Struggle for Jerusalem's Land and Soul
Parcel by parcel, Jews are taking over Arab land in a city that is holy to three religions. Will this spoil planned peace talks on Jerusalem?
Israeli bulldozers stir thick white dust, while construction cranes add new layers of pale Jerusalem stone one at a time in the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev on the outskirts of the Holy City.Skip to next paragraph
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For Israeli Jews, the growth of these and other settlements within a few miles of Jerusalem's Old City - where worn flagstones and holy sites have been fought over for centuries by Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike - reinforce historic Jewish claims to once-Arab territories of East Jerusalem.
Building here and in other Jewish neighborhoods has begun again with renewed vigor since the election of a right-wing government last May.
The new rationale is simple: The more "facts on the ground" - Jewish housing units already built - the less land Jews are likely to be forced to give up during "final-status" talks that will determine Jerusalem's future as part of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
The previous Israeli government checked such settlement growth for four years to encourage peace with the Palestinians.
But within days of the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish settlers declared that they would multiply their numbers in Jerusalem and across the occupied West Bank, land that they call by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria, and consider theirs by birthright.
Mr. Netanyahu speaks of ensuring a "critical mass" of Jews, but the settler expansion violates the spirit of the peace agreement, his critics say.
For most Palestinians, Israel is rushing to "Judaize" Jerusalem with hilltop bastions and a demographic advantage. "These are fortresses!" exclaims Ibrahim Matar, an authority on Israeli building in East Jerusalem. Driving past Pisgat Zeev, he laments the tightly packed units with barred windows and high, menacing security fences.
When the final-status talks begin - sometime after a deal is struck on the disputed West Bank town of Hebron - Mr. Matar wonders if there will be anything left to negotiate. "They are creating facts on the ground, contrary to international law, the will of the United Nations, and the US," he says. "These are the 'New Walls of Jerusalem.' "
The world's three great monotheistic religions converge here. But Israeli changes are nearly irreversible, experts say - a feat orchestrated to ensure the city that Israel calls its "eternal, undivided capital" will always be under Jewish control.
In what one human rights group calls a "crusade" against Arab residents, Netanyahu's government has stepped up destruction of "illegal" Arab buildings - built without hard-to-get permits - and approved thousands of new Jewish houses in the occupied territories.
The highest-profile demolition took place at the end of August in the Old City, when, before dawn, Israeli police used a crane to hoist a bulldozer over the city walls, using it to flatten an unfinished Palestinian community center that had been financed by Canadian and Swedish donors.
Further exacerbating tensions in Jerusalem is the inequality of Arab and Jewish life in the city. Jerusalem's Jews outnumber the Arabs nearly 3 to 1, but the Palestinian sectors are granted only a fraction of public funds - some 8 percent - increasing economic resentment.
Also, in this highly politicized city, the moderate middle - a core of secular Israeli Jews - is fed up and fleeing to Tel Aviv, leaving Orthodox Jews and Arabs eyeing each other suspiciously.
Jerusalem could become a "backwater capital of clerics, bureaucrats, and yeshiva students," says one Israeli.
Slow, steady Jewish expansion
Since Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, the city boundaries were redrawn to include occupied Arab land and unbridled building of Jewish homes, leaving Arabs a slight minority even in the east.
In 1967, Israeli planners were given simple instructions, says Gershon Baskin, director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information: Maximize land space and minimize the number of Arabs in its borders. "This whole Jerusalem map is a fiction," Mr. Baskin says. "It's a question of political control, a patchwork quilt created so that Israel can play demographic games."