Expropriation of Arab Land In Jerusalem Threatens Peace


OVER the past decade, Bilal Kamal, a resident of the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, has seen most of his family's 500 acres of olive and fruit groves expropriated by Israel to make way for new Jewish suburbs on the edge of the city.

Now, much of the remaining 60 acres may soon be buried in new high-rise stone housing blocks -- as Israel lays plans for what may become the biggest wave of expropriations of Arab land in Jerusalem since the 1980s.

Up to 1,000 more acres of land in Arab neighborhoods within the capital city may soon be earmarked for new Jewish housing as part of a bid to increase the Jewish population by tens of thousands of residents, Israeli Housing Ministry officials confirm.

Expropriation of the first 130 acres -- from Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods -- was announced by the government last week.

The new land confiscations follow an April 30 government decision to start construction this summer of 7,500 Jewish housing units on 450 acres of disputed land in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Sur Bahir.

The wave of expropriations and new construction threatens to disrupt the already faltering peace process, observers say.

Officials in the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority (PA) of Yasser Arafat, who have so far sought to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the capital city, are threatening a worldwide campaign on the Jerusalem land-expropriation issue. ''This is terrorism of the highest form,'' says Saeb Erekat, minister in charge of local government for the PA, which has been under fire from Israel recently for failing to prevent a wave of recent suicide bombing attempts by Islamic extremists.

Mr. Erekat says that the Palestinians want to place the land issue before the United Nations Security Council, and to call for a suspension of Arab world normalization of ties with Israel at a May 6 meeting of Arab League foreign ministers.

Israeli left-wing parties also have sounded the alarm. ''The wholesale expropriation of land belonging to Arab residents for the purpose of building or expanding Jewish neighborhoods is done with complete disregard for the housing needs of Arab residents of Jerusalem,'' says Yair Tsaban, Israel's Absorption Minister, who is considered left wing.

The confiscations -- and construction -- also promise to erase the last scenes of Arab villages around Jerusalem, set in hillsides graced by sheep pastures and olive groves.

In Beit Safafa, for example, hundreds of acres of rural landscape have been replaced over the past two decades by high-rise Jewish housing and an industrial area as well as big, new roads.

Israeli officials say that a severe housing shortage exists both in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where most vacant land has already been built up, and the city's population of 560,000 is growing by over 2 percent annually. Average family size in Jerusalem's burgeoning ultraorthodox Jewish community, and in the Arab community, is six children each.

The government is looking at ways to increase the housing stock for the 160,000 Palestinian residents of the city, officials add. But since Jews are a 72-percent majority in Jerusalem, most vacant land will be earmarked for them -- regardless of who presently owns it.

''The Arabs simply must understand that there are more Jews living in this city, and they need places to live,'' Uri Lupolianski, deputy Jerusalem mayor in charge of building and planning, was quoted as saying in the English-language Jerusalem Post.

''We will build tens of thousands of apartments for Jews. But it's also important that the number of apartments for Arabs in Jerusalem be improved significantly,'' says Amit Dobkin, spokesman for the Israel Housing Ministry. He says the government has begun looking at a plan to build roughly 18,000 units of high-rise Arab housing in the city. ''This is the capital city, and it's important that whoever lives in the city, be he Arab or Jewish, be satisfied,'' he says.

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