JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- A battle over Jerusalem's future is being waged on a pine-forested mountain that rises from a placid valley at the southeastern edge of the city.
Israelis call the place Har Homa, "the mountain wall." It is to be the site of a new neighborhood they say will anchor the Jewish presence in an Arab area of town. Palestinians call the mountain Jabal Abu Ghunnaim, "the father of the victorious." They view the proposed Jewish settlement as another attempt to erode the Arab population of the city and a violation of the 1993 peace accords.
It is a potentially explosive dispute, the sort that could once again throw the peace process off its tracks.
Palestinians predict that construction of the Jewish settlement will provoke an outburst similar to the deadly clashes that erupted last fall when Israel opened an access route to a tourist tunnel that borders Islamic holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.
"People are not interested in a confrontation, but the existence of bulldozers at that site would certainly ignite a spark," warned Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian community activist who represents Arab landowners on the mountain.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to the plan.
"It is utterly impossible for us to live under threats because that means the end of the Jewish state in this country," said David Bar-Illan, a top adviser to the prime minister. "If there is a danger of violence, we will try to forestall it with proper police protection for the bulldozers."
The wrangling underscores the two sides' divergent views of the city's future.
The dispute has been waged since 1991, when the right-wing Likud government confiscated land from Jews and Arabs. When the more dovish Labor Party came to power, officials pushed ahead with the project to complete the ring of Jewish suburban neighborhoods encircling the city.
Today, the Likud is back in power and hard-liners in Netanyahu's coalition government, including Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, want the building to begin now. They have threatened to bolt from the government if the project is delayed again.
'To fulfill an ideology'
"This government was elected to fulfill an ideology. Part of this ideology was to build in Jerusalem," said Mikhail Kleiner, a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, who has led the fight to pressure Netanyahu to act.
Jewish and Arab property owners have been fighting in court to get back their land from the state. And since the signing of the 1993 Middle East peace treaty, Palestinian leaders have argued that the project violates the accords because it changes the face of Jerusalem before negotiations on the city's future get under way this spring.
'A wrong step'
"Politically, morally, legally we think [the project] is going to be a wrong step," peace activist Tzaly Reshef said as he stood on a rooftop in the Palestinian village of Um Tuba that overlooks the mountain. "It's time we developed Jerusalem for the benefit of two peoples."
Netanyahu has pledged to build the 6,500 housing units on Har Homa. But he won't say when. To mollify the Arabs, he has proposed constructing apartments for Arab residents in the area. The timetable for the projects will be discussed at a Cabinet meeting this week.
But the United States, broker of the Middle East peace process, and King Hussein of Jordan have discouraged any new building in Jerusalem, especially as the peace process has just regained some momentum.
Under the peace agreement, Israel must withdraw from additional areas of the West Bank, but officials haven't yet identified the extent of the pullback. Next month, Israel and the Palestinians are to begin "final status" talks to determine, among other things, the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their own, and authority over Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
From 1948 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, this was a divided city. Arabs lived in East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule. Jews held the western sector of the city. Since that war, Israel has increased housing for Jews in the city and developed a series of neighborhoods in what had been Arab parts of the city.
The parcel of land known as Har Homa or Jabal Abu Ghunnaim is located within the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. But it stands between the Arab village of Um Tuba and the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem.
Israel maintains that Jerusalem will remain united under the sovereign Jewish state. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. The more Jewish housing built in the Arab areas, the more difficult it will be for Palestinians to gain control of the eastern part of the city.
'Completely against it'
"To continue this policy will push the peace process into the corner and we will face many difficulties. I am completely against it," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said late last week.
But Netanyahu has been accused by his most ardent supporters of failing to live up to his commitment to expand Jewish settlements. He already has delayed one project in the city, a housing complex to be built by Orthodox Jews in the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras Al Amud near the Mount of Olives.
Project supporters argue the government has no reason not to move forward. A majority of the land -- 67 percent -- was owned by Jews and the project won't displace any Arabs, they said.
"Netanyahu knows well that Har Homa is a consensus issue and has become a test case for the preservation of the city's unity, here and now," an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot said. "Threats issued by the Palestinians only underscore the need to build there right now."
But David Myr, an Egyptian-born Jewish developer who owns a large parcel of the disputed land, wants to build his own housing complex there, a shopping center, golf course and "peace park." Myr said Netanyahu can cancel the project and still have a new neighborhood on the hill -- built by Myr's company, Makor. Andoni, the spokesman for the 56 Arab landowners, said the valley in which Jabal Abu Ghunnaim sits is the last remaining open space in which residents of Bethlehem and the villages of Um Tuba and Beit Sahur can build.
"People know without this hill and the land surrounding it, none of us will be able to keep our children in the area," said Andoni, referring to the custom of fathers' building houses for their sons.
Palestinians already feel a sense of isolation because of the way the "land for peace" formula liberated land from Israeli control. Palestinians gained back urban enclaves that are now surrounded by Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
"The issue is as sensitive as the tunnel," Andoni said of the Har Homa project. "Here you are opening a friction point for at least two years' time."
Pub Date: 2/25/97