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Threatening the Peace

Israel Should Not Build the Har Homa Housing Project

By Leila C. Kawar

Once again in the American media there is disturbing news from the Holy Land. To quote the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, "The specifics involve the construction of a new neighborhood for Israelis to be built in the southern part of Jerusalem aimed at creating an Israeli urban sprawl from Jerusalem to Bethlehem called Har Homa (in Hebrew meaning the Mountain of the Wall)." While more than half of the land on Har Homa is presently owned by Jews, there are several Palestinian villages which would need to be "re-located" in order for the construction of the homes to take place. The Palestinians will not live in these new homes, but the Israeli government suggests relocating the villagers elsewhere. The villagers do not wish to move, as a village leader explained to the BBC: "We just want to live on our land, we do not want to take anyone else's land." Palestinian land owners have refused the government's offer of monetary compensation for their expropriated land.

Both Palestinian and Israeli advocates had attempted to stop construction by taking the case to the Israeli High Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court, which, incidentally, does not have a single Palestinian member. As of Feb. 26, both the Court and the Israeli Cabinet had approved the Har Homa project. It is hard to blame the Palestinian villagers living on Har Homa for their frustration with a system that provides them few opportunities to act as their own advocates and little chance for their cause to prevail when they take their case to a court system controlled entirely by the Jewish State of Israel.

This particular project on Har Homa has attracted local and regional attention not because of its novelty or size, but because of its timing, which could be called uncooperative, at best. In Jerusalem in 1997, there is no need for another new exclusively Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The choice of location is particularly insensitive given that Israel could have built the same number of homes on an alternative sight without the displacement of Arab villagers.

Israel's government has taken a confrontational stand in stating that Jerusalem will always be an exclusively Israeli capital. The U.S.-brokered Oslo Peace Accords, which were signed by both the previous Labor government and the Israeli Parliament, state that the final status of Jerusalem will be left for the final round of negotiations, presently set for later this year. The building of a Jewish neighborhood in an area previously uninhabited by Jews is inconsistent with the spirit of the Oslo Accords. Given the Israeli Government's commitment to urban continuity, it is likely that the neighborhood will expand to connect with Gilo, another settlement neighborhood, thereby establishing a ring of Israeli neighborhoods on Jerusalem boundaries.

Jerusalem directly borders the West Bank, which is in the process of being turned over to the control of the Palestinian Authority. Yet, even before the transition is complete, Palestinians living in the West Bank are not presently allowed to cross Jerusalem's municipal boundaries without special papers. Palestinian businesses in East Jerusalem have lost the majority of their clientele, and business owners cannot join their families in the West Bank without losing their Jerusalem residency. Palestinians have tried diplomatically to prevent the Israeli Government's continued expropriation of Palestinian-owned land within the city, but since 1967 the government has expropriated five and a half times as much land from Palestinians as has been expropriated from Jewish land owners.

Palestinian and Jewish peace activists have organized a peaceful sitin at the sight of the Har Homa construction, but the Israeli Army, fearing the worst, has deployed troops to secure the area. Israel stands alone in this decision to go ahead with the Har Homa construction project. Both its Arab partners in peace, Egypt and Jordan, and the European Union have condemned the project. Five American secretaries of state from previous administrations have jointly written to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing their concern over his actions which threaten to destroy a fragile peace process.

The Clinton Administration needs to go beyond the mild disapproval which it has voiced to the Israeli government and show strong leadership in implementing a free and just peace. The Har Homa project could truly be a watershed if the reckless and dangerous zealotry of this settlement initiative were able to upset the peace process. This would mean that the Middle East might again become a region unsafe for Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, rather than a region filled with the potential for peaceful interactions among cultures.

Leila C. Kawar, a junior living in Winthrop House, is a Crimson editor.

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