Muslim resident outside a building form which they were evicted by settlers, July 29, 2010
Muslim resident outside a building form which they were evicted by settlers, July 29, 2010 Photo by Haaretz
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Representatives of the Ateret Cohanim organization, which promotes Jewish presence in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, took possession of a large building in the heart of the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem on Wednesday. The building is meant to expand the Jewish presence in the Old City. Last night the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court issued an order barring occupancy of the building, but an appeal of the order has been filed.

Arab occupants of the building said they were surprised to be evicted from the premises, claiming the eviction was carried out while they were at a wedding. Other sources, however, say the building was sold in accordance with the law and that the residents left willingly.

The 300-square meter building housed about 50 members of one extended family, the Karsh family, in nine apartment units. They claimed their family had lived there since 1936. The building was built by a Jewish family, but they left in 1936, a year in which there was widespread Arab rioting. The building was then sold to Arabs. In 1984, it was purchased by Ateret Cohanim from Palestinians living in the United States.

The Arabs who left or were evicted this week - depending upon whose version is correct - don't deny that Ateret Cohanim purchased it, but contend that they have been paying rent, have protected tenant status, and that their eviction is illegal.

They claim on Wednesday at 2 A.M. they returned from the wedding to find the door locked and young Jewish men inside. "They knew we were at a wedding," said Mohammed Karsh, adding, "They went inside and are now not letting us enter. Our food is still on the table."

Members of the Karsh family congregated yesterday in front of the building while the police kept them and the new Jewish residents of the building apart. Sources close to the situation insisted, however, that the Arab residents left voluntarily.

An attorney for the former residents sought a court order yesterday for the eviction of the Jews from the building, at which point the judge issued a temporary restraining order barring occupancy of the building or acts which make any change to the site. The Jewish occupants, who were not present at the initial hearing, have sought an additional hearing.

One way or another, the building's occupancy by Jews representing Ateret Cohanim is seen by many as a significant step in efforts to expand the Jewish presence in Arab neighborhoods of the Old City. Jerusalem city councillor Meir Margalit of Meretz said: "Up to now, Ateret Cohanim has focused on the area closer to the Jewish Quarter." He added that if the Jews remain in the building it would change the geopolitical situation in the Old City. They also stated this is a delicate moment in talks with the Palestinian Authority.

The chairman of Ateret Cohanim, Mati Dan, said the Old City had always had a mixed Arab and Jewish population, and there has been a small Jewish population in the area around the building in question for years. Dan called the timing of the move entirely coincidental.