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Sharon’s Links to East Jerusalem Complex

January 7, 2006

JERUSALEM (AP) _ More than 18 years ago, Ariel Sharon hosted a housewarming party at his new apartment in the Old City’s Muslim quarter. Guests lit Hanukkah candles and toasted with Israeli wine.

Today, with Sharon hospitalized in grave condition about five miles away, his place on Al-Wad Street is watched over by armed guards from rooftop perches. The apartment stands adorned with a huge menorah, the ancient symbol of Jewish worship. Red paint thrown during past protests is splattered on the cream-colored facade.

``I wish we could just burn it down,″ said Murat Hassan, who was shopping for fruit in Saturday’s busy stalls in the walled Old City. ``We would start there and move through all the Jewish places (in East Jerusalem).″

Sharon’s links to east Jerusalem are deep and complicated. His stroll near the al Aqsa Mosque complex in September 2000 helped re-ignite the Palestinian uprising.

His apartment in the Old City, a few minutes walk from the Damascus Gate, was mainly for show; he rarely stayed there. But it became a hated Jewish beachhead amid their shops and homes. In recent years, the residence also came to represent the inconsistencies in Israel’s attitudes toward Arab areas.

Sharon followed through with the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year despite fierce resistance from Jewish settlers and their supporters. But different rules have applied to much of the West Bank and certainly to east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital and which remains the linchpin of any credible peace plan.

Sharon said he would not dismantle the larger Jewish settlements in the West Bank, even as he moved ahead with a separation barrier that has drawn international denunciations.

He also raised no objections as more Jewish groups followed his path and took deeds on property in east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and is ringed by Jewish housing developments built since the area was taken from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

At least a half-dozen Jewish homes have been established in the Old City’s Muslim quarter since Sharon _ then trade minister _ threw his housewarming party in December 1987. Jewish groups _ sometimes bankrolled by Jewish-American backers or aided by special Israeli government loans _ have acquired or developed east Jerusalem properties at an increasing rate.

Since the mid-1990s, the Jewish presence in Arab neighborhoods has nearly doubled to about 1,800, according to the settlement watchdog group Ir Amim.

That is tiny compared with east Jerusalem’s more than 225,000 Arabs. But the political value for Israel far exceeds the numbers.

And even with Sharon out of power, few Palestinians expect any weakening in Israel’s resolve to expand Jewish influence in east Jerusalem.

``It’s like a slap in the face every time I look up and see the Israeli flag on top of Sharon’s house,″ said Nour Hamdan, who sells scarves from an alcove a few paces from the apartment. ``It’s humiliating to think that my children will probably see the same sight.″

The Palestinians consider Jerusalem the capital of a future state and Muslims worldwide rally for uncontested Palestinian control of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, which marks the site where Islamic tradition says the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Israeli leaders, however, make an equally strong claim on Jerusalem.

Jerusalem holds Judaism’s most holy sites, including the Western Wall, which is considered the remnants of the Second Temple destroyed by Romans in A.D. 70.

An expanding Jewish presence in Arab areas is a small _ but symbolically significant _ backlash in Israel’s birthrate battle with Palestinians, whose population is growing at a faster pace. Impoverished Palestinian property owners often cannot turn their back on market-rate offers from Jewish groups.

``The Israelis know we are growing and growing. They cannot stop that,″ said Hamza Bakroun, who conducts tours in the Old City. ``Their only weapon is money _ coming in like Sharon and getting our properties. They know it’s a provocation and they don’t care.″

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