50 years after war, settlements blur future borders

13.04.2017

For many Israelis, Har Homa is another neighbourhood in Jerusalem, served by city bus lines and schools. Its quiet streets are lined with apartment buildings, pizza shops, supermarkets and pharmacies.

But for Palestinians and much of the world, this unassuming neighbourhood is far more. It is an illegal settlement in east Jerusalem and in some ways, the most damaging.

Har Homa lies on one of the last spaces of land linking the Palestinian areas of the West Bank to their hoped-for capital in east Jerusalem. If city planners have their way, Har Homa will soon become one of Jerusalem's largest Jewish neighbourhoods, expanding a presence that many believe has already dealt a devastating blow to the Palestinian dream of independence.

"It's a feeling of helplessness," said Aziz Abu Teir, the mukhtar, or community leader, of Umm Tuba, a neighbouring Palestinian village, as he stared from his balcony at the sprawling rows of apartment buildings across a ravine. "You can do nothing."

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This is the first of several stories marking the 50 years since Israel took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967.

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Fifty years after Israel captured east Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinians remain as divided as ever over the future of the sensitive area, home to major shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. If anything, these conflicting claims are heating up as President Donald Trump has taken office and held talks with Israel about what settlement construction he is willing to tolerate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under American pressure to curb some settlement construction in the West Bank, says east Jerusalem will not be included in any understanding with the U.S. In fact, he has vowed to step up settlement activity in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods like Har Homa.

"This is our homeland," said Herzl Yechezkel, one of the founding fathers of Har Homa. "And we have to build it up."

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim both areas, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future independent state – a position that has wide international backing.

Over the past half century, Israel has built more than 130 settlements throughout the West Bank and more than half a dozen Jewish housing developments ringing east Jerusalem, in moves that many believe are meant to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. These settlements today are home to over 600,000 Israelis, roughly one-third of them in east Jerusalem.

While Israel has never staked a formal claim to the West Bank, it says east Jerusalem, home to the city's most important religious sites, is not up for negotiations. It annexed the area, along with neighbouring parts of the West Bank, after the 1967 war and says the entire expanded city is its eternal capital.

In contrast to West Bank Palestinians, those in Jerusalem have Israeli-issued residency documents and can even apply for citizenship. Israel believes that granting these rights bolsters its claim that its Jewish neighbourhoods are not settlements.

The Palestinians and international community, however, reject Israel's annexation and say that all land beyond Israel's 1967 boundaries is occupied and all Israeli communities are illegal settlements.

For the Palestinians, the presence of Har Homa, also known as Homat Shmuel, is especially painful.

Netanyahu, during his first term in office, broke ground on the project in 1997, just four years after a landmark interim peace accord with the Palestinians reached by his more moderate predecessor. He defended the move by citing Israel's claims as the sovereign power and the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem. But the project was seen as a sign of bad faith and led to violent protests and a halt in peace negotiations at the time.

When Israel finally began settling Har Homa in 2002, Yechezkel was among the first to move in, ignoring international controversy and a violent Palestinian uprising. Israel has since transformed the once-barren hills of the area into a bustling community of 25,000 people where, like in most east Jerusalem neighbourhoods, few people would consider themselves settlers.

Standing proudly on his spacious balcony, Yechezkel, a lawyer and community activist who works as an adviser to the country's pro-settler justice minister, pointed across a valley to biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, neighbouring villages and a Christian monastery. If all goes according to plan, he said, that empty valley will soon be covered with hundreds of homes for more Har Homa residents. The goal: to hit some 40,000 residents.

"Despite all the screaming and all the demonstrations and all the threats," he said, "at the end of the day, the neighbourhood is a big success."

Abu Teir, the mukhtar of Umm Tuba, lives in one of those neighbouring Palestinian communities. For him, Har Homa's massive presence is a painful sight.

The Palestinians lost more than 150 acres of land to Har Homa. Abu Teir, a 55-year-old British-educated civil engineer, said his village's lands were passed down from generation to generation and ownership is difficult to document, making it impossible to stop development.

"You feel gutted and sorrow overwhelms you when you see something like that," he said, as he pointed at apartment buildings he claimed were built on his family's land. "The land that used to belong to my forefathers suddenly became a settlement specifically for Jewish people. It's not a fair thing."

Yechezkel dreams of expanding Jerusalem's eastern outskirts to nearby Jewish settlements 10 miles (15 kilometres) to the east and putting the idea of Palestinian independence to rest once and for all.

"Our answer to all the critics is construction," he said. "We need to build."    (AP)

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Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict: Expect nothing from Trump

Middle East conflict: Empty rhetoric

Israel and the settlements: Netanyahu′s forked tongue

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