Jerusalem anniversary starts a row

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Jerusalem - A 15-month festival celebrating 3,000 years of Jerusalem started yesterday amid allegations that it is a gambit by Israel to buttress its claim to the city as its undivided capital, writes Patrick Cockburn.

The celebrations opened in the Palestinian village of Silwan which is the site of the ancient City of David outside the city walls. Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, says the purpose of the festival is to celebrate Jerusalem as "the eternal, united capital of the sovereign state of Israel and of the Jewish nation". The EU states are boycotting the event because they say it does not adequately reflect "the ethnic diversity of the city".

Negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem are scheduled to begin in 1996 and there is growing tension in the city between Israelis and Palestinians. This has been exacerbated by the row over the confiscation of Palestinian land and the bombing of a bus in Jerusalem last month.

Jerusalem has been inhabited since the Early Bronze Age around 3,000 BC according to archaeologists. There are contradictory accounts in the Bible about how and when it fell to King David who took it from the Jebusites. Palestinians are concerned that the events will give impetus to Jewish settlement in Silwan where Jewish settlers from El-Ad took over 24 Palestinian houses in 1991.

"We have a leadership which sees clearly what happened 3,000 years ago but not what is happening now," says Danny Seidman, the legal adviser of Ir Shalem, an organisation which opposes the settlements. "We suffer in Jerusalem from an excess of history. What happened in Silwan symbolises what is poisonous in relations between Palestinians and Israelis in the city." There were less provocative sites which could have been chosen to open the festival.

Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, who planned the event seven years ago, says he wanted it to be cultural rather than political. He does not like the way the jubilee has turned out. Uzi Benzamin, a commentator in the daily Haaretz, says that it was naive to think that a festival which largely ignored the traditions of 2 billion Christians and Muslims could succeed in legitimising the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Mr Benzamin hopes residents are "showing indifference to the whole matter of the festivities." Jubilees in most countries are a pretext for promoting business and "Jerusalem 3,000" should be seen in the same light. He may underestimate the friction generated. Mayor Olmert is waging a campaign to close Orient House, the most important Palestinian institution in the city. In a recent poll 63 per cent Palestinian residents said they preferred war to continued Israeli occupation.