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Jews Take over Two Buildings in Moslem Quarter of Old City

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The brutal murder last week of a yeshiva student in the Old City of Jerusalem is credited with inspiring a group of Orthodox Jews to take possession of two buildings in the Moslem Quarter of the city.

The move could inflame ethnic tensions in Jerusalem, where similar attempts in the past by Jews to occupy non-Jewish sections of the Old City have triggered angry protests from Arab residents.

Last Thursday night, less than 12 hours after the killing of Elchanan Attali, a number of Jewish families and fellow students at the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva settled into two empty buildings on Haggai Street, where Attali’s body was found.

The buildings were purchased by the Ateret Cohanim Society, reportedly at a high price from Arab owners.

Negotiations over the two properties began 10 years ago, and Jews moved into the buildings in 1982. But they were vacated on orders of then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who bowed to pressure from Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Ateret Cohanim refrained from taking possession of the property all this time to avoid causing undue tensions during the intifada, said Yossi Baumol, executive director of Ateret Cohanim yeshiva.

Now, however, the purchase process has been completed, and authorities have given their consent to the move.

However, a Palestinian resident of the Old City, Sa’ad Tarti, said the property belongs to his family and that he is seeking a court order to evict the students. The case will be debated Thursday in Magistrates Court, Israel Radio reported.

The yeshiva students have unfurled Israeli flags from the building where Attali’s body was found. The yeshiva said it would dedicate the new buildings to Attali, who was 25.

LIKE HANDING OVER BROOKLYN

Jewish settlement in non-Jewish quarters of the Old City continues, despite objections from Kollek, who has long tried to maintain equilibrium and respect among the city’s many ethnic and religious groups.

Last year, just before Easter, students from Ateret Cohanim moved into St. John’s Hospice in the Christian Quarter, drawing fire from Christians and diplomats in many countries. The Greek Orthodox Church, which said it owns that property, is contesting that move in a case still before the courts.

Ateret Cohanim is one of three yeshivot that received funds from Israel’s Housing Ministry to buy property. The funds were approved by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who owns a home in the Moslem Quarter.

The group strongly defends the right of Jews to live in all parts of Jerusalem and disagrees strongly with the notion that Jews should respect the integrity of non-Jewish neighborhoods.

“Asking the Jewish people to give up eastern Jerusalem is tantamount to asking the mayor of New York to hand over Brooklyn to Saddam Hussein,” said Baumol.

Attali’s murder marks a return to the violence that prevailed during the three years of the intifada before the Persian Gulf war began. Israelis have depicted it as a desperate attempt by Palestinian activists to rekindle the uprising in the wake of Iraq’s defeat.

“Elchanan’s Palestinian murderer would have loved to sink his knife into President George Bush’s back,” said Baumol. “But the only available representative of Western civilization was a quiet, peace-loving scholar.”

No one has been arrested in the killing, but police believe it was the work of several assailants. Attali’s throat was cut, and there were 13 stab wounds on his body.

Security sources said they expected a further escalation of protests, which could climax during next week’s visit of Secretary of State James Baker. Police are deploying large forces in Jerusalem, and the army is maintaining a relatively high state of alert in the administered territories.

For the time being, there is no plan to lift the nighttime curfew that has been in effect since the beginning of the war.

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