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Bucking U.S. and Peace Groups, First Jews Move in to Ras Al-amud

April 8, 2003
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The polished Jerusalem stone of the Ma’ale Hazeitim apartment block gleams. It is almost blinding on a sunny day. The stark white is offset by the drab, exhaust-stained structures of the Arab neighborhood surrounding it.

On April 2, when several Jewish families moved into this shiny new apartment block in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood, built on the Arab-dominated Mount of Olives, they raised the hackles of both the Israeli left and the U.S. government.

The Bush administration has told Jerusalem that the neighborhood, which is projected one day to have more than 130 housing units, could make the division of Jerusalem nearly impossible, complicating any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Indeed, that’s exactly the point, the settlement’s backers say.

The only aspect of the construction that both sides agree on is that it helps block the division of the city.

The father of the project, Arieh King, a 30-year-old former kibbutznik, points out the strategic importance of the site.

For one thing, the mount provides an almost unparalleled view of the Old City. But more than that, “it’s the geographical point that connects the Israeli settlement around the Old City,” King says. “If we create a strong enough presence here, it makes the division of the city nearly impossible.”

In addition, the development, which the Jerusalem municipality considers legal, would scuttle plans for an east-west corridor leading from Arab areas to the Temple Mount, as envisioned in a sample peace plan written in the mid- 1990s by former Israeli Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin and PLO official Mahmoud Abbas.

“This corridor would allow the Arabs to enter freely without passing any checkpoint or Jewish community all the way from Jordan,” King says. “It’s worth our every effort and investment to block the plan.”

The Ras al-Amud settlement, which King helped found more than five years ago, is set back on a hill adjacent to the Mount of Olives, which, from the austere neighborhood, appears almost to be paved with headstones.

A Jewish neighborhood in the midst of an Arab area indeed sticks out, said Abu Yunis, who owns a shwarma restaurant around the corner.

Yet, he notes, “If there will be peace, then all this will not matter. We’ll live perfectly well side by side.”

Yunis is an entrepreneur who believes that “new business is good business.” Even Orthodox Jews can eat at his restaurant, he boasts, pointing out a framed certificate proving that his establishment is kosher.

If the Jewish residents of Ras al-Amud want to live in peace, he says, “we will welcome them with open arms.”

But, he asks, “What do they want living in a community of 20,000 Arabs?”

The Arab residents of Ras al-Amud seem more interested in American foreign policy than in developments in their own neighborhood.

“That Bush is not a smart man,” Yunis says of the American president. “He waged war and now has incensed the entire Arab people. That’s stupid politics, if you ask me.”

His cooks nod their heads in agreement.

For his part, King is confident that the Jewish neighborhood will be good for the Arab residents, few of whom participated in recent Peace Now protests at the site. Development would bring them added infrastructure and services and would keep them within the Jerusalem municipality in any future peace plan, King says.

Other Arab areas transferred to Palestinian Authority control have suffered immeasurably since the intifada broke out two and a half years ago. Their standard of living has plummeted, and the Palestinian Authority has been unable to keep services functioning.

Yehuda Yiffo knows the danger of living in a settlement. A resident of a West Bank settlement near Ofra who recently purchased an apartment in Ras al-Amud, he has experienced Palestinian sniper fire.

Peeping out the balcony of what is to be his neighbor’s home, Yiffo cranes his neck toward the hillside, where row upon row of Arab homes sit, seemingly slapped one against the other.

For Yiffo, like every member of the new Jewish community here, the memory remains fresh of a Hamas gang from the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan that recently was captured.

“Yes, they could use that hill for snipers,” Yiffo says — but, like most families in Ras al-Amud, he’s willing to take the chance.

In the five years that King and his brother Tzur have lived at the site, they have suffered only a few attacks.

“There is a stone-throwing incident maybe twice a year, but besides that we live and are received here in peace,” he said.

While deeply ideological, the residents of Ma’ale Hazeitim aren’t fanatics. Many, like King, chat easily in Arabic with locals and help the local economy by purchasing goods from Arabs in eastern Jerusalem.

The Ras al-Amud plot was purchased in the late 1990s by King’s father-in-law, American bingo king Irving Moscowitz, who has been heavily involved in efforts to reclaim parts of eastern Jerusalem. Partially due to Moscowitz’s patronage, Jewish communities have sprung up in neighborhoods that had been almost exclusively Muslim: Ras al-Amud, Musrara, the Muslim section of the Old City, Sheikh Jarrah and others.

King refuses to say how much the development cost Moscowitz, stating that that’s “not anybody’s business.” But he concedes that “this is not a good place to do business, due to the difficulty and the danger.”

For Yiffo, King and their families, however, ideology trumps business. Just above the hill on the other side of the community gleams the Dome of the Rock. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall are a 15-minute walk away, a great bonus for the religious community.

“Jerusalem is the nerve center of the Third World War,” Yiffo says. “That’s why this place is so utterly important to us and the Jewish people, and important to control.”

Important it may be, but those who believe that Israel must create the conditions for future peace with the Palestinians consider it pure folly.

“If the locals wanted to welcome their new neighbors with rice and flowers, we’d be the last to object. But this settlement causes serious complications to the division of Jerusalem,” Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer says. “It will cause unnecessary and avoidable complications that could lead to bloodshed.”

Like others in Israel, Oppenheimer dismisses the settlers’ religious argument.

“If we end up sticking to the text, then Israel has to range from the Euphrates to the Nile,” he says. “But we don’t see Moscowitz or anyone else buying up tracts in downtown Damascus.”

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