Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Palestinian bid to buy Jewish settlement foiled – 17 January 2011

JERUSALEM // Jewish investors, led by a Jerusalem city councillor, last week foiled a bid by businessman Bashar Masri to become the first Palestinian to own a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

A coalition of settler groups and Israeli business leaders had branded as “treason” the initial acceptance of Masri’s offer late last month to bail out the settlement project’s owner, Digal, an Israeli investment company.

Masri, 50, a Palestinian with American citizenship, offered to cover $37 million in debts incurred by Digal’s luxury development of Nof Zion, in a Palestinian neighbourhood overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.

After furious lobbying last week, however, Digal announced on Wednesday that its bondholders had agreed almost unanimously to sell control to a consortium led by Rami Levy, owner of an Israeli supermarket chain and a member of the party of Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor.

Levy’s group matched Masri’s offer.

Masri accused Bank Leumi, Digal’s main creditor, of delaying approval of his bid after coming under massive pressure from settler groups and Nof Zion residents, who threatened to campaign for a boycott of the bank.

After the bondholders’ vote, Israel Zeira, the chief executive of Bemunah, a real estate company marketing properties at Nof Zion to religious Jews, said: “I’m happy we succeeded and the land will stay in Jewish hands.”

Masri, who is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the decision was “racist” and an “insult” to the 270,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

The United States and Europe have repeatedly criticized Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem – which is illegal under international law – saying it creates a stumbling block to the revival of peace talks. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The Nof Zion development, which is eventually supposed to include a shopping mall, synagogue and child nursery, is being built in the heart of Jabel Mukaber, a neighbourhood of 15,000 Palestinians.

Nearly 100 apartments have been built so far and sold to Jews, mostly from the United States and France. But the company has permission to develop another 300 homes, which Masri had promised to sell to Palestinians.

It is the first time a large-scale Jewish settlement has been built in East Jerusalem as a commercial venture.

Masri said he had been spurred to buy Digal because it was “near-impossible” for Palestinians to get permits to build homes in Jerusalem. The result was a severe housing shortage among the city’s Palestinians and skyrocketing property prices, he said.

“This project came with ready-made licences to build hundreds of apartments in a Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, and a chance like that may not come along again for a very long time.”

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem city councillor from the leftwing Meretz party, said there was no “economic logic” to the Jewish investors’ bid and he believed it would eventually fall through.

“The simple truth is that wealthy Jews don’t want to live in the middle of a Palestinian neighbourhood. Masri, on the other hand, has the ability to market these properties to Jerusalem Palestinians and to Israeli Arabs.”

Daniel Seideman, an Israeli lawyer and expert on the city’s settlements, agreed that Digal’s problems were “far from over”, proving that settlements in East Jerusalem were viable only with massive state subsidies.

“The settlements flourish in Jerusalem only because almost all of the 200,000 settlers there have been encouraged to live in them by the Israeli government.”

He added that the backlash to Masri’s bid gave “the lie” to a statement this week from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, that Jerusalem was an open city in which Jews and Palestinians were free to choose where they lived.

“Netanyahu says Palestinians can live anywhere in Jerusalem. But now it’s clear that they are not even allowed to build in Palestinian neighbourhoods – much less in Israeli neighbourhoods.”

The battle for control of Nof Zion follows the leaking last week of a report by European diplomats in Jerusalem and the West Bank that harshly criticised Israel’s policy in East Jerusalem.

The report warned that Israeli officials and extremist settler groups had significantly weakened the Palestinians’ grip on East Jerusalem.

Support from the Israeli authorities for ultra-nationalist groups settling in Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem was in evidence again last week.

The Israeli tourism ministry and Jerusalem municipality were reported on Thursday to have approved transferring nearly $600,000 to a museum in a settler-run “heritage park” that has taken over a large area of Silwan.

And despite strong international criticism, work began last week to demolish part of the historic Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah to build 20 settler homes. There are plans for an additional 50 apartments.

Seideman said there were 2,600 settlers belonging to extreme nationalist and religious groups who had taken over Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem, either by deception or with the help of the authorities.

Masri said there were “obvious double standards” being applied in what Israel claimed were commercial decisions. “It seems I do not qualify to run this development simply because I was born in Palestine.”

The bidding war turned personal when Masri’s identity became public last month. He had initially presented his offer through Dov Weissglas, an Israeli lawyer and a close adviser to Ariel Sharon while he was prime minister.

Settler groups and Nof Zion residents accused Masri, who was raised in Nablus in the West Bank, of having links to “terrorism” because of several arrests in his youth. He said he had been detained in the late 1970s for participating in demonstrations against the settlements.

Masri’s biggest project is building a new Palestinian city, Rawabi, in the West Bank between Ramallah and Nablus, with funds from Qatar.

His Digal bid was his first venture into the Israeli market. He said he had “learnt many lessons. We will be better prepared next time.”

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