Jewish settlers defy premier, move into Arab Jerusalem Fla. developer finances purchase of home owned by Palestinians

September 16, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A group of extremist Israeli settlers gave their answer yesterday to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's suggestion of a "timeout" in settlement activity for the sake of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The settlers, backed by a wealthy Jewish-American entrepreneur, moved into a house in the heart of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem yesterday. Their move was opposed even by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's pro-settlement prime minister.

It came only days after Albright had left Jerusalem with a call for a "timeout" in Israeli settlement activity.

Three families of religious Jews moved into the house in Ras al Amoud on Sunday night. The house, owned by Miami millionaire Irving Moskowitz, sits on a 3.5-acre site on which he plans to build apartments for Jews.

The property sits below the Mount of Olives, the site of a famous Jewish cemetery, and within view of Islamic holy shrines in the Old City. Netanyahu has opposed the Moskowitz Jewish housing plan, and yesterday he denounced the move into the house.

"We believe what is happening in Ras al Amoud is not good for Jerusalem. It's not good for the state of Israel," the prime minister said. "We understand there is such a thing as property rights. We respect it. But nevertheless, we think on sensitive issues we should be the ones making the decisions and not being maneuvered into them."

Each time Israelis build in East Jerusalem, it underscores the tension surrounding the future of Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. Israel maintains that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the Jewish state and will remain so.

To that end, the government routinely prevents Palestinians from building in Arab East Jerusalem by refusing to give them building permits. It also has been confiscating identity cards from East Jerusalem residents and forcing Palestinians who hold a passport from another country to choose between it and their Jerusalem identity card.

The breakdown in the Middle East peace process occurred in March when Israel broke ground on a controversial housing development in an area of southeast Jerusalem that is wedged between two predominantly Arab areas.

The prominent location of Ras al Amoud, overlooking the Holy City, is considered even more provocative.

Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian authority's representative in Jerusalem, arrived in the neighborhood yesterday and said, "It is a very dangerous situation. It is part of destroying the whole peace process."

Israel radio reported yesterday that a pamphlet distributed by an Islamic group in Ras al Amoud called for clashes to oppose the move by the Jewish families.

The families maintain they are renting the house from Moskowitz, a prominent financial backer of Jewish settlement in Arab areas. In a statement, Moskowitz characterized his planned housing project in Ras al Amoud as "a vital safeguard for the unity of Jerusalem as well as a litmus test of Palestinian willingness to live in peace and cooperate with Jews on a common ground." He said he wants to build apartments for Jews, a day care center and a shopping mall to be used by both Arabs and Jews.

Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer involved in efforts to stop Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods, said Moskowitz "bought out" a Palestinian family so he could begin to settle the property.

"It's another attempt to use Jerusalem to undermine the peace process, to undermine the delicate stability in the city and allow extreme elements in Israeli society to be the tail wagging the dog," Seidemann said.

The move, under the cover of darkness, was met with stone throwing by some Palestinians. Police responded, and about three dozen officers, some perched on the roof of the house, remained there yesterday. Israeli flags flew from the roof of the house.

By midafternoon, family members were sleeping in the house while supporters from a settler organization hoisted a yellow tarp to shade visitors from the sun.

Klila Harnoy, a spokeswoman for the settlers group Ateret Cohanim, said the families' move to the neighborhood was a "Zionist" response to the recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem. She said the move had been anticipated for weeks but delayed until after the visit by Albright.

"The message is very simple. The Israeli answer to destruction is not destruction," Harnoy said. "It is building."

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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