Settlers look over Jewish houses in East Jerusalem
Settlers look over Jewish houses in East Jerusalem Photo by Tess Scheflan
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When Devorah Adler's children go to school, they pass underneath the gun-toting security officer who stands on their roof 24-hours a day, walk down a path dotted by surveillance cameras and get in a van manned by another armed guard.

Adler is one of 2,000 Jews who reside in predominantly Arab neighborhoods in the heart of East Jerusalem, part of a movement that aims to ensure Israel's hold on the sector, which Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state.

Revved up by the Obama administration's latest attempts to limit Jewish encroachment in disputed areas of the holy city, they are working furiously to cement and expand their presence.

Adler believes her neighborhood, which Palestinians call Silwan and Jews call the City of David, was where the biblical King David once walked and is the heart of Israel's historic capital. She is willing to brave the occasional rock-throwing and rioting that erupt in the sector - sometimes sparked by Jewish expansion moves - to remain in the place she believes is so tied to Jewish history.

"When it's something that you really believe in, it's something that you're willing to endure certain difficulties for," said Adler, a mother of six.

Nearly 200,000 Jews have moved to east Jerusalem since Israel captured the city in 1967, the vast majority living in Jewish neighborhoods built since that time. Those areas are widely expected to remain part of Israel in any future peace deal, but that does not apply to the Arab neighborhoods where Adler and other Jews have moved in, which Israel would have to cede to the Palestinians for peace.

Jerusalem is the most explosive issue separating Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's government rules out relinquishing sovereignty in any part of the city, and Jewish expansion in east Jerusalem was at the center of a recent diplomatic row between the Obama administration and Israel's hawkish government. Palestinians demand a total halt to Jewish construction in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank, areas they claim for a future state.

Both the settlers and their critics agree on the ultimate goal of their presence here.

"The main objective is to prevent a two-state solution and to prevent the possibility that these areas will become the capital of a Palestinian state, "said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib called these residents the most dangerous factor preventing an agreement with Israel.

But plans are underway to strengthen their presence. At a complex in the neighborhood of Ras al-Amud now housing 50 Jewish families, a sign boasts of 60 new units to be complete by the end of the year.

Last week, Peace Now reported dozens of new houses for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem: 20 units in one neighborhood, 24 in another and renovations having started to turn an old police station in Ras al-Amud into a 14-unit apartment building.

"If you look at 2009 and 2010, you understand what the trend is here. The trend is massive expansion," said Arieh King, who runs a group that buys land for Jews in east Jerusalem and other areas.

He said his organization's goal is to create Jewish continuity from Jerusalem to settlements in the West Bank, making it harder to eventually disconnect the two.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after capturing it from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, a move the international community does not recognize. The Jews living in Arab neighborhoods are there in keeping with Israeli law, often in houses purchased from Arab residents directly or through organizations that buy land for Jewish settlement. To the Palestinians, however, it's pure provocation.

The neighborhoods are prone to conflict. Riots broke out in March as Palestinians, angered by plans for more Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, hurled rocks and set tires ablaze.

Signs of Jewish entrenchment in these neighborhoods are everywhere, beginning with the security equipment and personnel the Israelis bring with them. Israeli police are on constant patrol. Israeli flags fly from several rooftops. Thick metal grates protect the windows of Jewish homes and visitors with no invitation are turned away by security guards.

Palestinian residents are bitter because they say they feel they are being pushed off their land.

"It's not enough that they have west Jerusalem, they need the whole city," said

Musa Alawi, an Arab resident of east Jerusalem who owns a falafel shop across the street from the Jewish housing in Ras al-Amud.

Neighborly relations between Arabs and Jews are nearly nonexistent. In the neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, Palestinian homes overlook a giant 91-unit apartment block for Jews. The only contact between the residents is when Jews stop at the local shop to buy milk.

"We don't spend time together. We don't hang out together. I personally support that separation," said Uri Dopelt, an Israeli who has lived in these Arab neighborhoods for the last decade.

In another neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli police acting on a court order evicted Palestinian families and allowed Jewish settlers to move into their homes, which had been owned by Jews before Israel's independence in 1948. Palestinians cannot similarly reclaim lost property in the city's western sector.

Another flashpoint is a seven-story building in Silwan built by an ultranationalist settler group in 2004. The imposing structure houses eight families who live there under 24-hour government guard.

While the government vows never to give up Wast Jerusalem, the Jews who have moved into the Arab districts mistrust its resolve.

"The government is feeling American pressure," said Dopelt. "People like us in these neighborhoods are the last line in protecting what is ours."