World Bulletin/News Desk
The smell of fresh paint wafts through the domed lobby of the latest Israeli arrival in East Jerusalem - a Jewish seminary in a bustling commercial area in the same building as a post office serving thousands of Palestinians every day.
Otzmat Yerushalayim, which includes sleeping quarters and could house as many as 300 young Israelis, is the first Jewish housing venture on Saladin Street, a main shopping thoroughfare across from the walled Old City.
Palestinians and Israeli critics worry the placement of the academy in such a central location is asking for trouble in East Jerusalem, which has stayed largely trouble-free in recent years compared to the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, and which Palestinians hope will be the capital of a future state.
"Tensions are sure to spike here. It isn't going to be easy," a Palestinian pharmacist, who gave her name only as Maral, said in a drugstore across the street.
"They will just close us up the second a confrontation arises and all work will grind to a halt," she said.
Settlement expansion has been a key sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in April. But even when Israel froze construction temporarily in 2010, it always insisted the moratorium exclude East Jerusalem, which it views as an integral part of the country.
Unlike in the occupied territories, most Palestinians in East Jerusalem enjoy Israeli social benefits and looser travel restrictions, making them less motivated to engage in political protests.
Religious fervour runs deep in the holy city, however, and violence flared during the Jewish Passover holiday when Palestinians, gathered at a holy site revered by Muslims and Jews, threw rocks and firecrackers to try to prevent any attempt by ultranationalist Jews to pray there.
Israeli riot police used stun grenades to quell the protests at a plaza that overlooks Judaism's Western Wall and is home to al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site. Jews refer to the area as the Temple Mount, the site of the two biblical Jewish temples.
Ateret Cohanim, the private organisation behind the seminary project, has been moving hundreds of Jewish families into predominantly Palestinian-inhabited East Jerusalem for years, either by acquiring property or laying claim to land Jews bought before Israel's founding in 1948.
It expects a formal opening ceremony to take place at the seminary later this month as part of Israeli celebrations of the 47th anniversary of its capture of East Jerusalem.
A teacher at the school, where a rabbi's portrait hung on freshly-painted walls amid benches and bunk beds, said it quietly opened its door a few weeks ago. The seminary's windows are painted white, shielding those inside from view from the street.
Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, declined to comment on the seminary while accompanying Reuters on a tour of a half-dozen settlement projects the group has spearheaded in Palestinian residential neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
Some 200,000 Israelis have settled in East Jerusalem, which is home to about 280,000 Palestinians. Most live in largely separate areas.
It weighs in more on settlement in the occupied West Bank where it must authorize any enclaves before they are built -- though dozens of settlement outposts have gone up without authorization over the years. Although the government often vows to remove them, that process often takes years.
A spokeswoman at the Israel Lands Authority, the government agency that oversees land and ownership, denied any knowledge of the seminary transaction.
Asked whether his group was seeking to ensure this didn't happen, he replied: "Not that there are not ramifications behind Jews living in certain areas - we're not stupid."
"It's a sure recipe for violence. This is a very strategic site and there's a potential here to cause serious disruptions in civic life in this city," Margalit said.
Outside the post office building, Mohammed Tufaha, a 26-year-old Palestinian physical education teacher, sorted through a packet of letters he had just collected.
"Little by little, they are trying to overtake us. Soon they will move into other buildings as well and Judaise the entire area," he said.Last Mod: 04 Mayıs 2014, 10:41