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News for Sociology of Religion--Sun Mar 2 05:10:44 EST 1997

  • A NEW STRUGGLE FOR JERUSALEM
    JERUSALEM—After announcing the decision to build a large new Jewish neighborhood in the barren hills of southeastern Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his lieutenants (New York Times) (*)



    A NEW STRUGGLE FOR JERUSALEM

    By SERGE SCHMEMANN<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service<

    JERUSALEM—After announcing the decision to build a large new Jewish neighborhood in the barren hills of southeastern Jerusalem,Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his lieutenantslaunched an intensive public-relations campaign to portray theaction as a response to the housing needs of all Jerusalemites,Jews and Arabs—and even as a symbol of ``peaceful coexistence andharmony'' in the Holy City.

    It might have played well abroad if everyone else hadn't beentalking of the area, Har Homa, in distinctly nonpeaceful terms.

    ``Construction of a Jewish neighborhood on Jabal Abu Ghunaymwill be a form of declaration of war on Israel's part,'' warnedFeisal Husseini, the chief Palestinian representative in Jerusalem,referring to the Arabic name for the site.

    ``On this subject, it is forbidden for us to show any sign ofweakness,'' declared Israeli Industry and Trade Minister NatanSharansky. Israeli Police Minister Avigdor Kahalani proclaimed,``The struggle for Jerusalem has begun.''

    To be fair, Netanyahu might have been using the notion ofpeaceful coexistence in the sense that Jerusalem's Biblical mastersmight have meant it when they encircled the ancient city withmassive ramparts—us peacefully inside, them peacefully outside.

    Because in the minds of the Israelis who demanded theneighborhood's construction, that was the real purpose: to completea ring of Jewish neighborhoods around East Jerusalem that wouldcement the city as the ``eternal and undivided'' capital of Israel.

    Har Homa, in a vacant stretch of hills between Bethlehem andJerusalem, is a major gap in the southern part of the ring. Oncecompleted, it will join with the adjacent neighborhoods of Gilo,East Talpiot and Givat Hamatos to create a buffer of 120,000 Jewishresidents in southeastern Jerusalem, foreclosing the chance of anylinkage between the nearby Arab towns and Arab neighborhoods inEast Jerusalem.

    The basic strategy is hardly new. Within three weeks ofconquering East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel greatly expandedJerusalem's boundaries. The man who shaped the city's developmentfor the next 27 years, Mayor Teddy Kollek, spoke of ``separatedevelopment and peaceful coexistence'' while he aggressivelyexpanded into Arab areas by building Jewish neighborhoods onexpropriated land.

    ``The supreme principle in the planning of Jerusalem is tosecure its unity,'' declared a master plan adopted under Kollek in1978.

    But if the strategy is familiar, the context is new. In thefirst decades after 1967, the Jewish expansion essentiallyconsolidated a military victory. But the peace declared in 1993established that further division of territory would occur onlythrough negotiation. Jerusalem, the toughest issue of all, was leftto the ``final status'' talks that are supposed to end by May 1999.

    Netanyahu's government insists that the 1993 agreements do notexplicitly restrict Israeli construction in areas under Israel'sjurisdiction. But there is little question that building the first2,500 of a planned 6,500 housing units in Har Homa violates thespirit of the agreement, creating ``facts on the ground'' inadvance of talks. Once built , there is virtually no chance theneighborhood will be offered as a bargaining chip.

    That is important, because a study on how Israeli Jews viewJerusalem, conducted jointly by the University of Maryland and theGutman Institute of Applied Social Studies in Jerusalem, found thatonly a small percentage of Israelis view the boundaries ofJerusalem as sacrosanct, and that 45 percent are prepared totransfer outlying areas of the city to Palestinian sovereignty.``But once a housing project is built and Jewish families move in,the overwhelming majority of Israelis regard it as an essentialpart of Jerusalem and outside the realm of negotiations,'' saidJerome M. Segal of the University of Maryland.

    It was this imperative that prompted a powerful group ofNetanyahu's conservative colleagues to lean on the prime ministerto prove his commitment to Jerusalem by building Har Homa, and tothreaten to bring down the Government if he failed.

    With new territorial concessions to the Palestinians looming,Netanyahu told Americans and Palestinians privately that he had to``fill his right-wing tank'' on Har Homa if he was to keep on thepeace route.

    The battle for Jerusalem has always been a battle that Israelhas waged alone, since even the United States has not recognizedthe city as Israel's capital, and most Western governments cling toan old notion of ``internationalizing'' Jerusalem and its holysites. The idea derives from the notion that the competition forJerusalem is rooted in the competing claims of three major faiths _Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    Indeed, it is the holy sites that have shaped Jerusalem and havebeen responsible for copious volumes of blood shed there over theages, most recently in violence last fall over the extension of anarchaeological tunnel along the Temple Mount.

    Yet the irony of the current struggle is that the religioussites may actually be the least contentious of the issues facingIsraelis and Palestinians. Since 1967, Israel has maintained astatus quo in which each major faith administers its holy siteswith a minimum of interference, and all Israeli governments havepledged to keep the balance intact in the future. The problem nowis that what the Jews call ``Yerushalaim'' and the Palestinianscall ``Al Quds'' has become a symbol of national struggle andpride.

    That promises a tough and bitter struggle, but at least itleaves the definition of Jerusalem a bit more flexible. If theIsraelis settle Har Homa and proclaim it part of Yerushalaim, thereis no reason why sometime in the future the Palestinians will notbe able to designate some outlying villages as Al Quds.

    That, indeed, is an idea Kollek proposed; moderate politicianson both the Israeli and Palestinian sides still talk about it as aformula that one day could bring peace.

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