Who's Eternal Capital Will It Be?

Jewish settlers' battle for Jerusalem accelerates with acquisitions

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The propaganda video begins in black and white, in Jerusalem's Old City in the 1920s. A Jew is happily building a home in the Jewish Quarter. Then the music turns sinister, and an actor playing an Arab throws a stone at the Jew.

With a smile, the Jew picks up the stone, and uses it as a brick in his new house. The Arab hurls a bigger stone - escalating hostilities - and eventually knocks out the Jew. The Arab and his family move in.

The Jewish video then turns to color, and the present day. Columns of Jews march triumphantly through the narrow alleys of the Old City, amidst a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags. The film concludes with Jewish victory and evident revenge: Arab neighborhoods, one after another, are taken over on screen by vast Jewish settlements.

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The reality is little different for the activists of Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish group dedicated to buying property from Arabs in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter to establish a Jewish presence there. They show the video before conducting tours - often escorted by Israeli security police - of the 30 to 35 properties they have so far acquired in the Muslim Quarter.

Critics say that some 70 Arab properties have either been "bought" with large sums or confiscated by Israeli officials for Jewish use.

Ateret Cohanim, which means "Crown of Priests" in Hebrew, takes pride in showing a map of the Muslim Quarter peppered with green dots marking the properties. Encouraged by the new settler-friendly government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, more green dots are expected. And in a city that three religions have considered hallowed ground for millennia, every stone counts.

Most Palestinian Arabs consider Ateret Cohanim a direct provocation. What the video doesn't show is the fortress-like security measures required to keep Jews safe in the Muslim Quarter, where they are widely seen as unwelcome conquerors.

Critics describe takeovers by such right-wing groups as the "Hebronization" of Jerusalem, referring to the controversial West Bank town of Hebron, where Israeli troops protect 400 militant Jews who live amid 120,000 Arabs.

"We're on the forefront," says Tehilla Rapps, spokeswoman for Ateret Cohanim, who speaks calmly about a mission that sparks protests each time Jews occupy a formerly Arab property.

"People come to us, and we pay well," Ms. Rapps says in an office in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest shrine.

"Why do we have to move into the Muslim Quarter?" Rapps asks. "This is part of our capital, the City of David. David was a Jew, so it seems absurd that a Jew can't live anywhere." Jews make up only 12 percent of the Old City's population, most of them inside the Jewish Quarter, which abuts the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site.

Jews owned property in the Muslim Quarter before being forced out in 1948, when Israel became a state but lost Jerusalem to Arab forces.

Rapps says she and many Jews get along well with Arabs here. She studied Arabic. "We want to get on with our neighbors," she says. "We don't want to hide. If we could do it openly, we would."

Ateret Cohanim has strong financial support from private US backers. But because of strict social pressure among Arabs not to sell to Jews, success takes more than money. Sometimes their actions are quasi-legal. In September, guards paid by Ateret Cohanim took possession of a building, which they said they had bought legally, across the street from the US consulate in East Jerusalem. Police ejected the men and ordered all to stay out until ownership was established.

"Everything goes to court, and we win all the time," said Yossi Baumol, Ateret Cohanim's executive director. The group has been accused of using fake affadavits to indicate that a property has long sat unused, and is therefore eligible for purchase. "We try to blur the legalities, to protect Arabs" - Arabs who are willing to sell despite the potential wrath of their neighbors.

An official Israeli investigation in the mid-1980s, called the Klugman Report, found that Ariel Sharon, then the housing minister, organized the secret financing of Jewish settlements, and concluded many Palestinian properties were obtained illegally. Settlers are still reported to use those funds. Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, is today chief of the powerful Ministry of Infrastructure.

Jewish settlers are emboldened by the new Likud government. Within hours of Mr. Netanyahu's win, for example, 10 evictions were served on Palestinian homes south of Jerusalem. After a four-year lull during the previous Labour government, this was the first such "takeover."

Danny Seidemann, an Israeli attorney, says Jerusalem is far from being like Hebron, where "coexistence is based on the balance of terror."

But the threat exists, he says, and has been compounded by new leadership and the "messianic aims" of groups like Ateret Cohanim.

"Today, for the first time, the situation is dangerous," Mr. Seidemann says. "Both the government and the municipality are right wing, and are committed to settlement activities, so the checks and balances are gone."

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