THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

During talks, Israel sold land to settlers at low rates

By Diaa Hadid
Associated Press / November 8, 2010

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JERUSALEM — A string of Israeli governments has helped cement the Jewish presence in Arab areas of Jerusalem by selling or leasing property to settler groups at bargain prices, court documents released yesterday show.

The establishment of these Jewish enclaves appears meant to make partition of Jerusalem along ethnic lines — generally seen as a key aspect of any peace deal — exceedingly difficult.

Buildings were sold to settler groups in and around the sensitive Old City of Jerusalem at a fraction of the going market rates by governments that were involved in peace talks with the Palestinians, who claim those same areas.

Sharing Jerusalem is one of the touchiest issues facing Mideast negotiations. Several rounds of talks have broken down over the fate of the holy city.

A key sticking point is a hilltop in the Old City, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque sits on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples. Both sides claim the site.

The future of the rest of the Old City and its surroundings is just as contentious.

The Old City is divided into four quarters — Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian — but in past years, populations mixed. In 1948, during the war that followed Israel’s creation, Jordan captured the Old City and expelled its Jews.

Israel took back the Old City in the 1967 Mideast war, annexed it, and reestablished the Jewish Quarter, where today about 4,000 Jews live alongside about 30,000 Palestinians in the rest of the old areas. The annexation has not been internationally recognized.

Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of the state they hope to establish. Palestinian negotiators have said they will not compromise over Jerusalem. Formulas have been put forward to divide the city ethnically, placing Jewish neighborhoods in Israel and Arab sections in the new Palestinian state.

But over the years, ultranationalist Israeli settler groups have been buying up buildings outside the Jewish Quarter. The documents released yesterday show how the Israeli government has been helping them with bargain land prices. The documents refer to 11 such deals, but an antisettlement activist said there are dozens more.

The documents on the Jerusalem property transfers were released to antisettlement activist Dror Etkes after a three-year court battle with the Israel Land Administration, which oversees almost all the country’s land.

Etkes wanted the government agency to detail its deals with two shadowy settler groups, Elad and Ateret Cohanim, which have helped move Jews into Arab sections of East Jerusalem.

Some of the properties passed on to the settler groups once belonged to Jews but fell into state hands. Arab families had since built on the land but were evicted from the properties when settler groups seized control.

In a separate development yesterday, officials said Israel is ready to give the UN a plan to withdraw from the northern half of a divided village along the Lebanese border that it has occupied since 2006. The pullout could resolve a key dispute between the neighboring countries.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will formally present the plan today during a meeting in New York with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Officials refused to release most details, including the timing and mechanics of the withdrawal, before the meeting.

Israel recaptured the northern half of the village of Ghajar during the 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. A UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the fighting called on Israel to withdraw, but the Jewish state has so far refused to do so because of concerns that Hezbollah could move back into the village.

Hezbollah, one of Israel’s most bitter enemies, fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day war.

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