Har Homa: The New Front Line?


Jerusalem — The terrace of Moshe Matitya’s spacious apartment in the Har Homa neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem affords the computer programmer sweeping views of Bethlehem to the south and the rolling Judean Hills to the east and west.

These days, the view, which was a selling point when Matitya moved his family to this controversial neighborhood from the German Colony almost three years ago, is making him nervous. And it’s making him feel as if he may now be on the front line of a new conflict with the Palestinians and the Americans.

That’s because just after Israel’s Housing Ministry announced earlier this month that 300 more housing units were to be built in Matitya’s hilly neighborhood over the Green Line, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered a sharp condemnation. Israel’s announcement, which came just after the Annapolis summit, prompted Rice to say, "I made it clear we are in a time when the goal is to build maximum confidence with the parties. This [construction at Har Homa] is not going to build that confidence."

Rice’s comments jolted many Har Homa residents. And it threw a spotlight on a quiet neighborhood — only a couple of miles from the trendy Jerusalem neighborhoods of Baka and Old Talpiot — most Israelis consider part of the country’s capital.

"Rice’s remarks should be a warning sign to all other Israelis who live in other parts of Jerusalem, like Gilo, Ramat Eshkol, East Talpiot, that are over the Green Line," Matitya said, standing on his terrace. He was referring to just three of the many Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem since it was captured by Israel in 1967. French Hill, adjoining Mount Scopus, and Malcha, next to the popular Macha mall, are two others.

Matitya says he can envision a time when the American government might demand the dismantling of some Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhoods as part of a deal with the Palestinians.

"Officially, the U.S. government doesn’t recognize any east Jerusalem neighborhood as part of Jerusalem or Israel," he said. "If Condoleeza Rice decides to hand over Har Homa to the Palestinian Authority, it would be a hotbed for terrorists, just like Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal."

Were this to happen, Matitya said, "there could be shooting into places like Talpiot," a middle-class neighborhood in southern Jerusalem that served as the front line during the 1967 war. "What’s happening in Sderot, the constant bombardment, was unthinkable before the pullout from Gaza. Nothing is unthinkable in this part of the world."

Israeli officials responded to Rice by saying that Har Homa is "an integral part of Jerusalem," built within the city limits. (This week a Housing Ministry budget proposal for 2008 included 500 more apartments in Har Homa and 240 in Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank.)

Still, Rice’s speech has many Israelis wondering whether the Bush administration intends to interfere with the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line to further the peace process.

Har Homa, which has a population of about 16,000 (2,400 families), is situated in southeast Jerusalem, sandwiched between the Arab municipalities of Beit Sahur and Umm Tuba, both in the West Bank and under Palestinian rule. Bethlehem is just down the road, behind a daunting roadblock.

Har Homa lies within the Jerusalem boundaries set by Israel in 1967, after it captured the West Bank from Jordan. In 1992, the Israeli government expropriated 1,850 dunams of uninhabited land that contained a forest. Seventy percent of this land belonged to Jews (including 25 percent purchased by the Jewish Agency in 1937) and 30 percent belonged to Arabs. The Israeli government says all landowners were compensated.

Arabs and their supporters petitioned the High Court to prevent construction, but bulldozers were ultimately permitted to break ground in the late 1990s.

Geshon Baskin, CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a left-wing think tank, maintains that Har Homa "is a settlement and all settlements are illegal under the Geneva convention. It is illegal for an occupying power to settle civilians on occupied territory: anything beyond the pre-1967 borders."

The fact that Har Homa was built largely on Jewish-owned land is irrelevant, Baskin says, "because Palestinians don’t have the same rights in Israel proper. There were 400-plus Arab villages [in present-day Israel] before 1948 that no longer exist," he says, "yet Palestinians cannot claim ownership or build on these lands."

On a purely practical level, Baskin says, the Palestinian municipalities adjoining Har Homa are cramped for space, "and Palestinians feel the land on which Har Homa was built should be part of a Palestinian state." Building a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem violated the so-called road map for peace, he says, "because Israel said it would freeze all settlements, even for natural growth.

"According to international law, there is no difference between Har Homa and other Jewish settlements/neighborhoods built after 1967."

Rice Just ‘Making Noises’

Efraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, doesn’t think Rice’s Har Homa comments have any teeth.

"I think Rice was just making noises, probably after talking to the Palestinians, but I don’t’ think anything will change."

This is not the first time an American government has opposed construction at Har Homa, Inbar stresses.

"They also didn’t like it when Bibi [Netanyahu] built Har Homa, but realistically speaking, I think it will always be in Jewish hands. Israelis will not agree to relinquish Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem."

Rena Draiman, who with her husband, Arnie and children, plans to move into their still-under-construction four-bedroom apartment in Har Homa in a month or two, says she was dismayed by Rice’s comments.

"I thought, ‘Wait, I hope all this media attention won’t lead the Arabs living nearby to attack Har Homa the way they attacked Gilo during the intifada,’" Draiman, an architect, said. "But I’m very excited to be going to a place outside the ‘Baka Bubble,’ a sort of Upper West Side lifestyle. We love our neighborhood and wish we could afford to stay, but people who can afford to stay are in a different place from what we are economically."

Referring to Har Homa’s diversity — about half are Modern Orthodox, while the other half are either religiously traditional or secular — Draiman thinks the community "will be good for all of us. I feel like we’re moving to the real Israel."

Arnie Draiman, a philanthropy consultant, is convinced that "anyone who describes Har Homa as a settlement doesn’t know the geography. It’s a Jerusalem neighborhood like any other neighborhood. It’s exactly two kilometers from where I’m sitting right now," he said during an interview in the family’s rental apartment on the edge of Baka, where moving boxes were stacked.

Rivka Matitya, Moshe’s wife, says the family has found a real home in Har Homa, no small thing when facing a life-threatening illness.

"Almost as soon as we moved here I was diagnosed with breast cancer," Rivka, a popular swimming instructor, says with an ironic smile. "One day a man, a stranger, came to our house with food. He asked for my phone number and within an hour his wife calls and says, ‘How can I help? Can I shop for you? Pick up the kids?’ … There is tons of chesed here."

Rivka says the family could have moved to a big house in the West Bank but intentionally chose to remain in the capital.

"I wanted very much to stay in Jerusalem. My kids learn in the Jewish Quarter and they run around the Old City as if it’s their backyard. This was an opportunity to stay in Jerusalem and have a house large enough for our parents to come and stay, to have overnight company. We’ve got the best of both worlds," Matitya said.

Tamar Zedek, who along with her husband, Moshe, and three children, moved to Har Homa five years ago, says Har Homa isn’t perfect, but that the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

"There’s still no post office or bank, but there are so many synagogues to choose from. I used to live in Arnona [a section of Talpiot], and there was no neighborhood mikveh. There’s a mikveh here and a women’s Torah class every Shabbat. Even my 7-year-old has a class on Shabbat," Zedek, a librarian at the National Library, says.

Looking down from her expansive balcony at the cranes and bulldozers building the next section of Har Homa — construction approved long ago — Zedek is convinced that Israel "needs a peace agreement," but that "it won’t give Har Homa to the Palestinians."

"In my opinion," Zedek said, "this is Jerusalem."