An unsettled alliance

As Israel and the US move closer, there's outrage as settlers invade Arab homes


By Anshel Pfeffer and Ben Lynfield, November 5, 2009
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Palestinian women react as they  watch settlers move into a disputed house in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah

Palestinian women react as they watch settlers move into a disputed house in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will travel to Washington next week for a meeting with President Obama in a much friendlier atmosphere than their past two meetings.

The improvement in relations between the White House and Jerusalem came as the Obama Administration took more Israel-friendly positions on the issue of settlements and the Goldstone Report.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Israel over the weekend where, in a joint press conference with Mr Netanyahu, she said that the Israeli proposal of a gradual freeze on new building in the settlements was “unprecedented” and that in any case, the freeze should not be a pre-condition for renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This was in contrast to her first visit to the region in March, when Mrs Clinton criticised Israeli demolition of Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem and illegal settlements.

The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, on a visit to Jordan called settlements ‘illegal’ and an ‘obstacle to peace’ and criticised evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem, where settlers this week moved into a home still occupied by a Palestinian family.

Mrs Clinton’s line hardened on a subsequent visit to Morocco where she reiterated Washington’s standard position on the settlements being an “obstacle to peace.”

However Israeli diplomats were very satisfied with Mrs Clinton’s visit, especially as she was not deterred by a meeting with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in which he insisted on a total freeze on settlements before resuming negotiations.

“It seems as if the US administration is getting to grips with the fact that there are no easy breakthroughs in the process,” said an Israeli diplomat, “and now that they have had time to consider their moves, they understand that Israel is open to talking with the Palestinians but will not allow itself to be tied to any conditions in advance.”

President Obama has recorded a video message to Saturday’s memorial meeting for Yitzchak Rabin.

While the politicians were talking, the reality on the ground was harsher as settlers moved into a house in East Jerusalem on Tuesday, expanding their foothold in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood while intensifying the worries of Palestinian neighbours about possibly being forced to leave their homes.

Dozens of settlers accompanied by security guards broke down the door of a building housing the al-Kurd family. The settlers occupied what had been a vacant extension of the building while the Palestinian family of twelve remained in its main part. A fridge, cushions and furniture were visible outside the building. The al-Kurd family have ten days to appeal against the settler entry but their action is unlikely to succeed on past experience.

The house is just across the street from where settlers took up occupancy in August after the eviction of fifty three people from two houses.

“They are taking over the neighbourhood through force, forgery and every means of coercion,” said Fuad Ghawi, a neighbour whose tent protesting against his family’s eviction was removed by police last week.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor termed the settler entry a “non-event” with no political significance, adding that many Arab families have moved into Jewish neighbourhoods in the city.

A line of 15 Israeli para-military border police protected the settlers as angry Palestinians gathered in the street, despite torrential rain.

Mohammed Sabbagh, another neighbour, was distraught, saying the settler action brings closer the possible eviction of his family who have been living in their home since 1956. “How can you live with them?” he said. “They hate Arabs. Ordinary Jewish people we can live with, but not these.”

The settlers plan to take over 24 more houses in the wake of Israeli court rulings backing Jewish ownership claims from before Israel’s establishment in 1948 and disregarding Jordan’s granting of the land to Palestinian refugee families living there since 1956.

A settler takeover of Sheikh Jarrah would severely undermine the viability of East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state.

Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority governor for Jerusalem, said the action is part of a recent series of measures against Palestinians, including the demolition of five homes in one day last week. That was the single largest daily toll in years and prompted a liberal member of the city council, Meir Margalit to go into opposition.

David Adari, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, termed the settler action “important and very positive” adding that Jews have the right to live everywhere in Israel’s capital. But police late in the day ordered the evacuation of all of the settlers except two security guards who remained in the building.

Sarah Machlovitz, a campaigner against home demolitions said: “The idea that Jews can get back their property from the 19th century while Palestinians can’t get theirs from 1948 is assymetrical."

    Last updated: 4:42pm, November 5 2009