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May 11, 2004

Some Settlers Only Settle In Some More

by Jim Lobe

On a barren hilltop in the Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood Abu Dis, a gap of several hundred meters interrupts the wall Israel is building in the city.

The grey concrete elements come to a stop just before a property with Israeli flags, armed guards and a watchtower. The wall only continues further along the hill.

This is where four Jewish families moved in just about a week ago. They stay well hidden within the walls of their old Arab house. Only the guards are visible, scanning the neighborhood through sunglasses and binoculars.

To the Palestinians living nearby these people are not neighbors. They are the enemy, "settlers."

To the group of religious Jewish activists, the Ateret Cohanim bent on "salvaging" one-time Jewish property and land in Jerusalem, the two houses in Abu Dis they have moved into are the beginning of a new Jewish neighborhood, Kidmat Zion.

"Jerusalem is united and eternally the capital of Israel and we have a right to live anywhere we want to," says group spokesman Daniel Luria. "This land was bought by Jews in the 1920s."

The newly established presence in Abu Dis on the outskirts of the city seems to be the latest link in a long-standing Ateret Cohanim program. The group hopes to forestall a new division of the city proposed in various peace plans.

The sudden appearance of the newcomers has caused alarm among the Palestinian neighbors. "They came over to me on the first day and said that if there's even small trouble, blood will flow," says Zayn Ouheish, a mother of five who lives next to the house the Ateret Cohanim members have moved into.

In the courtyard of Ouheish's natural stone house, her seven-year-old son Mohammed sidles up to his mother. "I'm especially worried about the little ones," she says. "If they even throw a pebble at a bird, there could be shooting."

Zayn's husband Hassan had petitioned Israel's High Court months ago to obtain an injunction against building the wall on their property. The proposed route goes right behind the Ouheishs' house and over their land across the 20 meters or so that separates them from the new Jewish neighbors.

"Now I hope they will build the wall there," says Zayn. "I would rather have the wall between us than have settlers as neighbors. At least with a wall the children will be safe."

She is furious with their former Palestinian neighbor who she says sold the house to the Jews. But Mohammed Dahleh, the Ouheishs' lawyer who has extensive experience with both the wall and Jewish takeovers of Palestinian houses in Jerusalem, thinks the truth is different.

"The owner lost a court case in which the Jews claimed it was their property," he says. "Later he maybe accepted some money to make him move out faster and without further problems."

He calls it "ironic" that now some of the Ouheish family may want the wall to be built between the two properties just after he had scored a rare victory in obtaining a temporary stay order. "When we started the case, they still had Palestinian neighbors., of course."

Across the road from the Ouheish family live the Halabiyehs. There is hardly a soul to be seen in the whole neighborhood People stay indoors rather than sit outside under the glare of the Israeli guards.

Jumana Halabiyeh, cradling her infant daughter, tells how on Sunday night a week back they heard a large crowd of people right next to their window. "It was a group of several hundred Jews, dancing and singing, bringing things for the house with them. We didn't know what was going on, we were afraid they were also coming for our house."

But there was no trouble, she says, and the owner of the house they moved into was cooperative. "His four sons were waiting outside and one of them handed over the keys."

But Jumana also hopes a wall will separate her from the new Jewish neighbors. "We don't feel safe any more," she says.

Hassan Ouheish is the only Palestinian there who objects to the presence of the newcomers on political grounds. He rejects the very idea of Jewish presence anywhere in Palestine.

Ouheish who works at the Palestinian Authority ministry of religious affairs is categorical in his views. "This is all Palestinian land, not only in Jerusalem but the whole of Palestine, including Tel-Aviv and Haifa."

Mohammed Dahleh, his lawyer, objects mainly to the way the system favors Jews. "It is not fair, they can reclaim Jewish property from a hundred years ago in the east of the city but Palestinians have a lot of property in the west that they can never get back."

He says he deals with at least one case every week in which Jews attempt to move into a Palestinian home. "Often they present papers that I think are obviously fake but the police helps the settlers," he says. "Just recently I obtained a court order to evict some settlers but the police refused to carry it out." The Jerusalem police could not be reached for comment.

Ateret Cohanim has been "reclaiming" Jewish property for more than a decade now. Luria says several thousand Jews now live in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the old city. On the Mount of Olives the movement has built more than 50 apartments, and Jews have established a presence in the old 'Yemenite' Jewish quarter outside the old city, now called Silwan.

Luria says he is against walls and separation between communities in Jerusalem. He thinks even that Palestinians should be able to reclaim lost property in the west of the city. "If they really have a right they should try it," he says. "Although of course there is no moral equivalence between their situation and ours."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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