By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A15
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government and private Jewish groups are working in concert to build a human cordon around Jerusalem's Old City and its disputed holy sites, moving Jewish residents into Arab neighborhoods to consolidate their grip on strategic locations, according to critics of the effort and a Washington Post investigation.
The goal is to establish Jewish enclaves in and around Arab-dominated East Jerusalem and eventually link them to form a ring around the city, a key battleground in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its Jewish and Muslim holy sites, according to activists involved in the effort and critics of the campaign.
The Israeli government has sometimes violated its own laws and regulations to advance the encircling effort, the Post investigation found. Critics of the plan charge that the government is subsidizing and protecting Jewish groups that are deliberately scuttling peace efforts by establishing Jewish enclaves in overwhelmingly Palestinian neighborhoods.
As part of the effort, the Israeli government began work on expanding the West Bank's largest settlement, Maleh Adumim, without required building permits and in violation of the settlement's master development plan. The work was ordered stopped in September after Post inquires about the project.
In addition, Israeli security forces seized a Palestinian-owned hotel on the border of eastern Jerusalem after expelling its owners and declaring them absentee. Nearby, a private Jewish organization has bought and occupied two illegal houses that the Israeli government is paying private security guards to protect.
"There's a dovetailing of government actions and settlement activity," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who has fought numerous court battles against Jewish takeovers of Arab-owned houses and land. The government, he said, has adapted its pro-settlement policies "to service messianic groups" that are moving into Arab neighborhoods.
A report by the State Attorney's Office that has not yet been released concluded that almost every major ministry in the Israeli government assisted in the construction, expansion and maintenance of illegal settlement outposts, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. The report found that "every echelon, from minister to low-level clerks, ignored settlers' violations of the law . . . bypassing the zoning laws and master plans" and improperly funneling state money to settlement expansions, even after being ordered not to by Israel's attorney general, according to the newspaper.
In meetings with senior Israeli officials Sunday on her first trip to the region as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned Israel not to take unilateral steps that could influence the city's status. "We do believe that unilateral steps in Jerusalem, particularly those that might appear to prejudge future discussions, would be unhelpful at this time," she said in a television interview with Israel's Channel 1.
Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, one of the most prominent private groups involved in moving Jews into Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, said a main focus of his organization was returning Jews to property their ancestors had abandoned during Arab riots in the 1920s and '30s. He said the group's goal was not to block Palestinian access to Jerusalem's Old City or prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But he asserted that both results were inevitable and desirable side effects of the group's activities, which he described as creating "the shield of Jerusalem."
"If, as a result of what we do, it means the city can't be divided, fine, Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people," Luria said. "It would be the biggest disaster for the Jewish world if Jerusalem were divided and a Palestinian state was created on Jewish land."
Effie Eitam, a leader of the pro-settlement National Religious Party who was housing minister from March 2003 until last June, said the government was a full participant in the campaign to encircle Jerusalem, key parts of which he claimed to have initiated. "It's all done under the eye of the state," he said.
But Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the government was not coordinating its moves with any private groups and was not involved in any illegal activity. "There's no collusion against the law by the government with these people," he said.Making Room for Settlers
On a barren hillside just outside Jerusalem, yellow backhoes and bulldozers spent about six weeks late last year leveling a space the size of four football fields for a new police station -- the first step in expanding the settlement of Maleh Adumim to reach the edge of Jerusalem, less than two miles away.
But the work was illegal, according to the Supreme Planning Council, Israel's highest development authority in the West Bank. Israeli army Lt. Talya Somech, a spokeswoman for the West Bank's civil administration, said that without building permits or approved plans, the project "violated the laws of planning and construction." It also violated Maleh Adumim's master development plan.
The project, which was stopped Sept. 13 after The Post inquired about it, was undertaken not only to close the gap between Maleh Adumim and Jerusalem, but to provide a site for the new headquarters of Israel's police force in the West Bank. Were the agency -- called the Judea and Samaria police -- to move there, its headquarters in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras el-Amud would be available for conversion into apartments for Jews. Negotiations for the sale of that building, which is located in a heavily Palestinian area about 500 yards from the wall of Jerusalem's Old City, are underway.
The Maleh Adumim work is part of an expansion plan officially known as E-1, which anti-settlement activists said is the final step in sealing off north and east Jerusalem from Palestinians living in the West Bank. Moshe Merhavia, a senior Housing Ministry official, said that when E-1 is finished, it will double the size of Maleh Adumim, which has 30,000 residents. U.S. officials have opposed the plan for years.
Eitam, the former housing minister, said he initiated the plan to move the police force to Maleh Adumim and free its building in Ras el-Amud for Jewish housing.
"It's not a coincidence -- it's a state that moves a police station," he said. "It's all done above the table, even if there are private investors and private people who might buy the [existing] police station or build apartments there."
Eitam recently moved into a five-story, 51-unit apartment compound across the street from the Ras el-Amud police headquarters. The Maaleh Hazeitim (Olive Heights) complex, which is expected to grow to 119 units, was developed by Ateret Cohanim and sits adjacent to the famous Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery. Together, the apartment building, cemetery and police station straddle the old road to Jericho, a West Bank city about 14 miles east of Jerusalem.
Rabbi David Nisanov, the head of the Bukharan Jewish community of Jerusalem, which owns the police station and the three acres surrounding it, said he was negotiating to sell the property to the apartment complex's developers once the police relocate.
When the Judea and Samaria police move out, Eitam said, "the state will have to think about what will be the alternative function of the building, and I see no reason why the state would not allow more Jews to live there. I accelerated the process, and I think it's very legitimate."Hotel Taken Away
Perched atop a small hill on the outskirts of Abu Dis, a Palestinian town just east of Jerusalem and south of Maleh Adumim, the 36-room Cliff Hotel was a popular venue for Palestinian parties and weddings because of its big garden and big views.
About two years ago, however, the Israeli government resurveyed Jerusalem's municipal boundary and ruled that the hotel was not in the West Bank but inside the city, said Walid Ayyad, a member of the family that built it in 1955. Ayyad said the hotel had always paid property taxes to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, never to Jerusalem.
Last April, as Israel was building a concrete wall through Abu Dis as part of a project to separate the West Bank from Israel, the Israeli Border Patrol seized the hotel to use as a security post and barred the family from going there, Ayyad said. Since the Ayyads had West Bank identity cards and were not residents of Jerusalem, they were declared absentee owners of the property, and ownership was transferred to the government, according to Shlomo Lecker, the family's attorney. No compensation was paid to the Ayyads, he said.
Five Border Patrol officers were indicted Sept. 28 for abusing Palestinians inside the hotel. One man was allegedly forced to jump from a second-story window and another man was allegedly burned with cigarettes and made to drink the officers' urine.
A few days after the Border Patrol took over the building, five Jewish families from Ateret Cohanim moved into two homes on an adjacent hillside several hundred yards away, just on the Jerusalem side of the 28-foot-high concrete wall. The Arab owner of one of the houses, Khalid Radwan, 62, said Ateret Cohanim gave him $650,000 and told him that the land he had bought and built upon 28 years earlier was, in fact, owned by Jews; the group would not confirm Radwan's account. The second house was constructed about 18 months ago without any building permits, in an area where there was no approved master plan and where no building was allowed, according to Gidi Schmerling, spokesman for the city of Jerusalem. Radwan's house was also illegal, he said.
Lecker, the Ayyad family's attorney, said he believed it was "quite clear from the timing of the hotel takeover and the new settlers taking over the other two buildings that this was the real motivation behind it: to give the hotel property to the settlers. The whole system here is very evil."
Luria, the Ateret Cohanim spokesman, said the two homes were to be part of a development called Kidmat Zion that has not yet been approved and is pending before the Jerusalem district planning council. The houses and the five families living in them are being protected by private security guards paid for by the Israeli government, he said.
"This empty land is all that remains of a Jewish neighborhood that was meant to be built in 1924" by a group of Jews who purchased about 150 acres but abandoned the land during the Arab riots, Luria said. "The plan is to put 350 housing units here, and we hope that these two buildings will encourage the neighborhood to be built."
About 2 1/2 miles away is the most conspicuous landmark in Jerusalem's Old City: the golden Dome of the Rock. Next to it is al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site. They sit atop a plateau that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary; Jews refer to the spot as the Temple Mount, revered as the place where King Solomon built the First Temple in the 10th century B.C.
"The Arabs want to form a continuity from here to the Temple Mount, and our purpose is to make Jewish neighborhoods that connect with each other to stop them," said one of the new residents, Matanya Navon, 24, an architect and Torah student whose home is less than 50 feet west of the wall. "We hope this place flourishes and develops and there will be [hundreds of] houses here with trees and lawns."
Luria said he did not know if the newer house was built illegally, but said that thousands of Palestinians had built homes in East Jerusalem over the years without building permits, "so let's keep things in perspective."
The difference, according to attorney Seidemann and other activists, is that illegal Palestinian homes often are demolished by the Israeli government. A total of 330 have been torn down since the start of 2001, including 147 last year, according to the private Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Ateret Cohanim's houses are protected by the government.
Seidemann said the two houses and planned development were part of a program to move Jewish residents up to the West Bank barrier so that if it were ever removed, a line of Jewish communities would form a substitute barrier against the Palestinians.
"Israel says that nothing is irreversible, that the fence can be removed," Seidemann said. "But it's not the wall that creates irreversibility. It's the interface of the wall and settler activity."
Like many religious groups, Ateret Cohanim is opposed to the wall and fence complex that Israel is erecting, according to Luria. "Being there is the best barrier," he said.