JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may be telling Israelis that building settlements round Jerusalem risks dangerously fuelling Palestinian anger, but some of his fellow Democrats brought the opposite message to the city on Wednesday.
Dov Hikind, a member of New York state’s assembly, looked out over Jerusalem’s Old City and dismissed the “extreme” view on the matter taken by his party’s president.
He urged fellow American Jews to buy homes on occupied land rather than in traditional U.S. vacation spots.
“I’m trying to get a whole bunch of my friends to actually buy,” said Hikind during a tour of settlement housing projects for several dozen potential U.S. investors.
“Rather than buying second homes in Florida, we want people to buy in Israel,” he said, having watched a foundation stone laid for an extension to the Nof Zion, or Zion View, settlement.
Palestinians, whose leaders declared this week’s Israeli government approval for more settlement building near Jerusalem a killer blow to peace, reject Hikind’s description of Nof Zion as “Israel,” as it lies on occupied land they want for a state.
But his views, shared by significant numbers of American Jews, many of them Democrat voters, are an indication of Obama’s difficulties in holding to his demands that Israel halt its expansion of settlements in the interests of a peace agreement.
Hikind’s active participation in the settlement policy that has seen Israel move close to a tenth of its Jewish population onto land captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war is not very common among Jews in the United States. But financial support from Americans, some benefiting from U.S. tax relief on charity, is a significant source of funding for West Bank settlements.
A small group of Israeli peace activists staged a protest against Hikind’s tour on Wednesday. Israeli left-wingers echo Obama’s line that expanding settlement for ideological and religious reasons is jeopardizing Israel’s security.
Settlements, home to significant numbers of immigrants from the United States, also benefit from support from fundamentalist American Christians — like Republican former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
“The thing that prompted me to organise this group is being so angry at the Obama administration,” said Hikind.
As he looked out across the valley towards the Old City, where the gilded Dome of the Rock marks out the Muslim holy site that Jews revere as the site of their ancient Temple, he said:
“I don’t want to displace anyone. I don’t want to kick anyone out of their homes. I have no hate, no malice in my heart. I want to live here and I am trying to work that out.”
Yet Palestinians in the city feel that is exactly what Israel and its international supporters are trying to do, displacing today’s inhabitants with foreign-born Jews who claim an ancestral and religious right to land going back 2,000 years.
On the same day as Hikind was showing fellow Jews the sites of future homes, and Obama was condemning Israel’s approval of 900 new homes at the nearby Gilo settlement, Abdel Halim Darry had his house demolished by Israeli authorities. Arabs complain that they are denied permission to build for growing families.
“The difference between us is clear,” Darry said. “There are plans to build 900 housing units in Gilo, in order to accommodate their so-called population growth, while our growth is not taken into account, and we have to make-do with what we have. I have no idea where the Palestinians should go.”
Other Arabs in the city make complaints, endorsed by the United Nations and world powers, that they are unfairly evicted by courts from homes where ownership is in dispute, while Arabs have little chance of recovering property occupied by Jews.
Palestinians say building projects such as that at Nof Zion, close to the Arab village of Jabal Mukaber and sitting under the British colonial-era building that houses the United Nations mission, are undermining not only their hopes of a state but their hopes of a viable capital in a part of Jerusalem.
Additional reporting by Jehan Abdalla, editing by Alastair Macdonald and Charles Dick