Israel hotel demolition escalates fight for East Jerusalem

The Shepherd Hotel demolition is at the forefront of a Jewish effort to settle East Jerusalem that opponents charge could preclude the formation of a Palestinian state with a capital in the holy city.

By , Staff writer

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    An excavator moves rubble during the demolition of the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem January 10. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended on Monday a settlement project at the hotel compound that drew criticism from the US, saying Jews have a right to live anywhere in Jerusalem.
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The demolition of an East Jerusalem hotel to make way for Jewish homes in a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood has sparked concerns from Europe to Egypt, which suggested a new intifada could break out as a result.

The Shepherd Hotel project will bring only 20 Jewish homes to Sheikh Jarrah, but it is at the forefront of a broader, intensely controversial Jewish campaign to establish a foothold in Arab neighborhoods circling the heart of Jerusalem.

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Proponents see the efforts as a way to secure Jews’ rightful claims to the city as their “undivided and eternal capital.” Opponents, including much of the international community, say such efforts will preclude the possibility of creating a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, thus rendering the two-state solution null and void.

"If current trends are not stopped as a matter of urgency, the prospect of east Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state becomes increasingly unlikely and unworkable,” wrote 25 consuls-general from European Union member states in Jerusalem in a new confidential report obtained by the Independent. “This, in turn, seriously endangers the chances of a sustainable peace on the basis of two states, with Jerusalem as their future capital."

History of the Shepherd Hotel

The Shepherd Hotel was built in the 1930s for the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. According to a 2010 report by the US National Archives (PDF), the mufti was a supporter of Adolf Hitler who met the Nazi leader in 1941 and recruited Muslims for Hitler's paramilitary, the SS. He never ended up living in the hotel.

After the 1967 war and its annexation of East Jerusalem, Israel took possession of the hotel under its absentee property laws, which apply to buildings whose owners are absent or considered members of an enemy state. It then sold the property in 1985 to bingo magnate Irving Moskowitz, a leader of the Jewish effort to establish a greater foothold in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Moskowitz had originally sought to build 122 apartments on the site, before finally getting approval for 20 apartments. The Husseini family won a court order preventing changes to the property, but that order expired the day before bulldozers moved into Sheikh Jarrah early Sunday.

The Jerusalem District Court on Monday rejected a petition from Husseini's descendants, claiming that the land was rightfully theirs.

"This is a sordid deal concocted by the Israeli government," said Adnan Husseini, a member of the family and the Palestinian-appointed governor of Jerusalem, according to Israel's Ynet news outlet. "Our family is part of the Palestinian nation, and we support a two-state solution for two peoples, also in Jerusalem.... Israel is making a mistake by destroying any chance to realize the vision of peace and two states. Even though the court recognized the deal, we won't allow it. We haven’t given our consent or signed any papers."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his government did not have a hand in the move, but that it would not prevent Jews from buying property in Jerusalem. "The idea that Jews should be forbidden to buy property in certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem is not something that is acceptable to the Israeli government," a spokesman said.

How Sheikh Jarrah became a flashpoint

Sheikh Jarrah, a once-elite Arab neighborhood that was home to the American Colony Hotel and many international consulates, has emerged as a key flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem.

In that context, Moskowitz’s project – together with plans for a conference center and 200 new Jewish homes where several dozen Palestinian homes currently stand – become much more than a real estate dispute.

"We see this matter as extremely dangerous," said Hatem Abdel Qader, who oversees Jerusalem affairs for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. He accused Israel of trying to “create a belt of settlements” around East Jerusalem – a belt that many say would cut off the Old City from the West Bank and make it impossible to establish a contiguous Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem.

Because it goes to the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the default solution espoused for two decades – two states with separate capitals in Jerusalem – the Shepherd Hotel project could well reverberate far beyond the holy city. Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries that have peaceful relations with Israel, both condemned the move. Egypt warned of an outbreak of violence in the West Bank, while Jordan suggested that it could destabilize the region as a whole.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the outset of her trip to the Persian Gulf, said the project undermined the peace process. President Obama, early in his administration, had pressed Prime Minister Netanyahu to cease not only West Bank settlements but the expansion of Jewish areas in East Jerusalem as well, which the United Nations has repeatedly condemned as illegal under international law.

Undeterred by international condemnation

But those behind such expansion are undeterred by international condemnation.

Daniel Luria, whose organization Ateret Cohanim has worked with Moskowitz to settle East Jerusalem and the Old City and was reportedly on site to watch the demolition Sunday, says that the Jewish “redemption” of Jerusalem is necessary to prepare the way for the Messiah. He therefore rejects the theory of land for peace, which is an underpinning of the 1995 Oslo Accords that outlined a two-state solution in which Israel would allow Palestinians to create a capital in East Jerusalem.

“We’re not here because of grace of world, but by the grace of God,” he said in a Monitor interview in August 2010. “When we slap God in the face and say we don’t want this land, we’re willing to share this land … then we see the Oslo calamity.”

Updated at 2:45 p.m. on January 10, 2011.

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