March 16, 2013
New Apartments Will Complicate Jerusalem Issue
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — The Muslim call to prayer resounds through the traffic circle in the Palestinian enclave of Ras al-Amud, through the taxi stand where waiting drivers sip sweet coffee and the vegetable market where boys help their fathers after school. It can also be heard down the street in Maalot David, where a few Jewish families have quietly taken up residence in newly renovated apartments with prime views of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Maalot David is not a typical Israeli settlement, a planned community in the hills, surrounded by gates and guards, where Jews live separate and apart from nearby Palestinian villages. It is a new apartment block sandwiched into the very fabric of Arab East Jerusalem, a construction many say fundamentally undermines the idea that the area could ever serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Israel’s building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and West Bank territories seized during the 1967 war has been a longstanding friction point between Jerusalem and Washington.
With President Obama scheduled to visit this week, the government has postponed action on several East Jerusalem projects, to make sure there are no awkward events like when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in 2010 and was greeted by an announcement of 1,600 new units.
Those more traditional, government-financed settlements may be delayed, but The Jerusalem Post has for weeks been running advertisements promoting Maalot David and another new apartment block, Beit Orot — both privately owned and developed — as a “dream come true” for their proximity to the Old City and the 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
While most experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long imagined Jerusalem as ultimately being divided, with Jewish neighborhoods remaining part of Israel and Arab ones joining Palestine, these new buildings make such a plan more complicated if not impossible — which may be exactly the point.
“The world is talking about dividing Jerusalem — it’s in many ways churning water,” said Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that is not involved in these two projects but that has led many other efforts to establish Jewish beachheads in the area. “What has happened since 1967 in the Old City and around the Old City has made any discussion of dividing Jerusalem the way the Arabs see it irrelevant, because on the ground it ain’t going to happen.”
Palestinian leaders say that Maalot David and Beit Orot are part of an insidious ring of Israeli activity around the so-called Holy Basin of sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, which includes a vast national park and a planned military academy.
“It is all part of the plan, part of the scheme, to undermine the two-state solution and East Jerusalem being the capital,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, on Thursday during a tour for foreign diplomats intended to highlight the issue ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit.
On a similar outing last month, the Palestinian Authority’s governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Husseini, declared, “This phase of colonization is very dangerous, because it disintegrates inside the Palestinian neighborhoods — now they want to disfigure the core itself.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the leaders in his new coalition, as well as the mayor of Jerusalem, have steadfastly maintained Israel’s right to build anywhere in the city, though its 1967 annexation of the Arab areas has not gained international acceptance.
Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and settlement opponent who documents Israeli building in East Jerusalem, estimates there are 196,000 Jews living in such areas. The vast majority are in large, established neighborhoods like French Hill, near Hebrew University, or Har Homa, at the city’s southern edge, and are not seen by most Israelis as settlers.
About 2,200, according to Mr. Seidemann, are scattered in Palestinian enclaves in and around the Old City — many of them ultra-Orthodox extremists who took it as a religious and political mission to seize individual homes and raise Israeli flags on them.
Beit Orot and Maalot David represent a different approach: modern, comfortable apartments tucked into existing Palestinian neighborhoods. (It is not unprecedented: About 90 Jewish families live in Maale Hazeitim, across the street from Maalot David, and a similar number in Nof Zion, which opened several years ago in nearby Jebel Mukaber.)
But these projects come at an especially anxious time — with the peace process long stalled, confidence between the parties all but absent, and international condemnation of settlements generally intensifying. Heightening concerns of settlement critics, the new Israeli government finalized on Friday named as minister of housing and construction a former leader of the settlers’ council, whose Jewish Home Party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Beit Orot, on the edge of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Al Sawana and A-Tur, includes 24 units in four, four-story buildings next to a yeshiva by the same name whose property was bought by Irving I. Moskowitz, a wealthy Miami doctor who has financed many East Jerusalem projects. There are three-, four- and five-bedroom apartments with large porches and parking spaces, starting around $350,000.
Maalot David, a former police compound used by Jordan when it controlled the area from 1948 to 1967 and then by Israel, has 20 units, three of them small houses. The asking price for its 2,500-square-foot penthouse, with views of the Dome of the Rock out the 14 windows in the open kitchen-living area, is near $1 million.
Harel Basel, the real estate broker handling sales, said buyers so far had been religious but not ultra-Othodox families, some from West Bank settlements, drawn by both location and relative affordability. Similar apartments in prime West Jerusalem, he said, go for two or even four times as much.
“Something that is more than just an apartment in Jerusalem,” Mr. Basel. “Something for the soul, something with a goal, a vision, not just a house.”
Nechama Meir, who moved into Maalot David six months ago, said that she is no pioneer and that her address is “not a geopolitical question.”
A 33-year-old mother of six, ages 6 months to 11 years, Ms. Meir said she wanted more space (860 square feet, compared with 600 in the old place) and a yard (they planted their own grass). She also yearned to be closer to the Old City, where the children go to school, and to the Mount of Olives, where her husband’s great-grandfather is buried, along with generations of great rabbis.
A few weeks ago, the family visited a site believed to be where the red heifer was sacrificed, during biblical times, in a purification ritual.
“It’s a very holy place,” said Ms. Meir, who grew up in Neve Yaakov, a settlement of about 20,000 people in the northern reaches of East Jerusalem, and sells natural cosmetics. “You go out, you feel connected to all the generations of the nation. It’s just special to live in a place that you feel connected to your roots.”
Her children ride their bikes in the parking lot, behind Maalot David’s iron gates and tall fences; the streets outside are deemed too dangerous. They are not allowed to walk alone to the Old City: the Ras al-Amud traffic circle is notorious for Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, settlers and visitors.
The parents do sometimes shop at the produce stand down the street. And when some Palestinian young men accidentally tossed their keys over the fence one recent afternoon, the couple said, they spent an hour searching in the bushes, though they would not risk letting the neighbors in to hunt for themselves.
Muhammad Zaghal, an optometrist who grew up in Ras al-Amud, has watched tensions swell as first Maale Hazeitim and then Maalot David opened their doors.
After Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped in the Gaza Strip, was released in late 2011 in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, Mr. Zaghal said, some Jews threw stones and water at people celebrating in the street, and made a big sign declaring, “One Jew is Worth 1,000 Arabs.”
“Everyone knows they don’t love us and we don’t love them,” Mr. Zaghal, 32, said. “They think that this is their place and this is their land, but this is not the case. We are here and we are staying here, but they won’t. There are people here who won’t let them.”
© 2012 The New York Times Company
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