Jabel Mukhaber, West Bank, Aug 16 – Situated on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, the new Israeli housing development looks like it could be an upscale planned community in suburban North America: a billboard solicits buyers for “phase one” housing units; another shows the blueprint of the future community, complete with a daycare, a shopping center, a school, parks, a country club and, eventually, a hotel.
But Nof Zion, due to open in 2007, is not your average suburb. Built amid 10,000 Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem village Jabel Mukhaber, the 395 new housing units of Nof Zion will comprise a Jewish settlement in the heart of the area that every internationally recognized peace plan considers the future capital of a Palestinian state.
Backed by discriminatory housing laws and demographic-manipulation policies that favor new Jewish residents over Palestinians with centuries of direct heritage there, Nof Zion’s developers and future residents will be the beneficiaries of the Israeli push to lay permanent claim to as much of the West Bank as possible.
Unlike Palestinians, who have to prove that they primarily reside in Jerusalem in order to maintain the right to be there at all, a realtor selling Nof Zion units in the US said they are going mostly to Americans who do not yet live in Israel, including many who may never make Jerusalem their primary place of residence. Nof Zion’s first 30 sales have been primarily to Americans, according to Yaakov Simkovitz, who works for Anglo-Saxon realty, the agency in charge of securing buyers for the housing units.
Nof Zion is advertised as a “private neighborhood” with “the 24-hour peace of mind of a closed-gated-community.” In Simkovitz’s words, “Many of our buyers appreciate the added security that is offered by the closed-gated community.”
It is not clear to Palestinians in the area just how those closed gates will impact their own neighborhoods and lives. Once the settlement is built, the residents of Jabel Mukhaber will be caught between Nof Zion and the so-called “Jerusalem envelope” barrier â€“ an 8-meter-high concrete wall adorned with sniper towers. Villagers worry that if they are barred from using the access road, which they now share with the settlement, they will be effectively cut off from both Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
Asked how he will live if his village is cut off from Jerusalem, Palestinian landowner Osama Zahaikah replied, “The idea is not to live; the idea is for us to leave.”
Defending the project from the objections of area Palestinians, Simkovitz claimed that Nof Zion will help the residents of Jabel Mukhaber by adding public services such as sewage and water lines, lighting and enhanced road infrastructure. “If you ask the Palestinian residents of Jabel Mukhaber, privately, they will tell you they are very happy about the project,” he told The NewStandard.
“But which ‘public’? Which ‘services’?” Zahaikah asked rhetorically when told of Simkovitz’s remarks. “We are here. We have been for more than a hundred years. Where are the schools? Where are the water systems? Where are the roads and the lighting? Where are these public services they claim?”
Zahaikah pointed a finger out over the freshly bulldozed, terraced land where the foundations of Nof Zion are already in place. The extended Zahaikah family, owner of land upon which Nof Zion is being developed, has brought numerous claims and challenges to the Israeli courts. “But we have lost every case; every one of them,” Zahaikah said.
“This land was confiscated for ‘public services,’” Zahaikah noted, pointing to the 8.5 dunams taken from his brother, Saleh, who showed TNS a deed granting his family title to the land dating back to the days of Ottoman rule.
â€œA Foothold in Israelâ€
The Nof Zion brochure advertises most prominently, in bold type: “Have a foothold in Israel!”
A statement taken from the brochure, published by Anglo-Saxon and repeated verbatim during a tour of the development site, touts the settlement’s prominence. “It’s no accident that this site was chosen to be the official residence of the British High Commissioner,” reads the brochure, “since it dominates all of Jerusalem.”
The sound of heavy machines at work on the settlement is constant, despite challenges to the settlement before Israel’s High Court. The court is expected to decide the case on September 5, perhaps ending a long line of legal challenges to the development.
The legal conflict arises because despite being advertised as “about 30 acres” of “private, Jewish-owned land,” about half of those acres were confiscated from Palestinians by the Jerusalem Municipality under the auspices of “public services.”
Mohannad Jobarah, lawyer for the Jabel Mukhaber villagers, explained that the Jerusalem Municipality is confiscating the Palestinian land in order to provide “public services” for hundreds of Jewish settlers. “That is the key issue before Israel’s High Court,” he said.
Nof Zion’s nearly 400 units depend on public infrastructure to be built on lands confiscated from the people of Jabel Mukhaber. “If they don’t have the public services, they don’t have Nof Zion,” said Jobarah.
Aside from the domestic legal issues surrounding the settlement, according to Ran Cohen, a Member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Nof Zion stands “in total opposition to Israel’s obligations under the Road Map.”
Cohen, a member of the progressive Yachad Party, told TNS the settlement has “the potential to inflame not only Jerusalem but the wider Middle East” by undermining the possibility of a peaceful resolution with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
“Israelis will come to regret this development,” Cohen said. “It is nothing more than a provocation.”
Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, said Nof Zion is part of a broader policy of Palestinian disenfranchisement in East Jerusalem that has been ongoing since Israel occupied and then annexed the area in 1967. “It is a fairly systematic regime of discrimination against Palestinians in planning, zoning, building and the allocation of resources while at the same time providing generous support for the development of Jewish areas,” Michaeli said.
“Palestinian homes are demolished on a weekly basis in East Jerusalem on the grounds that they are built without a permit â€“ permits which are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain,” Michaeli added.
According to B’Tselem data, the Israeli government has demolished 151 Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem since 2004, leaving 535 Palestinians homeless.
Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), said Israel uses the settlements to break up the continuity of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem, which he says “was developing as the central Palestinian cultural and political entity, and was beginning to connect before 1967 with Ramallah and Bethlehem.”
As a result of the new settlements and the rash of demolitions, Halper said, “the whole center of the Palestinian state gets pushed eastward, and becomes more marginal, fragmented into… little islands and prevents the development of any Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. It isolates East Jerusalem from other areas of Palestinian society. You add to this equation the wall, and the isolation becomes more stark.”
Jerusalem Municipality planning and zoning policy dating from 1967 seeks to “preserve a demographic balance” in Municipal Jerusalem of 70:30 Jews to Arabs, according to documents obtained by The NewStandard.
Israeli officials have acknowledged the difficulties of maintaining an enhanced demographic ratio of Jews to Arabs. An updated planning document â€“ a summary of which was issued in Hebrew to local media on September 13, 2004 â€“ conceded the problem of keeping the target 70:30 ratio in light of the high birth rate among Palestinians. The document modifies the policy objectives in order to achieve a 60:40 ratio by the year 2020.
In 1995, the interior minister instituted an initiative of revoking Palestinian ID cards based upon a legal concept that literally translates as “center of life.” Now Palestinians who cannot prove to the Interior Ministry’s satisfaction that Jerusalem is their primary residence can have their residency cards revoked and therefore lose access to their workplaces, homes, bank accounts, places of worship, health care and municipal services.
In order to enforce this, the Ministry proactively investigates the homes of Palestinians, searching for proof that their Jerusalem residence is central to their existence.
“This includes searches ranging from inspecting the utility bills to searching for children’s clothes and school books,” explained Meir Margalit, who worked in the municipal government from 1976 to 2002, including four years as an elected member of the municipal council. He is now the field coordinator for ICAHD.
“Over a period of time this law underwent numerous changes,” added Margalit, “but the essential element was that [Palestinians] living outside the boundaries of Jerusalem for a period of time would lose their Jerusalem ID. At first it was a question of years, but quickly it has become a matter of months and even weeks.”
â€œConnecting the Dotsâ€
“Over there is Kidmat Zion,” said Osama Zahaikah, the landowner. Standing in the fresh bulldozer tracks of Nof Zion, Zahaikah pointed to a lone house on the opposite hill, just meters in front of the solid concrete wall that defines the eastern edge of what Israel considers Jerusalem. “That lone house is owned by a Jewish family,” said Zahaikah. “There is another just over the hill. It is the beginning of a future settlement.”
Zahaikah’s concern for the future of his village was palpable. “You see, this process; it is a cancer,” he said, standing with his brother Saleh overlooking the heavy construction equipment at work on the new settlement. “It will never stop. Soon,” predicted Osama, “[the Israeli settlers] will bargain with the [Palestinian] families in the area and the settlement will expand, ultimately connecting it here, with Nof Zion. This is what we are worried about â€“ the connection of each of these settlements. This is how it works.”
The strategy of building settlements and then connecting them into larger blocs in order to isolate and eventually drive out Palestinian neighborhoods has been readily admitted by the Israeli settler movement. In an interview in late 2003 with the Christian Science Monitor, as the bulldozers began work on Nof Zion, right-wing Moledet Party chairman Uri Bank, a leader of the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem, articulated the goal of the settlement creep.
“We break up Arab continuity and their claim to East Jerusalem by putting in isolated islands of Jewish presence in areas of Arab population,” Bank said. “Then we definitely try to put these together to form our own continuity. It is like Legos: you put the pieces out there and connect the dots. That is Zionism. That is the way the State of Israel was built. Our eventual goal is Jewish continuity in all of Jerusalem.”
But this blueprint does not apply only to Jerusalem, Bank explained. “Everything that goes on in East Jerusalem is a microcosm of what goes on in Judea [and] Samaria,” he said, referring to the West Bank with the term preferred by Israelis who consider the territory to be part of Greater Israel.
Bank’s party was founded in 1988 by far-right minister Rehavam Ze’evi, whose assassination in 2002 was claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Moledet is a “single-issue” party, their platform calling for the “transfer” of Palestinians across the Jordan River.
Simkovitz, the Anglo-Saxon realtor, gave traction to the practical nature of this idea, while steering clear of the politics of the situation.
“We are keen to point out that Nof Zion is not an island,” said Simkovitz. “It is rather an extension of the neighborhood of Talpiot,” he said, pointing to the Israeli settlement over the western hill, behind the village of Jabel Mukhaber, in the opposite direction from Kidmat Zion.
Still, Simkovitz was explicit in distancing himself from the controversial elements of the project. “Our forte is real estate, not politics,” he said.
“Most Israelis don’t see Jewish areas in East Jerusalem as settlements,” points out Michaeli of B’Tselem. “They call them ‘neighborhoods.’ In terms of international law, however, there is no difference between settlements in East Jerusalem and ones in the West Bank.”