BEHIND THE HEADLINES Vacant Jerusalem hill at eye of political storm in Israel

JERUSALEM, Feb. 18 (JTA) — The hill, covered with pine and cypress trees, is a quiet place — for now. Every now and then, a group of Christians visit the hill as part of their pilgrimage to sites where Jesus once lived. There is no hint of the gathering political storm. Sitting squarely in the center of this storm is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces growing threats not only from the Palestinian leadership, but also from members of his own governing coalition. A group of Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum is calling for the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood, Har Homa, on the now uninhabited hillside southeast of Jerusalem. Proponents of the plan see the hill, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as a bulwark. As Israel prepares to turn over rural portions of the West Bank to Palestinian self-rule over the next two years, Har Homa’s advocates want to prevent the creation of an Arab territorial continuum stretching from Bethlehem to the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. To counter this possibility, they want to surround Arab areas near Jerusalem with a chain of new Jewish neighborhoods stretching from south of Jerusalem to the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim in the east. The original decision to build Har Homa was made by the previous Labor government in April 1991, but the move was repeatedly delayed for political reasons. Israel’s zoning and planning committees already approved some 2,000 housing units, of 6,500 to be built on the site. The final decision to send in the bulldozers to start clearing the land now rests with Netanyahu. In recent days, there has been a crescendo of threats from conservative parliamentarians to cease supporting the government if Netanyahu fails to give Har Homa the go-ahead. Among this group are some of his closest friends in his own Likud Party, including Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and fellow parliamentarian Michael Eitan. Olmert heads a group of 17 Knesset members, known as the Eretz Yisrael Front, which Netanyahu will find difficult to ignore. Some Labor Party members also have called for construction to begin, but the party’s Knesset members this week backed away from supporting a no-confidence vote against the government over the issue. Netanyahu, who chairs a ministerial committee dealing with construction in Jerusalem, is expected to make a decision next week. Finding himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, the prime minister also has faced a growing series of threats from Palestinian leaders that the construction of Har Homa will derail the peace process. Israeli security officials take these threats seriously, warning that building the new neighborhood will touch off Palestinian rioting similar to the three days of violence that erupted last September after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel located near the Temple Mount. Arabs living near the proposed construction site also warn of violence. “There will be a lot of trouble if the Jews build there,” said Ibrahim Hussein, the mukhtar, or village chief, of Umm Tuba, an Arab village near Har Homa. “Israel has so much territory. Why does it need to occupy this hill as well?” He was keenly aware that Har Homa’s proponents envisaged a ring of new Jewish communities that would surround existing Arab villages in the Jerusalem area. “If they build here, Umm Tuba will die,” he said. “We will be suffocated. We will be surrounded by the Jews.” Others in the village saw construction of Har Homa as an assault on the peace process itself. “It’s true that Israel had built other neighborhoods in Jerusalem in the past,” said Saud Masri, a grocery store owner. “But now we are in the midst of a peace process. One cannot build in spite of the Palestinians.” Omar Mohammad Khalil, a construction worker in the nearby village of Soor Baher, had a slightly different take on what would happen if the bulldozers started work at Har Homa. “The villagers will shout and yell and demonstrate,” he said. “But once building starts, half of the construction workers will come from our village.”

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