OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stunned the world by handing Gaza back to the Palestinians last year his critics feared this was the prelude to many more concessions.
But few believed he would ever budge on his view of Jerusalem as the “undivided capital” of Israel.
Sharon, in a symbolic move to mark his opposition to the Palestinians making East Jerusalem the capital of their promised state, acquired a house in the 1980s in the heart of the Old City’s Muslim quarter.
A white and blue Israeli flag fluttered defiantly atop that house on Saturday, as below a man bearing a heavy wooden cross led a procession of Christian pilgrims along the street of suffering walked by Jesus Christ on the way to his crucifixion.
“The Jews are buying houses here to try to make the city Jewish, to be able to tell the world that the majority here is Jewish, that the city is theirs,” said Samira Knani, a Palestinian photography student, as she stood outside a textile shop at the foot of Sharon’s house.
Israel captured from Jordan and then annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war but the international community still regards the area, home to nearly 200,000 Palestinians, as occupied territory.
Critics say the Israeli government and private Jewish groups are working together to buy up houses in East Jerusalem to consolidate their grip on the city.
“We’re fulfilling the old Zionist dream and strengthening the Jewish presence in Jerusalem,” said Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, one of the main private groups involved in moving Jews into Arab neighbourhoods.
When Sharon was housing minister in the 1980s he encouraged such Jewish house-buying in Arab neighbourhoods and latterly again supported the initiative, said Menachem Klein, the author of several books on Jerusalem, whose Arabic name is Al Quds.
“Buying up houses goes hand in hand with wall building,” Klein told AFP, adding that the prime minister has never lived in his house in the Old City.
Sharon, now fighting for his life after a massive stroke, is the mastermind of Israel’s construction of what it calls a separation barrier some 650 kilometres long which crisscrosses the West Bank and runs through parts of Jerusalem.
“The idea is to demolish East Jerusalem as a metropolitan centre for the West Bank. The wall cuts off East Jerusalem from its hinterland,” said Klein.
The Palestinians have condemned the wall as an attempt to grab their land and undermine the viability of their promised state.
They also fear that Israeli plans to develop yet more land on the outskirts of Jerusalem are the last step in careful projects to completely encircle Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish settlements.
Palestinian leaders have been as intransigent over Jerusalem as Sharon, indicating that they were ready to compromise on issues such as the right of return of refugees or Jewish settlements in the West Bank but not on their dreamed of capital city.
They may yet get it, said Dan Schueftan, a University of Haifa professor and leading proponent of Israel’s disengagement with the Palestinians.
Sharon may have bought his house in the Old City to make a point, but “political realities have changed now,” he said.
At some point, Sharon would likely have again acted unilaterally and handed at least part of the city over to the Palestinians, he said, and he would probably have built a wall through the Old City to separate Jews and Muslims.
“We’re not speaking here about peace. Israeli society is completely disillusioned with the idea of peace.” Israelis simply don’t want to live any more with a people they don’t like, said Klein.