Bulldozers wreck Arab hopes in Jerusalem

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THE TWO yellow bulldozers took only 15 minutes to turn into rubble the newly built home of Mohammed Khader Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem.

"I did not have permission to build it because the Israelis won't give permits to Palestinians," says Mr Abu Khdeir, 52, an unemployed construction worker suffering from asthma, as he surveyed the ruins. "But I have seven children, so I sold my wife's gold jewellery and went ahead anyway."

Earlier Israeli soldiers had moved into Shuafat, a Palestinian district in north Jerusalem, to oversee the destruction of Mr Abu Khdeir's house. His cousin Omar had scuffled with a soldier and nursed a cut in his head from a rifle butt.

Mr Abu Khdeir's relatives, gathered around the ruins, said they were under threat because they too lived in illegalhouses. Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 a strict quota has been maintained on Palestinian construction in the city, to ensure the Arab proportion of the population does not exceed 26 per cent.

The three million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem were initially jubilant when Ehud Barak replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as the Israeli Prime Minister in May. Mr Barak is not yet officially in office, but already Palestinians are wondering how much difference he will make.

Mr Barak has already said he will not compromise over Israeli sovereignty of Jerusalem and will keep most Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. He is less sympathetic to the settlers than his predecessor, but he is also trying to form a coalition government out of the 15 parties in the Knesset. Many oppose territorial compromise, so Mr Barak's room for manoeuvre is limited. New settlement construction surged during Mr Netanyahu's three years in power. The number of Jewish settlers increased from 150,000 to 180,000. Hilltop after hilltop on the West Bank sprouted mobile homes and cranes.

Mr Barak says he will discontinue the settlement drive in the more sensitive areas such as around the Palestinian town of Nablus. He wants to move swiftly towards negotiations on final status, the most divisive issues between Israelis and Palestinians, which were left to the final stage of the Oslo accords of 1993. These include territorial borders, refugees, Jewish settlements, and, above all, Jerusalem.

The destruction of Mr Abu Khdeir's house and others like it is one small front in the battle for Jerusalem. Since 1967 Israel has established 10 large neighbourhoods with a population of about 200,000 in what previously was wholly Palestinian East Jerusalem. Only 12 per cent of permits were given to Palestinians.

Only 85,000 Palestinians now live in Jerusalem, out of 200,000 with the right of residence. The rest live in suburbs outside the city's municipal boundaries, reset by Israel in 1967.