16 Oct

A House-by-House Struggle for Control of a Jerusalem Neighborhood



A House-by-House Struggle for Control of a Jerusalem Neighborhood


Mahmoud Karain, right, argued with a police officer after Jewish settlers moved into a home that he said was owned by a relative. Credit Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — In the dark of night, under the protection of Israeli security forces, Jewish settlers took possession of some 25 housing units in six locations around the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem late last month, sending out shock waves that were felt in Washington and still reverberate in the neighborhood. Many of the properties had been rented out, but they were strangely empty when the settlers arrived.

The first Mahmoud Karain knew about it was at 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 30, when he awoke to noises in the courtyard of his Palestinian family’s compound in Silwan. When he went outside to investigate, he found people passing boxes over the wall and strangers moving into a small dwelling opposite the main house.

Soon the newcomers could be heard welding metal sheets behind the door and the windows and knocking down walls to adjoin the small apartment to an adjacent, larger house that Mr. Karain said belonged to his uncle. Neighbors and a local political activist said it had been sold to another nephew who had gone to live in northern Israel. The house was rented out about 10 months ago to a Palestinian man from a different East Jerusalem neighborhood. The Karains said the tenant had vanished, though he had paid a year’s rent in advance.

That day Elad, a nongovernmental settler association dedicated to preventing any future division of Jerusalem, said it had helped Kendall Finance, which describes itself as a privately owned real estate investment company, buy the homes. Through a multimillion-dollar series of complex and shadowy transactions spanning several years, Elad engineered the largest private settlement initiative in decades.

The operation was condemned by the White House as “provocative,” but defended by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced the notion that Jews should be barred from living wherever they wanted in Jerusalem and asserted that their presence promoted coexistence. Other supporters of the settlers noted that a community of Jews had lived in Silwan before the area came under Jordanian control in 1948.

But here in the steep alleys of the Wadi Hilweh and Baidoun quarters of Silwan, the episode has created a more intimate web of intrigue and recrimination, as the Palestinian residents harbor suspicions and trade rumors about who among their relatives or neighbors may have cooperated with the Arab brokers who transferred the properties into the settlers’ hands.

“I believe it was sold by members of the family,” said Khaled Siyam, a neighbor of the Karains, sitting out on the sidewalk across the road. “Why did they not come to take my house? I live here, I was born here and I will die before selling it.”

Sitting in the shade of a grapevine in the yard, several members of the Karain family speculated that the tenant could have sold the property with forged documents. They did not discount the possibility that relatives were involved but refused to point fingers, saying they still did not know what had happened.

At a stormy meeting of about 100 residents and activists in a children’s playground soon afterward, participants denounced the brokers and called for them to be publicly named and cast out of their clans. The Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction in Jerusalem, but there is a history of vigilante justice: In the 1990s, some local land dealers accused of selling property to Jews were kidnapped and killed.

Silwan, the politically delicate neighborhood where about 500 Jews live among some 50,000 Palestinians, is crowded on the slopes just south of the Old City walls, in territory that Israel conquered from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed, in a move that was never internationally recognized. Most of the world considers the area illegally occupied by Israel, and the Palestinians covet it as part of the capital of a future state.

Unfolding in the shadow of the steely-domed Al Aksa Mosque, revered by Muslims, and at the site of the ruins of what is believed to be the City of David, an ancient Jewish landmark also run by Elad and now a major tourist destination, the national and religious contest for control of the area is taking place house by house.

In another narrow alley of Wadi Hilweh, the settlers moved into three apartments in the Hayyat family compound. In the nearby Baidoun quarter, they took possession of a building that had been renovated in the last few months.

Neighbors said a local man had sold the property about 18 months ago to a Palestinian from the West Bank. The new owner built a second story and, they said, installed a metal gate just hours before the settlers arrived with the keys. On a recent weekday, half a dozen Israeli police officers and private security guards were milling about on the porch of the building while work was going on inside.

“He claimed he was building the upper floor for one of his two wives,” Muhammad Shehadeh, 23, a next-door neighbor, said of the previous owner, who also seemed to have disappeared. “It was all lies.”

“We went looking for him in 12 cars,” Mr. Shehadeh said. But nobody had heard of the man in the West Bank village he said he was from.

Another family sold nearby property to a broker and left for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, about a month ago, according to the neighbors. A third building in Baidoun had recently changed hands between two local families. There is a rumor that one of them might have sold the property to the other family and to the settlers, profiting twice.

“Settlers’ buying houses seems legitimate,” said Jawad Siyam, a neighborhood activist and director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, “but it’s not. East Jerusalem is recognized internationally as occupied territory. We are not living in Tel Aviv, in a normal situation to decide whether to sell or not.”

Doron Spielman, vice president of Elad, a Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David,” said the Jewish presence in the area also benefited the Palestinians. He added that contrary to the public perception, “we have a good community together.”

An Israeli settler and father of six who has lived in Baidoun for 10 years expressed similar sentiments. But he had a pistol tucked into the back of his pants, his apartment building had a guard post on the roof and as he spoke, a settler car drove past with wire mesh over the windows as protection against stones and firebombs.

Avi Segal, a Jerusalem-based lawyer representing Kendall Finance, said the properties had been bought “with the intention of their being rented out for residential purposes.” He added that all the purchases had been made “in full accordance with the law,” but refused to reveal any details about the identities of the people behind the purchases or the amounts of money involved, citing the privacy of the clients.

Muhammad Dahleh, an East Jerusalem-based lawyer representing several of the Silwan families, now has the job of trying to trace and unravel the chain of secretive transactions.

“Each building is a different story,” Mr. Dahleh said. “Some deny that they sold at all.”

Other times, he said, the person who had possession and sold a property may not have been the rightful owner or the sole owner, or may have been subject to a “first right of refusal” clause in a family contract, meaning that a property had to be offered for sale to family members first. The Karains had made such a pact. The nephew who many suspect of having sold the family property has denied doing so, Mr. Dahleh said, and has filed a case against Elad and Kendall.

“Often,” Mr. Dahleh said, “these deals include flaws, illegalities or violations of agreements that allow family members to take legal action against their relatives and the settlers.”


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