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Jewish history crowds out Jerusalem Arabs

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Widad Sha’abani is living history -- and not liking it much.

Tourists look out at the Silwan Valley during a visit to a Jerusalem archeological site known as City of David, June 6, 2007. Carved out of the teeming Silwan valley, below the walls of the Old City, the development is among several projects Israel has pursued in Arab East Jerusalem since capturing it 40 years ago this week -- in the Six Day War of 1967 that many Jews saw heralding a "return" to the biblical Zion of King David. REUTERS/Yonathan Weitzman

Many of the Palestinian widow’s original neighbours are gone, bought out by an Israeli heritage trust. Now there are Jewish settlers next door. Beyond sprawls an archeological dig with a political programme in which she is, at best, a guest.

“We used to have a sense of community here, but I find myself a stranger among all these people,” Sha’abani, 74, said in the courtyard of her two-room home, which forms an uncanny centrepiece to the open-air museum known as City of David.

Carved out of the teeming Silwan valley, below the walls of the Old City, the development is among several projects Israel has pursued in Arab East Jerusalem since capturing it 40 years ago this week -- in the Six Day War of 1967 that many Jews saw heralding a “return” to the biblical Zion of King David.

For Palestinians like Sha’abani, Israeli annexation -- never recognised abroad -- has brought some improvement in conditions but also a sense of innate alienation under the Jewish state.

Resentment runs especially deep in Jerusalem, where vying religious claims underscore a national struggle that, decades after the city’s physical unification, is nowhere near resolved.

City of David’s organisers receive funding from foreign donors and the Israeli government. They make no bones about their vision of boosting the nationalist Jewish population in parts of the city abounding with 3,000-year-old Judean relics.

“In the state of Israel today we have Jews and Arabs living side by side, and also in City of David are Jews and Arabs living side by side,” said Doron Spielman, the project’s international director of development.

“However, we believe City of David -- biblical Jerusalem, this little 14 acres of land -- should be a project which is uniquely Jewish,” he said. “The roots go back to King David.”

Sha’abani, a Christian who was married to a Muslim, endures a daily din of archaeologists’ drilling. Tourists peer at her from City of David’s reconstructed ramparts, and sometimes wander into her property thinking it is part of the dig.

BLANK CHEQUE

There are also visits from City of David’s financiers, who try to persuade her, or her sons, to sell the house and leave.

“Once they offered $50,000, and another time a blank cheque on which they said we could write any sum we wanted. But no, we refused, and we will continue to refuse,” Sha’abani said.

She recalled efforts by some of her Jewish neighbours to be friendly but said cultural difference and political mistrust were insurmountable problems: “You have to be careful of their intentions. As an Arab, you know you could be manipulated.”

Palestinian officials complain that East Jerusalem Arabs who sell their property to Jews often do so after years of exasperation with an Israeli municipality that is less than attentive to Muslim and Christian residents of the city.

Israelis say the transactions -- sometimes in the millions of dollars -- are legal and consensual, and brokered amid vigilante death threats to the Palestinian seller. An East Jerusalem Arab was shot dead in the West Bank last year after it emerged that a house he had sold ended up in Jewish hands.

City of David’s sleekly produced Web site includes a timeline of history at the site. It skips though from 70 A.D., when the Romans razed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to 1882, when modern Zionism first took wing.

Israel was founded amid a war in 1948 as imperial Britain withdrew from Palestine.

Spielman acknowledged that the intervening 18 centuries after the destruction of the Temple saw extended Arab, Crusader and Ottoman rule in Jerusalem. Non-Judaic antiquities uncovered at City of David are handed over to Israeli museums, including one in Jerusalem dedicated to Islamic culture, he said.

“Our dream is to have the entire world come to Jerusalem and look to the city and see the fact that Jewish families have returned after 2000 years of exile,” Spielman said.

“They live above ground and beneath their feet there is Jewish history, Arab history and Christian history.”

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