Behind the Headlines: Violent Opposition to Land Sales Highlights Struggle for Jerusalem

The iron door at the entrance to the old Arab house in eastern Jerusalem opened only after a visitor knocked persistently for several minutes.

Inside was the mourning family of Farid al-Bashiti, an Arab real estate agent who was brutally murdered last week — allegedly because of his involvement in the sale of Arab-owned land to Jews.

The murder comes as the struggle over land in Jerusalem has intensified in advance of final-status talks that will attempt to determine the city’s future.

At the heart of that struggle are competing efforts by Israelis to acquire land in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem and Palestinian moves to forestall such purchases.

The allegation that Bashiti was murdered because of his sale of land was voiced loudly by Israeli officials — and whispered by Arabs fearful of retribution from the Palestinian Authority.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the Clinton administration would find it “highly disturbing” if the allegation were proven true.

Inside the mourners’ home, one person introduced himself as “Mohammad al- Bashiti, a cousin from England.”

Police sources said he was Bashiti’s brother, but given the circumstances, it was not surprising that the man wanted to maintain some distance between himself and the deceased.

There was a palpable fear inside the house.

Farid al-Bashiti was found dead last Friday near a road in the West Bank town of Ramallah. His hands had been cuffed. A sharp blow to the head had caused his death, but there were also signs that he had been tortured.

When they informed the family of his death, Palestinian officials said he had been killed in a traffic accident.

But both Israeli and Palestinian sources linked the murder to suspicions that Bashiti was involved in sales of Palestinian-owned land to Jews.

Land disputes heated up after Israel began construction in mid-March at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem.

Reports that some of the land in the controversial Jewish neighborhood was sold by Arab land owners triggered angry Palestinian reactions.

Several weeks ago, the mufti, or Muslim religious leader, of Jerusalem, issued a religious ruling ordering that all Muslims selling land to Jews be sentenced to death.

The mufti, Sheik Akrami Sabri, referred to Bashiti during his sermon last Friday at Jerusalem’s al-Aksa mosque.

“They found the body of a Jew with a Muslim identity,” he said mockingly, not even mentioning the deceased by name. “He ought not to be buried in a Muslim funeral.”

Bashiti’s family had buried him secretly in Ramallah, but the body was later disinterred for an autopsy. They are planning another burial at a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

Echoing the mufti’s edict, Freih Abu Medein, the Palestinian Authority’s justice minister, last week said that any Arab selling land to Jews would be subject to the death penalty.

After Bashiti’s body was found, Medein referred to the victim as a “traitor,” adding that traitors ought to be executed.

Bashiti was a close friend of Armenian Archbishop Ajamian, who recently sold a $5 million villa on the Mount of Olives to the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva.

The archbishop sold the house to a foreign company that was operating on behalf of Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish philanthropist from Miami who has been purchasing Arab land, according to Palestinian sources.

The villa will be used to house students at the adjacent Beit Orot Yeshiva, which has operated for several years on the slopes of the mount.

“This is only the beginning,” said Chaim Silberstein, director of the Beit Orot Yeshiva, referring to the acquisition of the Ajamian villa.

“We already have three acres here under Jewish ownership, and we hope we can build here an entire city of Torah.”

It is not clear whether Bashiti had anything to do with the villa sale, but from a political standpoint, it does not matter.

Bashiti’s death is now serving as a warning to all Arabs to stay out of any deals with Jews, whether it is the Israeli government or private investors.

But official Palestinian moves to prevent land sales have not dissuaded Jews from seeking more deals.

“We are working in terms of eternity,” said Matti Dan, of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, the main force behind the Jewish purchase of property in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

For their part, the Islamic religious authorities recently protested that the Israelis were planning to take over an area known as the Little Wall, which is located in a yard of an Arab home and is an extension of the Western Wall.

Jews pray there on Shabbat and on holidays, and the Religious Affairs Ministry often cleans up the area.

Last week, a ministry spokesman said the government was considering setting up a prayer area beyond the Western Wall plaza — a move Palestinian religious officials said could lead to violence.

Elsewhere in eastern Jerusalem, Jewish developers have ambitious building plans.

Moskowitz has acquired almost four acres at the Ras el-Amud neighborhood, located east of the Temple Mount.

Although a plan to build 132 housing units for Jews in that neighborhood was frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was approved by the legal committees in charge of the project. Only a governmental go-ahead is needed for work to begin.

Another plan calls for linking Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim, located further east on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, by building a new neighborhood of 1,500 housing units and 3,000 hotel rooms on a stretch of land covering 2,500 acres.

Other proposed projects include a new neighborhood near Abu Dis, the Arab suburb of eastern Jerusalem that has often been mentioned as a possible capital of a future Palestinian state.

This week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that senior political officials are secretly considering plans to expand the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem by annexing Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Betar and the Etzion settlement bloc, making them part of a Greater Jerusalem municipality.

Interior Minister Eli Suissa, who has been outspoken in his support of the idea, did not attempt to argue against the veracity of the Ha’aretz report.

But, reflecting the political sensitivity of the move, Suissa responded to an inquiry about the plans by saying it was “better not to discuss it.”

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