Split ‘View of Zion’ in East Jerusalem

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM – In the early morning sunlight, the smoky window of the plush new apartment reflects back a golden tinge from the Dome of the Rock that stands at the heart of Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Down across the valley from the walled Old City, families have already started moving into some of the 91 apartments in this new 240-family compound of Jewish settlers. On the balcony, a woman in a light blue dress and white kerchief is hanging her laundry. She waves away any attempt to strike up conversation.

This is Jabel Mukaber, an Arab neighborhood of 25,000 Palestinians on the city’s southeastern outskirts. The area of the compound – privately built, but Israeli government-approved – has been renamed Nof Zion: "View of Zion."

Oddly, it’s the names of the main access roads into the settlement that have created a political stir – among Israelis.

Beneath the balcony the road sign reads dryly, "Road 8070: Temporary Name."

Last week, the Israeli-controlled municipality announced that "8070" will be permanently named in memory of one of the country’s most revered comic actors, Shaike Ofir.

His widow Lydia says she wasn’t made aware that the new settlement lies in the heart of an existing Palestinian quarter. She was conned into believing that the street named after her late husband is located in a nearby new Jewish neighborhood that Israel built after the start of the occupation in 1967 just beyond the old dividing line between eastern and western Jerusalem.

For Lydia, like for many Israelis, that would have been acceptable as part of the national consensus around the "United Jerusalem" they consider their capital city.

Now, Lydia is trying to retract her consent: "I’m sure Shaike would not have wanted a street in a settlement named after him," she declares. Their daughter, Karine, calls the decision "bizarre, ridiculous, and pathetic."

"Pathetic" is hardly the term Palestinians living under the shadow of the compound would use to qualify their new neighbors: "We’ve nothing against Jews, but they are crowding us out of here," says Muhammad Hamoudi Issa.

Muhammad, his wife, and their five children occupy one single room in the extended family house – a squat two-story concrete building just below the luxury estate – which they share with his elderly parents, his two brothers, and their families.

Four dunam (an acre) of family land was appropriated for the settlement, Muhammad says. Like many East Jerusalem Palestinians, the Issas were unable to provide ironclad title deeds for the land though it has been their family’s "for generations."

Ten years ago, he tried to build his own house in the yard, but failed to secure the necessary permit. Eventually, he was forced to tear it down. A slew of iron girders sticking out from the limestone hillside are all that remain.

This is the Israeli-Palestinian battle over Jerusalem writ small: a golden view encapsulating in miniature the unfolding diplomatic battle for the future of who will control this part of the city and where the Obama administration will choose to put its mark.

Apart from East Jerusalem’s Israeli neighborhoods, which the world regards as settlements with their combined population of 200,000 (more than a quarter of the city’s total), some 2,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the heart of Palestinian population centers.

Now the Israeli NGO Ir Amim, which monitors Israel’s occupation policies in the city, reveals that during the first half of 2009, plans to boost this number considerably have been advanced on the drawing boards and in city planning commissions.

Ir Amim says this will enable at least 750 additional settlers to set down roots in "strategic sites" in East Jerusalem at a critical diplomatic juncture. One of the projects slated for expansion is the "View of Zion" scheme in Jabel Mubaker.

To Washington’s stepped-up pressure for a total freeze of Israeli building projects in all the occupied Palestinian territories, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists it’s "nobody’s business" but Israel’s how many Jews live in Jerusalem and where.

His emphatic pledge comes up short in easing the concerns of the "View of Zion" residents. "Why is there so much provocation against us living here? This attention on our neighborhood will just jeopardize the next phase of the project," one man remonstrates angrily. "Clear out!" he adds menacingly.

Impassive in a car, marked "Security," a burly young man with a pistol in his holster refuses to be drawn to intervene. "There’s been no trouble here," says the security man, "and I don’t expect any from the Arabs." Clearly, though, the settlers feel sufficiently interlopers in their new surroundings. The security car is parked permanently at the entrance to the compound – "just in case."

The remote-controlled iron gate slides back and a small sedan pulls out. It’s the project’s real estate agent, Rinat Sylvester: "The four-five room apartments sell for between 400,000 and 600,000 dollars," she says. "I’ve only five flats left."

She launches out on her exclusive selling point – "the view," blithely dismissing concerns of friction with the Palestinian neighbors. "This should be seen as a good model of coexistence between Jews and Arabs."

Shaike Ofir, around whose memory the "View of Zion" controversy has erupted, had his own way of chiding a talk-to-yourself syndrome of coexistence.

In one of his sketches an English-language teacher in an Israeli high school, an Arab Israeli, tries to offer the wonders of Shakespeare to his reluctant class.

Using Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy, he dwells on the beauty of the monologue. "What is monologue, you ask, Hamid? Monologue is one person talking to himself. And, what is dialogue? Dialogue is two persons talking to themselves."

"There’s no talking between us now," says Muhammad Issa. "It was far better when they lived in their areas and left us to live in ours."

It doesn’t work on the play level, either. An array of colored slides and jungle gyms adorn a new playground at the edge of the settlement. Palestinian children are not allowed there.

Looking wistfully at the swings over the iron fence, a Palestinian woman says, "I wouldn’t mind, if only someone would put up some for our children as well. They have nowhere to play."

The services of "View of Zion" – neatly organized garbage collection, well-built roads, proper street lighting – contrast starkly with the dire neglect just 50 meters away and all around the rest of Jabel Mukaber.

"My goodness, I missed my bus," the woman breaks off.

A couple of years ago, missing a bus in East Jerusalem would have been a major problem.

Public transportation is now, however, in private Palestinian hands; the buses run frequently and reliably. It’s one of the rare dynamic changes in daily life for the quarter million Palestinians as they struggle against the odds to survive their limbo status in the occupied part of the city.

This is the first in a series of reports on the changing face of East Jerusalem after 42 years of Israeli occupation.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.