Overnight tin shack construction in the Old City spawns protests

JERUSALEM — The ongoing conflict over Jerusalem's Old City reached an unprecedented level of confrontation Tuesday, when 15 Palestinian Legislative Council members fought police over new Jewish housing being erected inside Herod's Gate.

The PLC members had interrupted their morning meeting in Ramallah when they heard that 10 tin shacks had been erected overnight by members of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, and rushed to the site to protest.

Several dozen Palestinians quickly joined the lawmakers, and the protest turned violent when protesters charged toward the yeshiva enclave and tore down one of the shacks.

Border policemen started swinging clubs trying to push back the protesters, and at one point forced the legislators into one of the shacks to separate them from the others. Some resisted, and two of them, including Faisal Husseini, who holds the Jerusalem portfolio in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Cabinet, were bleeding from arm wounds after the melee.

PLC Speaker Ahmed Qurei warned that the protests might spread if Israel continued provocative actions.

"The Israeli government and the United States should know that the Palestinian people's patience is running out," he said. "We won't accept a peace that comes at the expense of our land and our rights. Such an agreement can go to hell."

Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani telephoned Qurei after the clash and discussed ways to reduce tensions.

On Tuesday evening, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert signed a demolition order giving the families that had moved into the shacks 24 hours to vacate. He said he had no objection in principle to the construction of a Jewish neighborhood on the site, but said the families had not submitted plans to the city.

"What the Ateret Cohanim people did is palpably illegal," he said on Army Radio. "If these buildings are not dismantled and removed, they will be destroyed."

David Bar-Illan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's communications adviser, said the protest violated the peace accords, which restrict the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "This kind of activity is a direct and blatant violation of these agreements," he said.

Husseini said the erecting of the shacks was "a clear violation, and an attempt to change the situation in the city despite the Oslo Accords, which prohibit such steps."

Events leading up to Tuesday's clash began three weeks ago, when tents were erected on the site following the murder of Ateret Cohanim student Haim Kerman on May 6. Ateret Cohanim has vowed to counter the murder of any Jew in the Old City with further construction of Jewish housing.

"The land is ours, and we have permission from the government to watch over it," said Ateret Cohanim's executive director, Yossi Baumol. "So we put up two tents, which is 100 percent legal, to have people there to guard the property. The problem is, tents are not secure in the Muslim Quarter — they can throw firebombs, people can shoot in — so we needed stronger temporarily buildings."

The cement foundations for the temporary shacks were laid on Sunday, and the shacks were erected overnight on Monday. On Tuesday morning, inspectors from the city and representatives of the Antiquities Authority inspected the site and determined that the building was illegal and could possibly damage the Old City walls.

Matti Dan, chairman of Ateret Cohanim, met with Antiquities Authority Director Amir Drori and agreed the authority would perform exploratory excavations at the site. While 50 Peace Now demonstrators protested at the site, the authority obtained a court order forcing a halt to the construction on the plot.

By then, there were beds, chairs, tables and a refrigerator at the site, and spokeswoman Klila Har-Noy said a young couple and several bachelors would move in. She said the move was a "Jewish-Zionist response [to Kerman's murder]. One Jew goes and 20 come."

Baumol said the problem with the Antiquities Authority was a misunderstanding. "We thought that if you're putting up a temporary building — a thin level of cement to hold up these metal shacks — there's no problem with the Antiquities Authority," he said. "They claim there's a problem, so we stopped."

Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ya'ari said the group would be at the site all day Wednesday to monitor compliance with Olmert's order. "We're not going to stop until they take these shacks down," she said. "Ateret Cohanim is dividing Jerusalem, not [Shimon] Peres. These are people who don't want to live in peace with Arabs in Jerusalem, who don't see them as equals."