While attention is focused on the fate of far-flung West Bank settlement outposts, Israel has launched a major settlement thrust only a few miles from the Knesset in Jerusalem.
The bulldozers started grinding in the Palestinian area of Jabal Mukaber last week to launch the largest settlement yet inside a Palestinian neighborhood.
Nof Zahav, or Golden View, is to include 600 housing units, a hotel, and a synagogue/community center. It will split Jabal Mukaber and its more than 10,000 residents into two parts.
A pro-settlement party in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition and critics alike say that Nof Zahav is a key link in an evolving chain of settlements being built inside Arab areas to establish Israeli domination over East Jerusalem and fragment it so it will be impossible to have a viable Palestinian capital there.
"We break up Arab continuity and their claim to East Jerusalem by putting in isolated islands of Jewish presence in areas of Arab population," say Uri Bank, a leader of the pro-settlement Moledet party. "Then we definitely try to put these together to form our own continuity. It's just like Legos - you put the pieces out there and connect the dots. That is Zionism. That is the way the state of Israel was built. Our eventual goal is Jewish continuity in all of Jerusalem."
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war, but the international community views it as occupied territory. The US says Nof Zahav's construction is "inconsistent" with the peace blueprint known as the road map, which calls for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
But Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says, "It is our right and duty to build in Jerusalem." He adds: "We are not committed to the road map because the Palestinian prime minister is not fulfilling even its first commitment of dismantling terrorist groups."
In Jabal Mukaber, Palestinians see the checkpoints set up on the neighborhood's main road and the clusters of policemen with assault rifles deployed to protect the construction as a preview of what lies ahead.
"People will have to go through checkpoints to get to work, to get to school. There will be settlers here, full of hatred, waiting for the day we will leave and they will have a pure Jewish neighborhood," says Osama Zahaika, a Palestinian activist. He says that part of the area the settlers and municipality have earmarked for Nof Zahav is owned by his and other families, who are mounting a legal challenge.
Other land was purchased by an Israeli contractor, who is working together with Elad, a settler group. Elad says the land for Nof Zahav was acquired legally and that it has no intention of evicting Arabs.
Dozens of Palestinians formed a human chain last week to prevent a bulldozer from reaching the disputed land. Some were clubbed by police, and one was treated in the hospital for his wounds.
Since 1967, Jerusalem's neighborhoods were almost all segregated until Prime Minister Sharon spearheaded a drive into the Old City's Muslim quarter during the 1980s. At present, about 2000 Jews live in the Palestinian neighborhoods.
"Nof Zahav is for people who have a special connection to Jerusalem," says Tzvi Goldwag, a spokesman for Elad. "The attractiveness of buying there is not so much the location but the view of the Old City, the City of David, and the Temple Mount," the holiest site in Judaism and site of Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. In recent years, Elad has settled 25 families in what it refers to as the City of David in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan beneath the Old City walls. "I understand that Nof Zahav annoys them but in the City of David we live with them as neighbors and there are no fights. We're not best friends but we respect them and they respect us."
But Moledet, the coalition partner that sponsors much of the East Jerusalem settlement drive, openly espouses an exodus of Palestinians from Jerusalem.
It says this will reduce the number of terrorist attacks. "We have to make sure the number of Arabs in the city is brought down as much as possible. They should be relocated in other areas in Israel or abroad," says Mr. Bank. 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 outside the Palestinian neighborhoods on land expropriated from Palestinians.
Bank adds, "Everything that goes on in East Jerusalem is a microcosm of what goes on in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. The basis for all of this is that we've come home to our homeland. It was promised to the children of Israel. All these areas belong first and foremost, if not only, to the Jewish people."
Jeff Halper, a left-wing activist, says that even if the links in the settlement chain seem disjointed for now, that will change with the construction of a major highway system adjoining East Jerusalem areas, part of which has already been built. "The road will open this whole part of the city to Jewish development," he says.