Israel: Jerusalem for the Jews - one rich American's big idea The Miami bingo king happily gambling with the peace

He may be just a 68-year-old retired physician and bingo parlour owner but Dr Irving Moskowitz this week plunged relations between Palestinians and Israel into crisis. The American multi-millionaire's financing of the takeover of two houses in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Ras al- Amoud in Jerusalem provided a glimpse of a sinister agenda. Patrick Cockburn in Israel reports

Patrick Cockburn
Thursday 18 September 1997 23:02 BST

He is described by his many enemies as Israel's most dangerous pyromaniac. "He is a man who lives far away with a big box of matches, facing a huge keg of gunpowder, which is Jerusalem," says Ornan Yekutieli, a member of the city council. One opposition leader is demanding that security police prevent Dr Moskowitz returning to his home in Miami Beach, Florida, so he can see the explosive consequences of what he has wrought in Jerusalem.

But for the Jewish settlers and their supporters in Ras al-Amoud, Dr Moskowitz is a hero. This week, wearing a black skullcap, he nailed the mezuzah, the box containing a prayer, to the doorpost of the newly-acquired villa in Ras al-Amoud, as is traditional in Jewish households. Yesterday, he was close to a "compromise" agreement giving him much of what he wanted, with Avigdor Kahalani, the Public Security Minister, whose political party he bankrolled in the last election.

For the first time Dr Moskowitz, long influential in Israel, has stepped out of the shadows, meeting with emissaries from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, looking for a way out of the crisis. Not surprisingly many Israelis asked why a retired doctor from Florida, using the immense profits of one of the world's biggest bingo parlours, should be determining their future.

It is not the first time that Dr Moskowitz has stoked the flames of conflict in Jerusalem. Last year he helped finance the opening of an extension to a tunnel running under the Muslim quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Within days fighting erupted between the Israeli army and Palestinians which left 65 Palestinians and 15 Israelis dead, while over 1,000 people were wounded.

Dr Moskowitz makes no secret of his immediate objective. It is to Judaize Jerusalem (though the city already contains 400,000 Jews and 170,000 Palestinians). His focus is on the Old City and its immediate neighbourhood. He says that he wants "to do everything I possibly can to help reclaim Jerusalem for the Jewish people".

He sees the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians as "a slide towards concessions, surrender and Israeli suicide". Since 1993, through contributions to right-wing lobbying groups in the US and Mr Netanyahu's election campaign, he has done all he can to overturn them.

The source of Dr Moskowitz's original wealth lay in a string of private hospitals he began to acquire in southern California in the late 1950s. But the funds used to buy up houses in the Old City of Jerusalem have a more bizarre origin. In 1988 he was asked by the council of Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles County, to take over a "charity" bingo hall, whose previous owner was facing criminal charges. Dr Moskowitz turned the 800-seat bingo parlour round and by 1991 it was taking in $33m in profits. A significant proportion of this - through the Irving I Moskowitz Foundation - ended up in Jerusalem.

It was not merely that Dr Moskowitz was a rich man with a political agenda. His importance is that his money flowed to people of the deepest fanaticism, notably to Ateret Cohanim (Crown of the Priest), a group dedicated to taking over Jerusalem.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Ateret Cohanim became a much feared name among Palestinians in the city. Its militants would suddenly swoop on their houses in the middle of the night and take them over. Palestinians maintained - and this was subsequently backed by a government report - that the legal basis for these takeovers was flimsy. But once blue-and- white Israeli flags had sprouted from a building it was difficult for a Palestinian to get the courts or the Israeli police to evict the occupiers.

The takeover of Palestinian property often appeared deliberately geared to provoke. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general held responsible by Palestinians for the Sabra and Chatila massacres in Lebanon, suddenly acquired a house in the Old City in 1987. St John's Hospice in the Christian Quarter was occupied in 1990. Overall some 600 settlers were introduced in the teeth of Palestinian resistance.

Dr Moskowitz defends himself against charges of ethnic cleansing by stealth. He says: "Objecting to Jews living among Arabs is racism of the worst kind." But the defence is naive. No sooner were settlers established in Ras al-Amoud this week than the soldiers who guard them starting making life unliveable for Palestinians in the street, who were repeatedly stopped, questioned and searched. Jubilant settlers celebrated their victory like a conquering army.

A "compromise", which was close yesterday, whereby the settler families will withdraw for the moment but be replaced with workmen renovating the building, is a victory for Dr Moskowitz. Such arrangements, aimed at deflecting international criticism have in the past always ended in settlers taking over buildings. If Mr Netanyahu prefers compromise with the extreme nationalist settlers before compromise with the Palestinians the result will be violence - but by then Dr Moskowitz may be on the flight back to Miami.

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