Thu December 2, 2010
Middle East

Mideast Conflict Plays Out In A House Divided

On the surface, Jerusalem's Old City seems like the ideal melting pot of cultures and religions.

Muslims, Christians and Jews live in this ancient walled enclave of less than half of a square mile. It is a place that seems so removed from the modern world that surrounds it, and yet is so intrinsically a part of it.

But an undercover war is being waged here: The Old City is the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everyone wants a piece of it.

'Revival Of Jewish Life'

Daniel Luria is executive director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that he says is devoted to the "revival of Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem."

He explains that Ateret Cohanim connects wealthy, ideologically driven Jewish investors to available properties in the Old City. He calls his group a kind of "holy real estate agency."

"Individuals from around the world buy the buildings, and [the properties are] in their names. Families are put in, rabbinical families, yeshiva students, and today you have nearly 1,000 Jews, mainly yeshiva students, living in the old Jewish Quarter," he says.

What Luria calls the old Jewish Quarter is what much of the rest of the world knows as the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. He says Jews were the majority in the Old City until the late 19th century.

He doesn't dispute that Arabs can live in the Old City, but he says they must accept that the area falls under Israeli sovereignty.

"Land for peace doesn't work. God gave this land to the Jewish people. The land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Anyone who wants to live in the Jewish state, great. But if not, bad luck. There is no shortage of other Arab countries. There is a Jewish state for Jewish people, full stop," Luria says.

One Building At A Time

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and the Old City after it captured the territory in the 1967 war with Arab countries. Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of their future state. Israel wants the city to be the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

Of the some 33,000 residents of the Old City, only 4,000 are Jewish, according to Ateret Cohanim. Of those Jews, only 1,000 live in the Muslim and Christian quarters.

So, Luria says his aim is simple: restore a Jewish majority to the Old City, one deal at a time. He wants Jews once again living near the most sacred site for Jews -- the Temple Mount.

"Apartment after apartment, building after building. Today there are close to 50 buildings in the Old City [that we've helped purchase for Jews]," he says.

The buildings vary in size and style. One building where former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon took up residence in the 1980s has "seven Jewish families and two Arab families living in a closed secure courtyard," he says.

These "closed secure" buildings are compliments of the Israeli government, which pays private security contractors to protect the Jewish residents in the Old City and other predominantly Arab areas of east Jerusalem.

The guards sometimes live in the buildings occupied by Jewish residents and escort Jewish children to and from their schools.

According to government records in 2009, some $15 million was spent on private security guards for the Jewish residents of east Jerusalem.

A House Divided

In early November, two Jewish families moved into what had been a Palestinian-occupied house near Herod's Gate in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Only one Palestinian family remains in the old Arab house, a spacious two-story building centered around a courtyard. Palestinian resident Mazen Kamal Qiresh says his family has been renting there since 1936.

In 1987, the Palestinian family that owned the building sold it to its current Jewish owners. That's when the trouble began.

"They requested that we evacuate the house. We immediately took them to court," he says.

On a recent visit, Luria knocks on the nondescript metal door, and a security guard opens it.

"Jewish concerns bought it 23 years ago, but because they [the Palestinians] were protected tenants all these years, it took many years before obviously the people who were living here preferred to obviously take money rather than keep on going," Luria says.

The Jewish families that now live here are not the owners. Luria's organization decides who will reside in the purchased buildings.

In this case, two rabbinical families have moved in. They are not allowed to speak to the media without Luria's permission, and he declined to make them available to NPR.

It's clear, though, that there is an uneasy coexistence.

Blue metal police barricades divide the old stone courtyard. Israeli flags paper the side of the building that is inhabited by Jewish families. On the other side of the building, where the Palestinian family lives, Palestinian flags wave in the air.

The Palestinian Qiresh family won its court appeal to remain as "protected tenants" -- meaning they pay a controlled rent and cannot be evicted without legal cause.

But it was only a stay of execution.

Qiresh says he was offered millions of dollars to move out. He refused. Then over the summer his brother's family was evicted from their portion of the building.

"On the 28th of July we were shocked to see them at our door. It was 2 in the morning. They had a lot of settlers, they had a lot of soldiers standing at our doorstep," he recounts.

The settler families eventually moved into his brother's wing, and the building was effectively divided.

Legal battles continue in an attempt to get Qiresh evicted.

'Living In A Prison'

Qiresh says life has become difficult for himself and his wife and children. Jewish guards are the gatekeepers. Friends and family, he says, are too intimidated to visit him.

"I feel like I'm living in a prison here," he says.

The Jewish families pray loudly; sometimes Qiresh complains. And so Qiresh sometimes blares Quranic verses on his radio.

The situation is bearable for now, he says.

Ateret Cohanim, to whom Qiresh pays his rent, might put in a yeshiva with its many students in part of the building.

If that happens, Qiresh says it will be "like killing me. It will be an impossible situation."

But Qiresh isn't actually fighting alone.

Just as wealthy backers are helping to support the Ateret Cohanim organization, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah pays Qiresh's lawyers fees.

This building is a small piece in a much larger battle, and it's drawn in the powers that swirl around this conflict. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.