On the eve of Israel's Jerusalem Day holiday, marked last Thursday, Jewish settlers moved into a vacant, dilapidated building in an Arab area of East Jerusalem and began studying sacred texts. Their inspiration was religious, but the far-right politicians who encouraged them have a not-so-hidden agenda: making the city less Palestinian.
The move comes two weeks after 43 Palestinians were evicted in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood after they lost a legal battle against settlers.
In Jerusalem, what may sound like microgeography has far-reaching implications: New settlements in Sheikh Jarrah can, say settler leaders, cut off the Palestinian core in the Old City from the populous northern Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanana. Severing this link and thereby breaking the continuity of Palestinian East Jerusalem would make it even more difficult to enact a peace plan that includes a hand over of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Sheikh Jarrah is best known as the site of the American Colony Hotel and a nearby mosque, but the settlers emphasize that Jews lived in it before the Arab-Israeli fighting of 1948. They call the building "Simeon's Heritage Neighborhood."
"We aspire to [be] a prosperous neighborhood with a lot of people," says Tahel Elinson, a settler activist. Another settler, Ephraim Giami, linked the move to Ezekiel, chapter 36, which speaks of the destroyed being restored and the House of Israel being rejuvenated.
"They want to take our neighborhood house by house," says a Palestinian woman who asked not to be identified.
Benny Elon, an ultra-nationalist member of the Knesset who is spearheading the settlement effort, puts it this way: "If you don't create facts on the ground, everything blows in the wind. We saw that during Barak's time Jerusalem was on the negotiating table."
Mr. Elon says the new sites are links in a map of Jewish territorial contiguity in East Jerusalem. His plan is to ring the old city with 17 settlement points, some just a few houses, but one, with 130 planned units. Many of the points already exist, the houses or land purchased privately but the security, roads, and infrastructure paid for by the government.
In Sheikh Jarrah, at the traditional burial site of the Judean sage Simeon the Just, authorities last month paved a road for three closely guarded settler houses. The left fork, which accesses Palestinian homes, remains a dirt path.
Since 1967, Jerusalem's neighborhoods were almost all segregated, until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spearheaded a Jewish drive into the Old City's Muslim quarter during the 1980s. At present, up to 2,000 Jews live within the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The more than 215,000 Palestinians in the city comprise roughly a third of its population.
Sprawling Jewish settlements, considered suburbs by Israelis, have also been built in East Jerusalem territory on land expropriated from Palestinians.
Elon says he looks forward to a time when there will be no Palestinians living around the tomb of Simeon the Just and in Simeon's Heritage, the names he prefers to Sheikh Jarrah. "It was a Jewish neighborhood and it will be a Jewish neighborhood."
At a Jerusalem Day party organized by Elon, many among the thousands of young revelers draped themselves in Israeli flags. Some sported stickers reading: "The solution: Expel the Arab enemy." The Jerusalem municipality, run by Ehud Olmert of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party, sponsored the event.
Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, says: "Jews have a right to move into any neighborhood, particularly places where they lived before 1948." But, he said, Sharon believes that making neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah Arab-free is not realistic. "Even if he would like that, there are certain realities that cannot be changed," Mr. Gissin says.
Gissin stressed that properties are acquired legally. "No one is being kicked out," he says.
As a minister in the 1980s, Sharon spearheaded the settling of Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, a departure from the previous policy of segregated neighborhoods. He still maintains a residence there. Nasser Ghawi, a printing-press worker, has been sleeping in a tent across from his former home in Sheikh Jarrah, from which he was evicted last month by security forces. After settlers scored a victory in a protracted legal battle, the police ended his family's half-century residence at the site, a housing project set up for Palestinian refugees. "The Israeli security forces came at 11:45 at night and kicked us out of our homes; all our furniture was taken away. My father was crying. He became a refugee twice in his life 1948 and 2002."
In legal terms, there are definitely sites in Sheikh Jarrah that belong to Jews, says Meir Margalit, a city councillor who opposes the settlers. "But the problem is not one of legality. Establishing a Jewish neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah is simply a provocation to prevent any compromise. The intention is not coexistence, but for the minority to rule over the majority, like South Africa."
Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO official responsible for Jerusalem, noted that many neighborhoods in Jewish West Jerusalem were Arab areas before the fighting of 1948. Some still are still known by their old Arabic names. "If reclamation is only one-sided, then it is no longer a principle," Mr. Nusseibeh says. "That means we are not talking about coexistence, but rather letting Jews settle in Arab neighborhoods. If it becomes impossible to develop two capitals in Jerusalem, than it will be impossible to create a two-state solution to the conflict."