Blocking Mideast Peace
Bingo Chief Threatens East Jerusalem Peace
by Phil Reeves
Originally published 11 March 2001
in The Independent

The Independent

Bingo Chief Threatens East Jerusalem Peace
A Florida millionaire's block of flats for Jewish settlers may start an intifada

They do not much like unannounced visitors at the block of flats which is being built for Jewish residents in Arab east Jerusalem by Irving Moskowitz, a bingo millionaire from Florida.

"What do you mean by coming in like that, as if it is your home," said the Israeli site supervisor, with one of those what's-this-muck- on-my-shoe expressions reserved in Britain for door-to-door double-glazing salesmen.

We were ordered back behind the 12ft steel fence that separates the fortress-like apartment block from the resentful Palestinian neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud, close to the Mount of Olives.

Out on the street, he was no more accommodating. How many rooms will the flats have, I asked. "Ask Moskowitz," he grunted. Who will live here? "Ask Moskowitz." How much will they cost? "Ask Moskowitz. Hey, what is this? You are like a lawyer, asking these questions?" And off he stomped.

The second Palestinian intifada started in Jerusalem just over 23 weeks ago, detonated by a visit to the holy sites of the Old City by Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, now Prime Minister. Since then there have been car bombs in Jewish west Jerusalem and shooting attacks close to the city's northern and southern edges. But its Arab section has been quiet, by comparison with the battle zones of Nablus, Hebron and Gaza. In the first intifada cars with Israeli plates that strayed into Palestinian areas were stoned and fire-bombed; so far, this has not happened on a large scale.

Yet the area is tense. Its 200,000 Palestinian residents, who pay Israeli taxes and benefit from social services, are better off than their West Bank and Gaza counterparts, but they are increasingly feeling the economic crisis caused by the unrest. The pressure is building; the Ras al-Amud housing project might just be the issue that prompts the forces behind the uprising to take the war into east Jerusalem.

The 132-flat complex is part of the long campaign by fanatically ultra-nationalist Jewish groups to change the demographics of Arab east Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in 1967 and later, in a move never recognized by the international community, annexed. Soon, the block will be ready to receive the first residents, ideologically driven settlers striving to secure Israel's control over all Jerusalem. The vanguard of three families moved into a house next door several years ago.

Their Palestinian neighbours are preparing for the worst. "We really feel in danger here," said Azzam Abu Saud, director of Jerusalem's Arab Chamber of Commerce, who lives next to the site. "Our friends are too frightened to come to visit us." But he stresses that he and his family will never leave.

Nor will Khalid Hamdallah, a 35-year-old lorry driver, who lives with his nine children in a one-storey house which now stands on an isthmus of land jutting into the site on which the complex is being built. Bulldozers have carved out the earth around part of his land, stranding his small olive grove on top of a 20ft cliff on one side. He says he was offered a large sum to leave. He, too, sees trouble on the horizon.

Will Ariel Sharon intervene, by stopping the new settlers from moving in? His past record is discouraging. He was at the centre of the affair that first alerted Jerusalem's Arabs to a campaign of acquiring Palestinian properties by ultra-nationalist Jews seeking to "redeem" the land. In October 1987, one such group announced that it had rented a house to Mr. Sharon, then Minister of Trade, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Mr. Sharon celebrated with an extravagant house-warming party, attended by 700 prominent Israelis, and by draping the walls with a huge Israeli flag. That sparked riots by the Palestinians, and the incident is considered by some to be one of the factors that stoked the first intifada.

Two-and-a-half years later, 150 settlers took possession of St John's Hospice in the Old City's Christian quarter which was bought from a Panamanian front company which had acquired it from its Armenian leaseholder. There were worldwide protests and denunciations from Christian leaders. But Mr. Sharon chose to pay the settlers a congratulatory visit.

Behind both incidents Mr. Sharon's house and the hospice take-over was Ateret Cohanim, an extremist settler group which receives much of its funding from Irving Moskowitz.

Israeli government officials are conducting a determined publicity offensive to persuade the outside world that Mr. Sharon has put his extremist past behind him and is a new, more pragmatic figure devoted to peace. However, he remains an ardent Zionist who sympathizes with the settlement movement.

True, he told parliament last week that there would be no new settlements. But he has also told the Americans that the expansion of existing settlements built on occupied land in contravention of international law can go on. Thus, more Arab land will be swallowed up and permanent peace will be even harder to achieve.

Israel's moderates are nervously trying to reassure themselves that the presence of the Labour Party in his coalition government should keep him in check. But Ehud Barak, the former Labour prime minister, was also a serial settlement builder, and he did nothing to stop the new Moskowitz block from becoming another land mine in an old battlefield.

Copyright 2001, The Independent. For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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