JERUSALEM – On a recent morning, at a time of soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions and massive police deployment in Jerusalem, security forces nonetheless found time to carry out an eviction order: Troops sealed off parts of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan and removed two families from their apartments to allow the entry of Jews named by a court as the rightful owners.
The evictions are part of a house-by-house battle waged by Jewish settler groups — at times with government support — to expand their presence in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem's ancient heart, an area the Palestinians seek as the core of a future capital.
Settler-driven displacement ranks high on a list of grievances linked to Israeli rule that Palestinians say helped spark the recent rash of attacks on Israelis, most of them stabbings. Israel mostly blames what it calls Palestinian incitement to violence.
Since mid-September, 10 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, while 47 Palestinians — including 26 labeled by Israel as attackers — were shot dead by Israelis.
Israelis "are creating this wave of stabbings because when they pressure human beings repeatedly, then there will be nothing left but to die, to grab that knife and go for them," said Abdullah Abu Nab, 59, who was evicted Monday, along with his wife, 9-year-old twin sons and six other relatives.
Jerusalem settlement groups such as Ateret Cohanim oppose any deal to set up a Palestinian state next to Israel, on lands Israel captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem.
Some settler activists also believe that moving more Jews to east Jerusalem's Old City and adjacent Arab neighborhoods, an area known as the Holy Basin because of its major shrines and archaeological sites, will hasten religious redemption.
"It's basically Zionism unfolding and a redemption process moving forward," said Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim, one of the groups active in Silwan.
Israeli groups opposed to Jewish settlement on war-won lands say settler groups are trying to scuttle any partition of Jerusalem.
"They want to change the character of the Palestinian neighborhoods around the Old City ... and to make it more Jewish, so eventually it will be hard, not to say impossible, for the Israeli government to compromise over it," said Hagit Ofran of the advocacy group Peace Now.
"It seems that the cooperation (of the settlers) with the authorities became much stronger in recent years," she added.
Activists said settlers and their backers have employed a range of methods.
This includes going to court to reclaim properties once owned by Jews in areas captured in 1967, an option not open to Palestinians who lost homes or lands in what is now Israel.
Activists said some state agencies have also sold or leased properties to settler groups without tenders.
In another part of Silwan, the government gave the settler group Elad the right to run archaeological sites that highlight ancient Jewish roots in the area.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev did not comment on specific allegations.
"The whole idea that Jews should be forbidden from buying property in any parts of Jerusalem is unacceptable," he said.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 Jews have moved to Arab neighborhoods in the Old City and adjacent areas since 1967, said Ir Amim, a group that promotes an equitable solution for Jerusalem.
In addition, some 200,000 Israelis live in settlements Israel built in east Jerusalem after 1967. Israel annexed east Jerusalem, a move not recognized internationally, and considers the settlements neighborhoods of its capital.
Jerusalem has about 850,000 residents, more than one-third of them Palestinians who complain of long-standing official discrimination, including over housing rights.
This week's eviction took place in a densely populated part of Silwan known as Batan al-Hawah. Perched on a steep slope, it offers a spectacular view of the Old City, including the rectangular hilltop shrine revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the home of their biblical Temples.
Yemenite Jewish families — at one point as many as 144 — lived in the area for about half a century, starting in the 1880s, said Luria. Their numbers gradually dwindled and the last 35 families were driven out during an Arab uprising against British rule and Jewish immigration.
Part of the Yemenite village was established on land bought for the community by Jewish philanthropists, Luria said. Communal property, including a synagogue, was run by what was known as the Benvenisti Trust.
Israeli courts have ruled that the building from which the Abu Nabs were evicted — the synagogue, according to Luria — belonged to the trust.
Abu Nab's lawyer, Mohammed Dahle, said the Abu Nabs were protected tenants, having lived in the building for decades, and should not have been evicted. He questioned Jewish ownership claims, saying his team is trying to track down old land documents.
On Monday morning, security forces accompanied by dogs sealed off the neighborhood and removed the Abu Nab family from two apartments, said community activist Zohair al-Rajabi.
By Tuesday, an Israeli flag fluttered from the rooftop.
Security guards carried new swivel chairs, still wrapped plastic, into the building. Several men, some welding in the courtyard, erected fences around the building.
They would not speak to reporters and referred questions to Ateret Cohanim.
Abdullah Abu Nab, his wife Fatima and sons Mahmoud and Mohammed moved into an apartment just down the narrow street, arranged by local activists. Much of his furniture was damaged — according to him in a spiteful act by the Israeli forces.
Settlers live in six nearby buildings with multiple apartments. The latest evictions fueled fears that more Palestinians will be forced out.
Several dozen Palestinian housing units are under threat, said Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim.
This includes those built on land released to the Benvenisti Trust in 2002 by the General Custodian, a department in the Justice Ministry that deals with unclaimed property, he said. Four years later, the Custodian sold four nearby plots to Ateret Cohanim without a tender, he added.
Several Palestinian families facing legal pressures have left their apartments in recent months, apparently in compensation deals with Ateret Cohanim, al-Rajabi said.
The community organizer said he is aware of legal action against the buildings of seven extended families with a total of 29 apartments. His own family building with seven apartments is among those under threat, he said.
Avi Segal, a lawyer representing both the Benvenisti trust and Ateret Cohanim, said the trust "will continue to use legal and peaceful means to reclaim its properties and re-establish Jewish life in the old Shiloach Village." He did not elaborate in his response to emailed questions.
A growing settler presence, accompanied by more security guards, will increasingly disrupt life in Batan al-Hawah, said al-Rajabi.
The area has been neglected by the city for decades, even though residents pay municipal taxes, al-Rajabi said. Potholed alleys are so narrow only one car can pass at a time. Garbage covers overgrown lots, streets and stairways linking homes built into the slope.
Luria dismissed the residents' fears of expulsion, saying Muslims and Christians can live under Jewish sovereignty, but that they "have to internalize that there is a Jewish state for Jewish people." He blamed tensions in Jerusalem on what he said was Arab incitement and "total non-acceptance of any Jewish state in this region."
Ofran from Peace Now said she fears the neighborhood would undergo rapid changes, similar to the West Bank city of Hebron, where several hundred settlers in heavily guarded enclaves dominate the ancient center.
"Five years from now, if we can't stop it, Batan al-Hawah will be a whole different place," she said.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.