A new battle zone

Israel's housing plan opens the struggle for Jerusalem

ERIC SILVER March 10 1997

A new battle zone

Israel's housing plan opens the struggle for Jerusalem

ERIC SILVER March 10 1997

A new battle zone


Israel's housing plan opens the struggle for Jerusalem


Har Homa, a pine-forested hill three kilometres southeast of Jerusalem, seems an unlikely flash point for the next bitter round in the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict. The pristine site of a future Jewish housing complex is still but a dark-green patch amid the biblical grey-brown canyons of the Judean wilderness. It lies down a narrow, twisting lane from the Holy Elijah monastery, just off the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Nearby is the traditional site of the field where the shepherds watched their flocks on the night of Jesus’ birth. Yet according to Israeli Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, this is where “the battle for Jerusalem” is about to begin. And where Israel, according to senior Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erakat, will “shatter the peace process.”

Last week’s Israeli cabinet decision to build 6,500 homes for Jewish families on the 184-hectare mount provoked the latest crisis in the uncertain march towards peace begun in Oslo, Norway, in September, 1993. Har Homa—known as Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic— lies in an area Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. At that time, it was part of the occupied West Bank, but it was soon

incorporated into the expanded municipal borders of Jerusalem, which Israel quickly annexed. Har Homa seals the only gap in the “outer wall” of Jewish suburbs erected around Arab East Jerusalem over the past 30 years. Three-quarters of the land on which the new project will rise was bought from Arabs in that period by Jewish speculators. The rest remained in Arab hands. Both Jewish and Arab land was expropriated for the development. Critics say Israel’s true motive is to complete the isolation of Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland. In Hebrew, har means hill and homa rampart.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, facing potentially serious political trouble of his own, insists that the project’s sole purpose is to provide much-needed housing for the disputed holy city, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. “A peace process cannot freeze the natural growth of cities,” said Netanyahu’s diplomatic troubleshooter, Doré Gold. “Both Arabs and Jews require growth.” And in an attempt to convince the world, ministers approved plans for 3,015 Arab homes in other parts of town.

That failed to persuade Palestinians of Israel’s good intentions. ‘This is against Oslo, against the world, and international law,” said

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. He held a strategy session with a wide spectrum of Palestinians—both his supporters and his opponents—on future talks with the Jewish state. Also unhappy were the United States, the European Union and, nearer home, the Jordanians, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan cancelled a visit to Israel in protest, while U.S. state department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that “the U.S. would have preferred that this decision not have been taken.” Even Israeli commentators questioned whether the Arab housing would ever be built.

Arafat’s spokesmen warned of riots like those that left 75 Jews and Arabs dead last September after Israel opened an archaeological tunnel near Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque. “Netanyahu has chosen to make peace with the Israeli extremists at the expense of the Palestinian people,” protested negotiator Erakat. “I don’t think our relations with Israel will ever be the same.” He complained that Netanyahu is pre-empting the “final” negotiations, due to begin this month, in which the future of Jerusalem is on the agenda.

“The Israelis,” Erakat told Maclean ’s, “have decided to solve the issue by settlement. They act as if they have sovereign rights over East Jerusalem, where they are only the occupying power.

What will be left to negotiate?”

Palestinians grew more suspicious after listening to Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, a right-wing member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “The Palestinians want to divide Jerusalem,” Olmert told a television interviewer. “It is not a matter of rights. They have no rights here, they never had rights here.”

Yet even that brazen comment was not enough to ignite the much-predicted bloody unrest—for the moment at least. Israel nonetheless put its security forces on the alert, especially after an unrelated flareup in the West Bank village of Hizmeh, north of Jerusalem, in which a member of an Israeli undercover unit shot and killed a 55-year-old father of 13. In Jerusalem, analysts predicted that violence was more likely when the bulldozers actually roll on Har Homa, expected in mid-March. The head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, warned that Arafat may not be able to 0 1km

restrain his people once building begins. 1-1

The peace held in part because Netag

nyahu was much more calculating over Har Homa than he was over the Jerusalem tunnel. The prime minister offered Arafat an unwritten deal giving Palestinians up to 10 per cent of West Bank territory in the next stage of Israeli redeployment, due by March 7. That is three times as much as was originally offered.

Moreover, Arafat is due in Washington this week, where he hopes to win diplomatic and financial dividends. Netanyahu’s aides also quietly placated Palestinian negotiators by explaining that the Har ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem

Homa decision was essential to keep the prime minister in power.

Yet the battle for Jerusalem is unquestionably heating up. Maher Rajabi, a 26-year-old Muslim who was selling shoes from a cart inside the Damascus Gate of the Old City last week, said: “If they build on Har Homa, it means they are going to take the whole of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the core of my religion. I will fight for it unto death.” In predominantly Christian Beit Sahour, the nearest Arab town to Har Homa, there was an air of resentful resignation. “Neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority wants violence,” said Linda Awad, a 37-yearold café owner. “But the Israelis are leaving our people no choice.”

Will that mean, as some have warned, a new intifadeh—the sixyear popular uprising that forced Israel to the negotiating table? “We can’t just go to sleep,” Munir Abu Tiar, 36, mused in his clothing store in Um Tuba village, which overlooks Har Homa. “We have to do something.” But Wa’el Fawaka, a 24-year-old printer, confessed to battle fatigue. “A new intifadeh won’t help,” he argued. “The Jerusalem tunnel is still open. The countries of the world do nothing to stop Israel doing whatever it wants. During the intifadeh, we lost a lot of lives and it achieved nothing.”

Israeli officials do not conceal the fact that the Har Homa decision was ¡5 timed to secure Netanyahu’s political I base. His nationalist support was I eroded by the January redeployment s of Israeli troops in Hebron and by his m commitment to a timetable of further I withdrawals. Militant settlers labelled him a traitor, while 17 rebellious coalition MPs threatened to undermine his precarious majority.

Netanyahu was also putting on a show of firm leadership in the face of an escalating scandal over the abortive Jan. 10 choice of an underqualified right-wing lawyer as attor¡ ney general. Although Roni Bar-On J stepped down within hours of his

1 appointment, he was subsequently

2 alleged to have been at the centre of \ a shabby deal with Aryeh Deri, a

leading religious politician who has been on trial for the past three years on corruption charges. Allegedly, Deri’s Shas Party was willing to back the Hebron withdrawal in exchange for a promise that Deri could get a plea bargain in court. Police investigators say criminal charges may be brought against Israel’s justice minister and the director general of Netanyahu’s office.

The prime minister himself is expected to be questioned for a second time this week. Only then will it be known how deeply he was involved, and whether his directly elected premiership could be in danger. His fragile six-party coalition holds just 67 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). If support melted away, he could be toppled by 61 votes on a no-confidence motion, requiring a new poll for both prime minister and parliament. If it comes to that, not even 6,500 homes for Jerusalem Jews will be able to save him.