do more than pray. He was among the Umm Tuba villagers at the prayer service at Jabal Abu Ghneim.

"If you want to defend the land, you have to bring a tent and sit over there," Abu Tair said, suggesting his neighbors occupy the mountain. "We don't want a permit from [the Israelis] to build on our land."

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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