Jerusalem hotel demolished for Israeli apartmentsJERUSALEM — Israeli bulldozers demolished a vacant hotel in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem on Sunday, clearing the way for a new Jewish housing development that has drawn heavy Palestinian and American condemnations.
By: By Josef Federman, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
JERUSALEM — Israeli bulldozers demolished a vacant hotel in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem on Sunday, clearing the way for a new Jewish housing development that has drawn heavy Palestinian and American condemnations.
The planned construction, combined with a flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence, appeared to bode poorly for a new U.S. attempt to restart peace talks later this week. The Palestinians accused Israel of “playing with fire” and undermining peace efforts.
The dispute over east Jerusalem is the most explosive issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace making. The conflicting claims to the area, captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians as their future capital, have periodically spilled over into violence.
Early Sunday, construction crews knocked down the historic Shepherd Hotel, built in the 1930s as the residence of the mufti of Jerusalem at the time, Haj Amin Husseini.
British rulers subsequently exiled Husseini, and the property fell under the control of Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem after 1948, and then to Israel in 1967. Nearly two decades later, the Israeli government sold the building to Jewish American businessman Irving Moskowitz, a longtime patron of Jewish settlers.
In 2009, after years of bureaucratic stalling, Jerusalem's hardline mayor, Nir Barkat, issued permits to turn the site into a development of 20 apartments for Israelis. The decision came over the objections of Washington, which summoned Israel's ambassador at the time to urge Israel to halt the plan.
Descendants of Husseini still claim to own the site, and on Sunday afternoon family lawyer Maher Hanna said he got a restraining order to stop construction until a hearing Monday morning.
“They have no right to anything here,” said Inas al-Ghawi, a 38-year-old Palestinian who watched Sunday's demolition. “This is Palestinian land, but they are thieves, they steal everything.”
Moskowitz has a long history of promoting Jewish housing developments in the heart of Arab neighborhoods. While his projects are legal under Israeli law, they are often seen as provocations that disrupt the city's fragile ethnic fabric.
“This project has nothing to do with protesting or provoking, or to do anything except provide more apartments for Jews to stay and to live in Jerusalem,” said Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem City Council member and one of the project's backers. He said an additional 50 apartments were in the works.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev and the U.S. Consulate refused to comment.
The latest round of peace talks was launched in late September at the White House. But negotiations broke down just three weeks later over Israeli settlement construction.
The Palestinians say they will not renew talks without a freeze on construction in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem as part of its capital after the 1967 war. It says it has the right to build wherever it likes, even though the annexation is not internationally recognized.
Since capturing east Jerusalem, Israel has built large Jewish neighborhoods that are now home to 200,000 people, more than a quarter of the city's population.
In addition, several thousand nationalistic settlers have moved into the heart of Arab neighborhoods, living under heavy guard and fueling tensions in those areas. The Shepherd Hotel is in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood that is a frequent site of protests against Israeli policies in Jerusalem.
Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators are expected to fly to Washington this week for talks. But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said any meetings would be with American representatives only.
Erekat said Sunday's demolition, combined with a recent increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence, amounted to an escalation that threatened peace efforts.
“It's very dangerous,” he said. “They're playing with fire.”
After months of relative calm, Israelis killed four Palestinians over the past week in a series of separate incidents in the West Bank, which is governed by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
In addition, last week, Israeli forces killed two unidentified Palestinian men in a no-go zone in the Gaza Strip, and there was a rise in Palestinian mortar fire across the border.
Over the weekend, three Thai agricultural workers were wounded by mortar fire, and an Israeli soldier was killed by friendly fire during a clash with militants.
The Islamic militant Hamas movement, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, said Sunday it does not want escalation. The group has been quietly urging other armed factions to halt their attacks.
Israel launched a fierce military offensive in Gaza two years ago, and Hamas, which suffered heavy losses, has largely maintained calm in the area since then.
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari contributed to this report from Jerusalem.