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Israel giving key Jerusalem site to settlers - activists

AFP

July 24, 2009


OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel has handed control over much of a key Palestinian area in annexed East Jerusalem to hardline settler groups in a creeping takeover kept away from public scrutiny, a report by an activist group said on Thursday.

Government bodies have transferred both private Palestinian property and national parks in the Silwan neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City to the settler organisation Elad, said Ir Amim, a non-profit group specialising in Jerusalem issues.

"It was done in the dark, in flagrant violation of the rules of good government and in some cases in violation of the law, without open and official decisions by the government or Knesset and without public discussion, inquiry or scrutiny," said the report entitled "Shady Dealings in Silwan". Elad is dedicated to expanding Jewish ownership in Arab areas of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and annexed in a move not recognised by the international community.

In Silwan, Elad has acted as an arm of the government for the past 20 years to gain control over a quarter of the land along its main thoroughfare, Wadi Hilweh or City of David.

"Silwan is a keystone to a sweeping and systematic process whose aim is to gain control of the Palestinian territories that surround the Old City, to cut the Old City off from the urban fabric of East Jerusalem and to connect it to Jewish settlement blocs" in the northeast, it said.

Elad's impact in Silwan is hard to miss - dominating the city's poorest neighbourhood is a gleaming new visitors' centre and the Walls of Jerusalem national park, an archaeological exhibition.

In theory, the park is owned by the government, but the operator is Elad.

"The site is technically run by the Nature and Parks Authority but all the tour guides are actually Elad people," says Ir Amim activist Orly Noy.

"People arrive here thinking they are at a regular government-run tourist site. What they are actually hearing is the settlers' agenda." The Parks Authority entrusted the running of the site to Elad in 1997 in what the report said was an opaque transaction instead of an open tender as required by law.

When the National Antiquities Authority discovered that important archaeological remains had been transferred to settlers, it objected and in 1999 the move was overturned in the high court.

But despite this verdict, the Parks Authority in 2002 handed control of the area back to Elad.

Elad wants to turn the Arab neighbourhood, where it says the palace of the biblical King David once stood, a claim disputed by most archaeologists, into a new Jewish heartland.

Such a move could spark violence, as Silwan's location makes it a potential tinderbox in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It lies outside the walls of Al Haram Al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which is Judaism's holiest and Islam's third-holiest site and where a change in the status quo could provoke conflict.

"It's like giving matches to pyromaniacs," says Noy.

Elad's hold on Silwan extends far beyond the walls of the park, with white and blue Israeli flags fluttering over several homes once owned by Palestinians.

Some properties were simply sold to Jewish groups. But the report said others were often acquired by dubious means, including using forged documents.

Elad was founded and run by David Be'eri, a former deputy commander of an elite special forces unit in the Israeli army.

With Elad, he runs a ring of agents, including local Palestinians and at least one police officer, to scout opportunities to buy Arab houses, probing for weak points such as disputes between neighbours or debts.

Since the late 1980s Be'eri has worked with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) - a quasi-governmental body that buys and develops land for Jewish settlement - to evict Palestinians in Silwan, the report said.

Under an unwritten pact, Elad would agree to cover compensation for Silwan families which the JNF would then evict and then allow Elad to lease the homes to settlers at token cost, it said.

Elad has not moved settlers into all the houses it has bought for fear of sparking violence, the report said.

"If they moved in you would see blue and white all across Silwan," Noy said.

Elad representatives declined to comment on the report.

24 July 2009






:: Article nr. 56328 sent on 25-jul-2009 04:57 ECT

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