Successive governments have tried to accomplish that aim by integrating two forces that operate in tandem. One is the official state organ that expropriates land and builds Jewish neighborhoods; the second, non-official organ consists of settlers who perform what the state cannot legally do. The settlers’ amutot (non-profit associations) are the government’s long arm, its moonlighting contractors – and this has been the case for every Israeli government. They flourish with governmental backing and sponsorship. They are warmly embraced by every lawful authority, from the municipality to the police. An almost symbiotic relationship has formed between them and state representatives; sometimes it is unclear who is running whom – the state the settlers, or the settlers the state.
This article focuses on actions by settlers in the heart of East Jerusalem’s Arab population. It does not deal with the large Israeli settlements built on annexed land near the city’s perimeter (a well-known and thoroughly documented phenomenon), but rather with blocs of houses that are going up in the Old City and its adjacent neighborhoods. The settlers’ endeavors are shrouded in secrecy, but despite their track-covering efforts, enough material has come to light to assemble a picture of their efforts.
The Oslo Accords introduced the possibility that Jerusalem could be divided as part of an overall peace agreement. In reaction against this, the settlement-project in East Jerusalem gathered steam. Israel’s government and the Jerusalem municipality both operate on the assumption that the Western powers will eventually enforce a diplomatic arrangement featuring some sort of division. When that time comes, they believe, the deployment of settlements will determine the city’s boundaries, just as in 1947 – in the UN Partition Plan – the map of settlements was used to chart the new state’s borders. As a result, both the state and the municipality are making tremendous efforts to create ‘facts on the ground’ that will prevent any future division of the city.
The settler project is a well-thought-out and deeply dangerous attempt by right-wing Israelis to thwart future peace plans. Quietly and furtively, Israel’s government is using the settlers to seal up the last loopholes through which a just peace could conceivably make its way. Whether or not the new settlements modify East Jerusalem’s character, they will certainly be in a position to sabotage any agreement. Both the Israeli government and the Palestinians are aware that East Jerusalem will be unable to function as the capital of Palestine when it is not only encircled by settlements, but pierced by others within.
Geographical spread and settler statistics: a settlement typology
In terms of formal affinity, Jewish areas within East Jerusalem consist of three principal groups – settler-controlled ideological groups, real-estate ventures by businesspeople, and government initiatives. We do not have clear information on the number of properties possessed by settler associations, since Arab middlemen are living in some, while others are not yet occupied. Yet a reliable picture can be put together from the information we do have.
Within the Old City, operations are coordinated by Ateret Kohanim. In the Muslim and Christian quarters it controls 31 buildings where 60 families reside, amounting to 300 people. Most of these structures are grouped along Hagai Street near the Damascus Gate; the most famous is a house belonging to Ariel Sharon. Ateret Kohanim has also gained possession of St. John’s Hostel (see #32 on maps, p. 17 and p. 19), a large building close to the Holy Sepulcher: a legal dispute is underway concerning it. More recently it purchased, by dubious methods, two hotels near the Jaffa Gate – the Imperial (#29) and the Petra (#30), over which legal proceedings continue. It is behind plans to build a Jewish enclave close to the Flower Gate (Herod’s Gate). Although a government initiative, the enclave is designed for the settlers of Ateret Kohanim. Some 33 dwellings will be erected, together with a synagogue that will protrude meters over the Old City wall (#33).
In addition, several religious schools serve the purpose of staking out a Jewish presence in each of the Old City’s Arab neighborhoods. The number of Jewish buildings and institutions scattered throughout the Christian and Muslim quarters approaches 80, not counting the 33 housing units planned near the Flower Gate.
Ateret Kohanim also operates beyond the Old City walls. It is behind the unlicensed construction of a seven-story building on the edge of Silwan. This neighborhood includes the original site of Jerusalem, known to Israelis as the City of David (#13).
For the most part, however, Silwan and its environs are the focus of another association: Elad. Founded in 1986, Elad first entered two homes in the City of David in 1991. Today it controls ten buildings there, occupied by 27 families. The association owns another twenty buildings, most of which were seized between February and April 2004; 23 Jewish families now live in them. In sum, the number of Jewish families residing in Silwan is about 50, for a total of 250 persons.1 Elad’s official publications reflect pride in having seized more than 55% of “David’s City.”2 Many buildings are still inhabited by Arab families, and the association is waiting for the most politically suitable moment to seize them.
In the Sheikh Jarrakh area (#2), the Shimon Ha-tzadik Association has established a strong presence. It has taken over seven buildings that provide homes for 40 people, as well as a yeshiva where another 50 young people study. Across the road are four or five buildings to which the association claims ownership – they are the subject of legal proceedings.
The Beit Orot Yeshiva (#7) may also be considered a settlement. It was founded by Rabbi Benny Elon in the early 1990s, and 80 yeshiva students are presently housed there. When Benny Elon was Minister of Tourism, he made a point of transforming the area near the yeshiva into a national park, known as Ein Tzurim, and the municipality has recently approved a plan to build housing and public structures on ten dunams. The plan was submitted by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, of whom we shall hear more.
The Shepherd Hotel area (#3): In November 2005 a construction file was opened for the Shepherd Hotel, which is on the road to Mount Scopus. Again, Irving Moskowitz is the developer, and the traces lead to Ateret Kohanim. Nearly 90 housing units are planned. This development will help link the Shimon Ha-tzadik neighborhoods to the government complex in Sheikh Jarrakh.
In Ras-al-Amud there is a large complex known as Ma’aleh Ha-zayit (#9), extending over 15 dunams, with 132 apartments: the plans were approved in 1998, and the project was financed by Irving Moskowitz.
On the outskirts of Abu Dis is a thirty-dunam plot, where the Kidmat Zioncomplex (#11 on Map 2) is to be built, consisting of 340 housing units. Moskowitz is financing this project as well. Construction is on hold because of American pressure (it is near the site of the Palestinian parliament building which will be built in Abu Dis).
Private developers. In addition to the ideological settlements, there are several building projects initiated by business entities unconnected with the settlers. When the time comes, however, settlers could enter them in a massive way. These include Nof Zion (#18 on Map 2), beside the Arab village of Jebel al-Muqaber). Nof Zion will have 350 housing units and a 150-room hotel. Private developers are also erecting a five-story structure at the entrance to Silwan, on what is known as the Givati site (#12).
Government projects. Farther from the Old City, the Israeli government is planning several complexes in the occupied West Bank. A new neighborhood of 1500 homes will soon be built in Givat Ha-matos (#21, Map 2) on the road to Bethlehem. Just to the east, beside the notorious Har Homa, the Housing Ministry is planning the Har Homa C complex (#19). This will connect Har Homa with Gilo. Together with the Housing Ministry, the Jerusalem municipality is drawing up a plan to augment the Jewish presence in the city’s southeastern part, with the aim of completing a Jewish buffer that will prevent continuity between the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages south of the city.
A vast development is also planned for the area of Ein Yael (#22, Map 2), in the southwest corner of the city; it will spread beyond the municipal border into the West Bank. Called Givat Yael, this will be the largest settlement in the Jerusalem area, with 13,500 homes. It is intended to link Jerusalem with the settlements of the Etzion Bloc on the road to Hebron.
At places in East Jerusalem where residential construction is not an option, the Israeli authorities use another method for boosting Jewish presence. They mark extensive swaths of land into ‘green’ and tourist areas with a strong Jewish flavor. The aim of transforming open space into parks is to prevent what the state calls an “Arab takeover.” In public parks, the architectural elements, signposts, guards and paths create continuity between Jewish sites.
Leading the process in the Old City is the Company for Rehabilitation and Development of the Jewish Quarter, a subsidiary of the municipality and the national government. In 2001 it published a grandiose plan to build hundreds of homes in the Jewish Quarter and on Mount Zion in an overall area of 225,000 square meters, as well as several tourism projects (near Mount Zion, in Silwan, the Flower Gate and the Dung Gate) at a cost of $36.4 million.3 In the brochure’s introduction, the objective of the project is defined as “bringing back a strong Jewish presence to the Old City.” The trend is to create continuity between the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem by augmenting the Old City with hundreds of housing units for Jews, thus “improving” the demographic balance. A tunnel will be excavated beneath Mt. Zion linking West Jerusalem to the Western Wall, and a residential and business center will be built on a seven-dunam plot. The present parking lot of the Jewish Quarter will be replaced by an underground car-park catering to 600 cars. A promenade is to be built over the roofs of the Arab market, connecting the Jewish Quarter (#31) with the other islands of Jewish presence scattered throughout the Muslim and Christian quarters. Public buildings are planned on Mount Zion, enabling the evacuation of offices and institutions now located in the Jewish quarter; the spaces they occupy will then be rezoned as residential areas.
An additional project using natural and scenic values to bolster Jewish presence in the Old City has been handed to the East Jerusalem Development Company (EJD, another of the municipality’s subsidiaries). The project entails a national park composed of fifteen separate areas, from the Sultan’s Pool on the west side of the Old City to the Mount of Olives on the east: its cost will be about $17 million. A brochure states that in order to combat illegal construction and squatting, rapid action is necessary to preserve the area’s status as a tourist attraction. The government has defined the project as a “national mission.” Clearly, when it invokes this phrase, it means more than planting trees and placing park benches. In a newspaper interview, the EJD spokesperson used the phrase “the battle for Jerusalem.”4 These projects should therefore be considered as constituting further tools for the takeover of the city and as an integral part of the settler project.
The spatial spread is not random. It fits a strategic program with both religious and political implications. Examining the map of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, we find that the settlers’ plan is to create a strip of Jewish localities around the Old City. These will fulfill two roles: first, they will sever Arab territorial contiguity between the northern and southern parts of Jerusalem; second, the Old City will be enveloped by Jewish “islands,” which will eliminate any possibility that Jerusalem can function as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
This is apparent when one locates those Jewish islands on the map. From the south, there is a broad belt that starts in the City of David complex (#12 and #13), continuing toward Ras-al-Amud (#9) and Kidmat Zion (#11). From here it extends eastward to Ma’aleh Adumim. (In the light of this southern belt, we can see why the municipality seeks to demolish 88 homes in the Silwan neighborhood of al-Bustan: they interfere with Jewish contiguity.) North of the Old City, the strip takes on a broader and more ‘statist’ aspect. It combines settler areas and state institutions. Here the strip starts with the Workers Council (#1) in Sheikh Jarrakh; it passes through the Shimon Ha-tzadik neighborhood (#2), to the Shepherd Hotel (#3), the Border Police headquarters (#4), the National Police headquarters (#5), and the Ministry of Housing. From there it continues to the Beit Orot Yeshiva on the Mt. of Olives (#7). It includes the tunnel through the Mt. of Olives and stretches east to Ma’aleh Adumim.
The settlers’ strategy is clear. They intend to make it impossible to divide Jerusalem. Both sides in the conflict know that such division is a prerequisite for any human-made peace. The prevention of the latter is precisely the settlers’ intention.
Methods for seizing property
The settlers employ two basic methods for seizing Arab properties in East Jerusalem. One is to use an Israeli law concerning absentee property. The other is to involve Arab middlemen.
A major factor in seizing properties has been the Custodian of Absentee Property, an office subordinate to the Justice Ministry. The ties between the Custodian and the settlers were revealed in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin’s government set up a state commission, headed by the Director of the Justice Ministry, Haim Klugman. It discovered that the sources funding the acquisition of houses derived originally from the Finance Ministry. It found that in the 1980s the Custodian regularly and clandestinely transferred to the settlers properties belonging to Arab absentee owners. First, the Custodian would declare the properties absentee-owned buildings, on the basis of doubtful information and documents given him by the settlers themselves. He then transferred the properties by a circuitous process to the settlers.5 For example, in 1982 a building was owned by the Abassi family; after the owners died, their heirs were declared absentees. The Custodian transferred the building to EJD, which transferred it to the settlers under protected rent. To some extent, this conduit was blocked following the Klugman Report, but it has not been completely eradicated.
A regular pattern is visible in the purchasing methods used by the settler associations. Three types of properties are vulnerable:
a. Properties owned by a family one of whose members is involved with criminal circles, when this person needs money to buy drugs or pay debts in the underworld. Such a person can easily be tempted. This was the fate, for example, of the Ajlouni family home, seized in February 2004. A son who was entangled in drugs and criminal activities sold the two-story house, without authorization, plus four housing units that were registered in the names of his brothers.6
b. Properties where a destruction order is soon to be carried out. The owners face the alternative of selling their home to settlers or losing everything. In similar cases, it can reasonably be assumed that municipal inspectors pass information to the settler associations concerning homes that are about to be destroyed; they dispatch an Arab ‘straw’ broker, who closes the deal on the settlers’ behalf.
c. Properties of families who have gotten into debt. This has been a common phenomenon over the past few years, particularly since the second Intifada, when the economic slowdown cost many workers their jobs in construction and tourism.
The settler associations are able to pinpoint and exploit any weakness in an Arab village or neighborhood. In an operation carried out in February 2004, settlers simultaneously entered 16 buildings that had been acquired over the previous two years. Silwan’s Arab residents assess that 20 to 30 buildings have changed hands in recent years; they base their estimates on inside information originating in their extended families.
There is a fixed pattern to seizing buildings. A dwelling is occupied by a new Arab resident, usually not from the village. This may be a single man or a family in economic straits. In most cases, the settlers operate in this way to avoid implicating the seller’s family, attempting to ward off suspicions that they sold the house to Jews. The new resident continues living in the building (for free) until the settlers decide that the time is ripe to seize it. The “temporaries” then often move to another “free” dwelling.
Once the settlers have taken over a building, it rapidly becomes a fortified site in the finest colonial tradition, with a security fence, guard-posts, projectors, often closed-circuit surveillance, and of course a provocative flag. Border Police jeeps patrol the site – a constant irritation to Arab residents. Whenever Jews leave their homes in Silwan or the Muslim Quarter, they are escorted by a pair of armed security guards. Whereas the Zionist movement dreamed of establishing a state to extricate the Jewish people from ghettos, the settlers willingly wall themselves in.
Money is no problem. Both state and private sources fund the settlers’ operations in East Jerusalem. The governmental sources are clouded in secrecy, passing through various ministries under confusing names. Until 1992, the state transferred absentee property and vast sums to the settlers through the Housing Ministry in particular. The Klugman Report estimated that the government transferred around $8.2 million to the settlers in order to buy buildings, passing on an additional $12.8 million for renovating old ones.7 Currently the state provides support to the settlers in two ways: it finances the security companies at an annual cost of 24 million shekels, and it also employs many of them as security guards and functionaries at the City of David’s archaeological site.
It is hard to distinguish the private donors because they demand anonymity. The best known is Irving Moskowitz, the undisputed patron of the East Jerusalem settlers. A group of American Jewish millionaires has formed around Moskowitz. Many are willing to donate on condition that the recipients maintain a low profile and do not arouse the anger of non-Jews. Accordingly, the settlers use collaborator tenants and refrain at first from registering the property in their own names, until the politically appropriate period arrives. [See box, p. 20.]
The ideology motivating the settlers is a combination of messianic and nationalistic ideas. Their primary goal is to redeem the land in East Jerusalem and hand it back to the Jewish people. Ateret Kohanim defines its approach as “buying, renovating and introducing new Jewish tenants into houses and properties in and around the Old City, plot by plot, home by home, step by step, a little at a time.” Their endeavors are fuelled by religious commandments, and since a divine plan guides their work, they are positive that time is on their side and that “the Eternal One of Israel does not lie.”
As a result, the settlers are ready to sacrifice what is precious to them for the sake of the overarching goal. That integration of nationalistic and Messianic ideas engenders a highly inflammable situation, with strong potential to set off a conflagration.
Beyond religious motivations, the underlying political intentions are clearly visible. The settlers want to create “facts on the ground” that will render impossible any future resolution of the Jerusalem question. They are well aware that just as the West Bank settlements forestall any genuine peace arrangement in the region, so will the East Jerusalem settlements sabotage any option for territorial concessions in or around the city. The website of Ateret Kohanim states this openly: “Determination and collaboration with the authorities have proven the old method of Zionism – it is Jewish settlement that determines the borders of the state!” As far as they are concerned, expansion into the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will prevent the city’s ever being divided.
The use of collaborators: Mohammad Maraga of Silwan
In order to understand the settlers’ modus operandi, consider the case of Mohammad Maraga. The affair was exposed in a comprehensive article by Meron Rapaport, which appeared in Haaretz on 1 April 2005.
Maraga always wanted to live “the good life” as pictured in American films. Growing up in Silwan, he found no straight path to his dream. There was, however, the crooked path: to work with the Shin Beth (Israel’s General Security Services). After a period of collaboration, Maraga used his Jewish connections to go into business as a building contractor. He falsified some receipts, however, and landed in prison. Then a long illness laid him low. His business declined, and he wound up eking out a living as a cab driver in Jerusalem.
One day a fare mentioned problems he was having with Ateret Kohanim, and Maraga realized he could use his Jewish connections to mediate between the two. Thus began his collaboration with the settler group. In return for buying Arab property in Silwan and secretly selling it to Ateret Kohanim, he got large amounts of money, vacations, limousines and prostitutes. (He told his neighbors he had received the money from drug-dealing and human-trafficking.) At one point his uncle (a former political prisoner) needed funds to pay for his children’s education. He sold Maraga a plot of 120 square meters. Maraga sold it secretly to Ateret Kohanim and constructed on it a six-story apartment building, which stood out among the two-story structures around it. No one had bothered to get a building permit, so Maraga lived in it with his family in an attempt to ward off its demolition. The plan, he says, was that Ateret Kohanim would give him $150,000, flying him and his family abroad; Jewish families would then move in. By the time his collaboration came to light, he’d be safely out of the country.
In March 2004, Maraga flew to the US with a representative of Ateret Kohanim to prepare a place of refuge. He phoned home one morning and his wife shouted back that Ateret Kohanim had taken the building, evicting her and the children. His secret was out. Maraga sneaked back to Jerusalem for a brief visit with his children, but he did not dare to show his face on the east side of the city. His wife has reached an out-of-court settlement with Ateret Kohanim. Maraga himself was last seen in Eilat, where he shares a room with three other laborers, working as a painter for the minimum wage.