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50 years after war, settlements blur future borders

Posted April 13

— For many Israelis, Har Homa is another neighborhood in Jerusalem, served by city bus lines and schools. Its quiet streets are lined with apartment buildings, pizza shops, supermarkets and pharmacies.

But for Palestinians and much of the world, this unassuming neighborhood is far more. It is an illegal settlement in east Jerusalem, and in some ways, the most damaging.

Har Homa lies on one of the last spaces of land linking the Palestinian areas of the West Bank to their hoped-for capital in east Jerusalem. If city planners have their way, Har Homa will soon become one of Jerusalem's largest Jewish neighborhoods, expanding a presence that many believe has already dealt a devastating blow to the Palestinian dream of independence.

"It's a feeling of helplessness," said Aziz Abu Teir, the mukhtar, or community leader, of Umm Tuba, a neighboring Palestinian village, as he stared from his balcony at the sprawling rows of apartment buildings across a ravine. "You can do nothing."

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This is the first of several stories marking the 50 years since Israel took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967.

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Fifty years after Israel captured east Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinians remain as divided as ever over the future of the sensitive area, home to major shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. If anything, these conflicting claims are heating up as President Donald Trump has taken office and held talks with Israel about what settlement construction he is willing to tolerate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under American pressure to curb some settlement construction in the West Bank, says east Jerusalem will not be included in any understanding with the U.S. In fact, he has vowed to step up settlement activity in east Jerusalem neighborhoods like Har Homa.

"This is our homeland," said Herzl Yechezkel, one of the founding fathers of Har Homa. "And we have to build it up."

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Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim both areas, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future independent state — a position that has wide international backing.

Over the past half century, Israel has built more than 130 settlements throughout the West Bank and more than half a dozen Jewish housing developments ringing east Jerusalem, in moves that many believe are meant to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. These settlements today are home to over 600,000 Israelis, roughly one-third of them in east Jerusalem.

While Israel has never staked a formal claim to the West Bank, it says east Jerusalem, home to the city's most important religious sites, is not up for negotiations. It annexed the area, along with neighboring parts of the West Bank, after the 1967 war, and says the entire expanded city is its eternal capital.

In contrast to West Bank Palestinians, those in Jerusalem have Israeli-issued residency documents and can even apply for citizenship. Israel believes that granting these rights bolsters its claim that its Jewish neighborhoods are not settlements.

The Palestinians and international community, however, reject Israel's annexation and say that all land beyond Israel's 1967 boundaries is occupied, and all Israeli communities are illegal settlements. Israel's construction in east Jerusalem has complicated any partition of the city, leaving two unsavory alternatives: no border between Israel and Palestine in a shared future capital, or a border that snakes for great distances around a hodgepodge of Jewish and Arab enclaves.

For the Palestinians, the presence of Har Homa, also known as Homat Shmuel, is especially painful.

Netanyahu, during his first term in office, broke ground on the project in 1997, just four years after a landmark interim peace accord with the Palestinians reached by his more moderate predecessor. He defended the move by citing Israel's claims as the sovereign power and the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem. But the project was seen as a sign of bad faith, and led to violent protests and a halt in peace negotiations at the time.

"It was done, on purpose, to prevent a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem," said Menachem Klein, a former Israeli peace negotiator and expert on Jerusalem.

When Israel finally began settling Har Homa in 2002, Yechezkel, a lawyer and community activist, was among the first to move in, ignoring international controversy and a violent Palestinian uprising. Israel has since transformed the once-barren hills of the area into a bustling community of 25,000 people where, like in most east Jerusalem neighborhoods, few people would consider themselves settlers.

Standing proudly on his spacious balcony, Yechezkel pointed across a valley to biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, neighboring villages and a Christian monastery. If all goes according to plan, he said, that empty valley will soon be covered with hundreds of homes for more Har Homa residents. The goal: to hit some 40,000 residents.

"It's a big victory for settling Jerusalem and strengthening Jerusalem. Despite all the screaming and all the demonstrations and all the threats," he said, "at the end of the day, the neighborhood is a big success."

Abu Teir, the mukhtar of Umm Tuba, lives in one of those neighboring Palestinian communities across the ravine. For him, Har Homa's massive presence is a painful sight.

The Palestinians lost more than 150 acres of land to Har Homa. Abu Teir, a 55-year-old British-educated civil engineer, said his village's lands were passed down from generation to generation, and ownership is difficult to document, making it impossible to stop development.

"You feel gutted, and sorrow overwhelms you when you see something like that," he said, as he pointed at apartment buildings he claimed were built on his family's land.

"The land that used to belong to my forefathers suddenly became a settlement specifically for Jewish people. It's not a fair thing," he said. "When did the Israeli government build a housing development for the Arabs?"

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After 50 years of Israeli settlement construction, Trump could play a decisive role in determining the future of Jerusalem and any Palestinian state.

Former president Barack Obama took a tough line against the settlements, and just weeks before Trump took office, the U.S. allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that declared settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal. At the time, Trump condemned the decision.

Throughout his campaign, Trump vowed to take a more sympathetic approach toward Israel and the settlements. His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and he vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The family foundation of his son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, has made donations to settlement causes, and Trump himself donated money to a settlement in the early 2000s, according to U.S. records.

But since taking office, Trump appears to have backtracked. He has said the move of the embassy, which is strongly opposed by the Palestinians, now needs further study. And at a White House meeting with Netanyahu in February, he called for restraint on settlement construction.

Netanyahu, whose governing coalition is dominated by pro-settler hard-line nationalists, recently agreed to limit construction in the West Bank to built-up areas of existing settlements. But the decision did not include east Jerusalem, and earlier, he was quoted by the Haaretz daily saying Jerusalem "does not even enter the equation" in talks with the White House.

Netanyahu often says that settlements are irrelevant to the conflict, claiming that Arab animosity toward a Jewish presence in the Holy Land goes back long before the settlements arrived.

The Palestinians strongly disagree.

"The ones who decided to build these settlements have one thing in mind: ending any possibility for having a Palestinian state in the future," said Samih al-Abed, a former Palestinian border negotiator.

Although the dispute over east Jerusalem is often reduced to tensions surrounding sensitive Jewish and Muslim holy sites in the Old City, the entire area has deep significance for both sides.

For Israelis like Yechezkel, Jerusalem has been the focus of Jewish prayers for thousands of years. Beyond the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, and the adjacent Western Wall, every corner of the city seems to be connected to an ancient biblical tale. East Jerusalem also serves as an important bridge to the West Bank, known to religious Jews by its biblical name Judea and Samaria.

Yechezkel, like many members of Israel's nationalist right wing, considers east Jerusalem and the West Bank to be one and the same, all part of the biblical Land of Israel promised to the Jews by God.

"I don't differentiate between Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem," he said.

For Palestinians, east Jerusalem is equally important and emotional. They revere the area not only as home to the Al Aqsa Mosque and gold-topped Dome of the Rock, but also see it as a bustling commercial and cultural center. For them, Israel's attempts to separate it from the West Bank, the heartland of any future Palestine, is like robbing the body of a vital organ.

Khalil Tufagji, a Palestinian cartographer and former peace negotiator, believes Har Homa has grown too big to ever evacuate, even if a peace deal is reached.

"When they make facts and reality on the ground, it means that we can't change reality on the ground," he said.

Danny Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem who is critical of the settlements, called Har Homa "detrimental" but not necessarily a deal breaker. He said the "doomsday" settlement is the neighboring area of Givat Hamatos — an open area that Israel has made preparations to develop.

"Givat Hamatos would for the first time since 1967 seal a Palestinian area completely, surrounded by Israeli construction," he said.

Yechezkel insists Har Homa has no problems with its Arab neighbors. Its biggest problem, he said, is that the schools and public infrastructure have not been able to keep up with the rapid growth.

Yechezkel, who works as an adviser to Ayelet Shaked, the country's pro-settler justice minister, dreams of expanding Jerusalem's eastern outskirts to nearby Jewish settlements 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the east and putting the idea of Palestinian independence to rest once and for all.

"I think we are only at the beginning of the road," he said. "Our answer to all the critics is construction. We need to build."

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Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed reporting.

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