The High Priests of Calamity

Gideon Levy

Youssef Atrash may dream of one day having the freedom to live in his house. The residents of the Muslim Quarter may dream of a park. Some people may still dream of peace. But all they can do now is grind their teeth. And hate...


1 June 1998

   Youssef Atrash built a house. The Ateret Cohanim settlers built tin huts. Both constructions are illegal. Apparently the end of both stories is similar as well. Both the house built by Atrash and the structures put up by Ateret Cohanim were torn down. In fact, the difference between these two stories of building captures the very essence of every act of occupation and injustice.Youssef Atrash, a father of 10, built his house on his own land, between a field of olive trees and the houses of his Palestinian neighbors, on a secluded hillside south of Hebron. Ateret Cohanim built their structures in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Atrash built his house because he and his large family have nowhere else to live. Ateret Cohanim built the structures of strife to demonstrate mastery. 

When Atrash, who works in a shoe factory, decided to build his house on his plot, he was convinced that nobody would stop him. That was at the beginning of the hopeful days of Oslo. His past attempts to obtain a building permit were all doomed to failure: the Civil Administration in the occupied territories and the municipality of Jerusalem almost never allow legal acts of expansion by Palestinians. Who has ever heard of a new Palestinian town during the 31 years of occupation? Or even just a village, or a neighborhood, or a housing project? It's hard enough for them to build a house. Well, then, do they have no need for new neighborhoods? Are there no young couples among them? Despite their high birthrate, all they ever hear from the Israelis is "Make do with what you have, cram your children into existing space." The name of this game is "Occupy as much as you can." Any Palestinian expansion is seen as an Israeli defeat.

Youssef Atrash and many like him are left with no choice but to build illegally. For years, he wandered from one rented apartment to the next with a monthly income of NIS 1,000 for a family of 12. That was unbearable as well. So he eventually built his house, which the Israel Defense Forces destroyed twice already and have threatened to tear down for the third time. When they come to destroy the house or confiscate construction equipment, the soldiers and police officers beat up enraged family members, especially women and children. Once, some of them were even arrested, and later tried and found guilty.

On the other side, there is Ateret Cohanim, an association whose goal is to penetrate the heart of Palestinian life in Jerusalem and breed yet another cycle of hateful acts and bloodshed under the pretense of wanting to preserve the unity of the city. This year they plan to restore 18 houses in the heart of the Palestinian districts of the Old City Ñ 18 more epicenters of provocation that will make Hebron seem like a pastoral landscape compared to "their" Jerusalem. Their guiding principle is to restore houses at the expense of their own brethren's blood: every murder of a yeshiva student immediately leads to an act of provocation in the form of an additional Jewish house, funded by the extortion of an abundant budget from the powers that be. 

Last week their spokesman corrected his own words on Army Radio, when he explained that he hadn't meant to say that Arabs and Jews can't live together in Jerusalem. But Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the head of his yeshiva, had previously stated a different view, which no one asked him to qualify: "We will settle more and more of our holy city, until all of it is ours." They won't be able to buy all the houses in the city, the rabbi acknowledged. Instead, they will make the residents' life so bitter that the latter will eventually have to flee the city. This is the real motive behind their actions.

But lo and behold! These high priests of provocation get unanimous encouragement from the Israeli establishment. To Ehud Olmert, they are "fighters on the Jerusalem front." Benjamin Netanyahu tells them that they are "the expression of an age-old aspiration." American Jews open their hearts and wallets to them. Now it turns out that even Jerusalem's previous mayor, Teddy Kollek, who was always seen as a moderate, supported their actions.

As for the government's reaction to their illegal building activities, it is staged as follows: first, police forces are sent in to beat up with a vengeance Palestinians who attempt to protest; then an agreement is reached with Ateret Cohanim. Like all agreements with the settlers, it is based on double meaning and pretense. Another trick, another shtick, another fraud. Herod's Gate is already in the hands of Ateret Cohanim, this time in the guise of archaeology.

While the Atrash family continues to live in daily fear of the bulldozers, everybody knows that a brand new mini-settlement will spring up in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. And so the seeds of calamity will be sown, in a place where a playground should have been built for the children of the Old City who only have their cramped alleyways to play in. Youssef Atrash may dream of one day having the freedom to live in his house. The residents of the Muslim Quarter may dream of a park. Some people may still dream of peace. But all they can do now is grind their teeth. And hate. 





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