East Jerusalem Settlements Ratchet Up Tensions

JERUSALEM - As the fires of human
misery continue to smolder in Gaza, the situation in Israeli-occupied
East Jerusalem is emerging as another potentially explosive issue in,
and far beyond, the Middle East.

The long-term
governance of the city is considered an issue of prime importance to
both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as to their supporters around
the world. Jerusalem-related tensions have been sparked several earlier
rounds of violence between the two peoples, including when former (and
future) Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu started work on the new East
Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa in 1997.

September 2000, it was a visit by opposition leader Ariel Sharon to
Jerusalem's Temple Mount - accompanied by 1,000 armed security people -
that sparked the Second Intifada. Now, Israeli and Palestinian peace
activists warn that the provocative actions of government-backed
settler activists within Jerusalem could spark yet another serious
escalation of tensions.

Some 220,000 Palestinians live in East
Jerusalem, which until 1967 was the commercial and administrative hub
of the whole West Bank region, of which it is an integral part. Since
Israel occupied the city in 1967, successive Israeli governments have
implanted vast (and very expensive) Israeli settlements into the city,
whose boundaries they also unilaterally expanded.

Now, around
200,000 Israeli settlers live in those settlements, which surround the
Palestinian-peopled core of the city. And for some years now settler
activists, most of whose money comes from supporters in the United
States, have also been building webs of settlement "outposts" deep
inside the Palestinian core.

Two current areas of concern are
Silwan, where the Jerusalem municipality recently issued demolition
orders to the owners of 88 Palestinian homes, to establish a
Jewish-history theme park there, and Sheikh Jarrah, where a massive
armed police force last November evicted an older couple from their
longtime home so that a group of settlers could move in.

latter eviction occurred at 3:30 a.m. The man of the house, Abu Kamel
al-Kurd, was already chronically sick. He and his wife, Um Kamel, moved
into a tent on a vacant lot nearby and a few days later Abu Kamel had a
heart attack and died. Um Kamel has continued living in the tent, even
through the winter cold and storms.

Her campaign to stay in
the tent until her home is restored to her has emerged as a potent
rallying point of nonviolent resistance to Israel's plans to continue
colonising East Jerusalem. Israeli police have dismantled her tent six
times, most recently on Feb. 23. But on each occasion her supporters -
who include both Islamist and secular Palestinians - have re-erected it.

like Um Kamel's have been evocative symbols of the eviction of
Palestinians from their homes ever since 1948, when some 750,000
Palestinians were evicted or fled from their homes in what became
Israel. (None have been allowed back, despite United Nations
resolutions calling for a return.)

Most recently, many of the
displaced Palestinians in Gaza - most of them descendants of refugees
from 1948 - have once again been living in tents. And across Jerusalem
in Silwan, local residents protesting their latest eviction orders,
which will affect some 1,500 family members, have also erected a tent
as a focal point for their protest.

In an interview in her tent
Tuesday, Um Kamel told IPS, "Though we're forced into tents, we
Palestinians don't seek tents or donations of things like clothes from
the international community. All we seek is our rights! No one can
overthrow the rights of other people in the way the Israelis do to
us... We need all three groups, the Jews, the Christians, and the
Muslims to live here together in Palestine, in peace and equality."

Palestinians of East Jerusalem have been in a precarious situation for
many decades. In late June 1967 the city's new Israeli occupiers
expanded the municipal boundaries and declared that thenceforth
Israel's law would be applied directly to the city. That act of
annexation was further cemented by Israel's Knesset (parliament) in

Though the annexation was illegal under international
law it has never been vigorously protested by the U.S. Indeed, U.S.
government officials engage in complex verbal gymnastics to avoid
openly acknowledging that - as all the members of the international
community agree - East Jerusalem is indeed still occupied territory.
This judgment means that all Israeli settlements there are quite
illegal, and the city's indigenous Palestinian residents should receive
all the other protections specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention.

of that happening, the Palestinians' situation has become progressively
worse. Almost immediately after the 1993 Oslo Accords were concluded,
the Israeli authorities erected roadblocks and other measures designed
to cut off the city's Palestinians from their compatriots (and often,
close family members) elsewhere in the West Bank.

from elsewhere in the West Bank were meanwhile suddenly prevented from
entering East Jerusalem, and many of the city's once-thriving
institutions - like schools, hospitals, and publishing houses - began
to wither.

Until 1993, East Jerusalem had been the national hub
of Palestinian politics. After Yasser Arafat returned to the West Bank
to establish the new, Oslo-mandated Palestinian Authority (PA), he was
forced to do so in nearby Ramallah, not Jerusalem. The Israelis
prevented the PA from locating any of its institutions in East
Jerusalem and Jerusalem's people came under mounting pressures to leave
their ancestral city.

After Oslo, successive Israeli governments
also accelerated their building of new Jews-only settlements inside the
city. Har Homa, started by Netanyahu in 1997, now has more than 6,000
residents and vast additional construction projects are now underway
there and in nearby Gilo.

In 2001, after the start of the Second
Intifada, newly installed Israeli premier Ariel Sharon started
solidifying the separation of Jerusalem from the West Bank by building
the 30-foot-high concrete walls, punctuated by forbidding cylindrical
watch-towers, that now snake around - and sometimes, capriciously,
right through - the built-up areas of the city.

The Jerusalem
Palestinians always refused to take up Israeli citizenship, arguing
that to do so would be an endorsement of Israel's claim to the whole
city. Without citizenship and the voting clout that would come with it,
they have suffered grave discrimination at all levels, including in the
provision of basic municipal services.

Their voice is excluded
from city planning processes. The Israeli authorities prohibit all but
a few Jerusalem Palestinians from building on even their own
wholly-owned real estate. Eviction orders are routinely issued to
Palestinians regarding either homes built long before 1967 or homes
built since then whose owners have not gone through the burdensome and
expensive process of amassing all the required permits. (Most Israeli
Jewish developers meantime receive the government's strong financial
and administrative support for their projects.)

In recent weeks,
the settler activists of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah have received strong
support from a rightist-dominated municipality to escalate their
activities. The municipality has also stepped up its demolitions of
Palestinian homes deemed "illegal" in many parts of the city, to the
level of two or three per week.

With Netanyahu now poised to
return as prime minister, the scene seems set for further
confrontations in this city so dear to millions of believers around the

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

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