JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A synagogue newly reopened in Jerusalem’s Old City has worried Arab neighbors and Palestinian leaders who accuse Israel of using its political power to push them out and shift the city’s religious balance toward the Jews.
Israelis say the work in the Muslim Quarter merely restored a building wrecked during 19 years of Arab control before Israel captured the Old City in 1967. But Palestinians complain they live under an unequal rule, by which homes and mosques in areas taken by Israel in the war of 1948 remain out of Arabs’ reach.
Sixty years on, Jerusalem, where a new mayor will be elected next week, still lies at the heart of stalled efforts to broker a peace settlement. Nowhere are conflicts over land as up-close and personal as in the narrow lanes inside its ancient walls.
And nowhere do emotions run higher than on the seam of the Muslim and Jewish Quarters, where heavily armed Israeli police eye jostling crowds streaming to al-Aqsa mosque or the Western Wall, a remnant of the Jewish Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago.
“They want to push us out,” said Alaa Zorba, a Muslim who runs a nearby grocery with his father, as he pointed from his window home to the rebuilt synagogue just across the alley.
“But we won’t kneel,” added Zorba. “We’d rather die.”
He said he had been threatened by some Jews in the area and warned by Israeli police not to air his grievances in the media.
Just metres (yards) away, inside Ohel Yitzhak or Isaac’s Tent which reopened last month, worshippers have a view through high, arched windows of Zorba’s stone house — and of that of a relative who believes a demolition order served on his home is part of a Jewish plan to take more land for the synagogue.
However, speaking for the religious authority that oversees the Western Wall and the new synagogue, rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said he knew of no such expansion plans: “We need to respect our neighbors,” he said. “We don’t use violence or force.
“There are outsiders who want war in the Old City, to see the delicate balance of the city explode. We won’t let them.”
Aides to President Mahmoud Abbas, who wants Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, likened opening a synagogue in the Muslim Quarter, 100 meters (yards) from the wall around al-Aqsa and the gilded Dome of the Rock, to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“The building of the synagogue here is a provocation,” said 66-year-old Palestinian Abdel-Rahim Sider, as he smoked a water pipe in a souk that runs up to the mosque compound. It is called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews.
A brief visit there in 2000 by hawkish Israeli politician Ariel Sharon was enough to spark years of violent uprising.
Sider said he feared Jews wanted to “take over the whole Muslim Quarter” — a designation that dates to the 19th century.
Rabbi Rabinowitz rebuffed such suggestions, not to mention inflamed talk of Jewish plans to retake the Temple Mount itself, and said restoring historic Jewish buildings was good for all.
“Whenever there’s more activity, there are more tourists,” Rabinowitz said at his office overlooking a square bustling with Jews praying at the Western Wall. “This serves the Arab population no less than it does the Jewish population.”
A booklet distributed by the rabbi recounts how Hungarian Jews bought land for Ohel Yitzhak from Arabs in 1867 and says a title deed from an Islamic court exists, countering Palestinian allegations that the synagogue sits on stolen Muslim land.
The booklet says “Arab riots” in the 1920s and 1930s during British rule led to the building being abandoned in 1938. It was “vandalised” under Jordanian control of East Jerusalem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when Jews were barred from the Old City.
The booklet also highlights how the ruin was acquired after 1979 by an Israeli who “believed the time had come for the Old City of Jerusalem to be restored to its original Jewish roots.”
The activities of such groups, which raise funds notably in the United States for rebuilding and for buying out claims of Arabs ready to risk vilification or worse by compatriots, are a particular irritant to many Palestinians in Jerusalem.
“The city belongs to all, not to a certain sect,” said Huda al-Imam, director of al-Quds University’s Center for Jerusalem Studies, which adjoins the rebuilt synagogue.
“The fanatics of the Jewish people are recuperating ‘their’ Jerusalem, their heritage and homes from 2,000 years ago, in a very obsessive way and it’s very offensive to us Palestinians.”
Imam, alleging double standards, accepts the building has a history in the neighborhood. But she noted that while Jews were reclaiming property, she had no hope of recovering the house her father owned in west Jerusalem and which Jews took over in 1948.
Israel’s position is that it deals fairly with all faiths but that Jerusalem is “the heart and soul of the Jewish people.”
“While religious and cultural rights of all the city’s communities must be guaranteed,” a government statement reads, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of the State of Israel, undivided, under exclusive Israeli sovereignty.”
Hostility among Israelis to sharing Jerusalem helped trigger a national election due in February, is a key issue in the mayoral race and was a factor in thwarting President George W. Bush’s drive for a peace deal before he leaves the White House.
For Rabinowitz, harmony can work: “The Old City belongs to Jews and Arabs. There’s no reason why they can’t live together.”
But should anyone doubt who is in charge, a striking aerial photograph hangs on the rabbi’s wall. Seen from above, it shows the Dome of the Rock bracketed by two U.S.-made F-15 jets, their wings blazoned with the Star of David of the Israeli Air Force.
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Charles Dick