Palestinians riot as Israeli settlers gain new foothold

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The Independent Online

Armed Israeli settlers moved into this populous and largely rundown Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem yesterday as they opened a new front in their co-ordinated - and bitterly contested - effort to establish Jewish footholds in Arab districts of the city.

Armed Israeli settlers moved into this populous and largely rundown Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem yesterday as they opened a new front in their co-ordinated - and bitterly contested - effort to establish Jewish footholds in Arab districts of the city.

Police fired tear gas at stone-throwing residents and arrested nine Palestinians after clashes when the settlers arrived in the early hours with police and security guards to occupy two buildings - one a seven-storey apartment block - previously owned by Arabs below the walls of the Old City. As local Palestinians said that some residents had been beaten, a police spokesman, Shmulik Ben-Ruby, said that six police officers had been hurt.

Awad Rajabi, 55, said that he had been sleeping in his home next door to one of the occupied apartments, which he had been renovating for his son's family after what he thought had been a straightforward purchase of it for 35,000 Jordanian dinars (£26,500) eight months ago.

"I hear a noise and went downstairs. There were about 20 or 30 settlers with border police, a police car and jeeps. He said that they had shouted before breaking into the apartment: "'This is our house.' I said: 'No this is my house.'" He added: "This is the first step, they want to dismiss us from the area altogether."

Witnesses said that the Jewish activists had carried boxes, chairs, tables and potted plants into buildings, which they had purchased from a local Arab developer, and that a van packed with sofas and couches arrived. Others had hauled a water tank on to the roof of one of the buildings and installed a generator.

Mr Rajabi's daughter, Najat, 15, was behind their home at 7am, about to cross to another part of the extended Rajabi family compound - which houses about 120 of his relatives in 20 separate apartments - when she heard voices from the window of the home now occupied by the settlers' group and saw part of a gun barrel.

"They said: 'We killed Sheikh Yassin and we will kill you,'" she claimed. The operation was the first of its kind conducted by the Committee for the Renewal of the Yemenite Village in Shiloah - Hebrew for Silwan - to "reclaim" land which is in sight of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Jewish Temple Mount and once belonged to a community of Yemeni Jews which was first established in the 1880s but was finally forced to leave during Arab riots in 1938. But the group is closely associated with Ateret Cohanim, an umbrella settler group of the hard-line national religious right, and follows similar settler operations in neighbouring districts.

A similar group of armed activists broke into and took over the home of a sleeping Palestinian family in nearby King David's City last month.

As armed police patrolled the district, Daniel Lourie, a spokesman for the settlers' committee, insisted that 66 years after the last Yemeni Jews had left "we have returned Jewish families to the area with the idea of living side-by-side with the Arabs".

Asserting the right of Jews to settle anywhere in their biblical "homeland", he said the settlers - who do not accept the idea of a separate Palestinian state - regarded the Yemeni district as a "microcosm of the whole of Israel".

However, Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who is a prominent opponent of the settler operations in the city, said the settlers had the goal of turning Jerusalem in to a "predominantly, if not exclusive, Jewish city".

He said: "They are not numerically significant, but in its effect on the stability of Jerusalem, this is so contrary to the interests of the Israeli state that it is tantamount to pyromania."

The settlers say that as in other such cases their purchase of the buildings were perfectly legal, though declined to name the Arab vendors because of the risks of reprisals against them and their families for collaborating with Jewish settler families. While not disputing that the properties had been legally purchased by the settlers, the Rajabi family said it believes it was tricked by Muhammad Maraghi, a member of a prominent local family, who they named as the previous owner of both buildings, into handing over Mr Rajabi's savings for the same home.

Mr Maraghi's wife, Fatima - who had been occupying - and was herself evicted from, early yesterday, the top two floors of the otherwise empty apartment block, said that her husband had been in the United States since Saturday and she did not know how to contact him.

Mr Rajabi said: "I am destroyed by this. I borrowed the money to pay him and I have used up all my savings."

She and other members of the Maraghi clan have placed a proclamation disassociating themselves from her husband, believed to be a nephew of Abu Musa, a prominent Fatah leader who rebelled against Yasser Arafat in the early 1980s, and describing him as an "outcast".

The proclamation added: "We strongly denounce his action and we are loyal to the blood of the martyrs."

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