Shepherd's Hotel update

The hotel part of the Shepherd’s Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah is what was demolished on Sunday by Israeli heavy equipment hired by a settler organization. The only work done since the initial frenzied hours has been rubble removal.

The “palace” part is still standing.

That is, the part that is most historic, and most architecturally beautiful, with references to principles of great Islamic form and design, and that was built in the 1930s as a private home by Hajj Amin al-Husseini — though he never lived in it a day — is intact.

Only the (large) extension, added in the 1960s to turn the property into a hotel, has so far been crushed.

Are Israelis searching for a compromise? Is international pressure playing any part? Are any Muslim countries playing an important off-stage role? Is the settler organization that was given title to the hotel (and its backers in the current Jerusalem municipality and Israeli government) being prudent, as Husseini heirs wage multi-front last-ditch legal battles in the Israeli court system to stop construction of the first major Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, a settlement so strategic that it could change, perhaps forever, the prospects for a peaceful sharing of the “Holy City”?

Hajj Amin Husseini, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestinian nationalist leader exiled by British Mandate forces in 1937, is detested in Israeli and Jewish circles because of his efforts, as part of his struggle against British rule, to form an alliance with Hitler.

Hajj Amin cultivated Islamic ties and relations with leaders of Muslim countries that he met during pilgimages to Mecca and in travels throughout the Islamic world, as part of his mobilizing effort to throw off British rule and gain the independence that Palestinians hoped to achieve.

At the time, this meant opposing large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine, which the League of Nations had not only endorsed, using the exact language of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, when the League’s Council formally awarded the Palestine Mandate to Britain in 1923 (though Britain had de facto administered it for the five previous years), but also (by British design and complicity) actually required the British Mandatory authorities to enforce. Britain had to report back annually to the Council of the League of Nations on how it implemented its obligation to assist Jewish immigration.

Triumphalist statements made by Israeli settler supporters at the beginning of the week about grinding down and crushing any remnant of Hajj Amin’s presence have not been borne out in fact.

Are wiser heads attempting to prevail?

Saying that would probably be going too far … Haaretz reported today that “Right-wing activists also said they plan to turn the main part of the historic building – originally constructed by the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini – into a synagogue commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. Activists see this move as all the more poignant as Husseini was known for his collaboration with the Nazis. However, contrary to some activists’ claims, the mufti never lived in the building himself, instead giving it to his personal secretary, George Antonius … ‘As we were forced to preserve the building, we will turn it into the neighborhood synagogue and dedicate it to the memory of the Holocaust victims’, said Jerusalem councilman Elisha Peleg (Likud ). ‘The synagogue will be doubly symbolic: It will replace the house of the mufti and it will mark the point where 78 physicians, nurses and patients were murdered on their way to Mount Scopus in 1948’. While the first phase of the project is getting underway, the settlers have also submitted a larger plan to the municipality, requesting to add another 50 housing units. All in all, the project intends to include 70 units meant for Jews. The sensitivity of the site, however, means the plan will likely be delayed for an extended period of time”… This Haaretz report is published here.

This, however, is not too far from an idea reportedly harbored by at least one member of the Husseini family, who is said to have entertained the idea of proposing to the financial backer of the settlement project, Irving Moskowitz, that the “palace” that Hajj Amin built be turned into some kind of joint Israeli-Palestinian museum for peace…

Demolition of "Shepherd's Hotel" in East Jerusalem starts

At 5am today (Sunday — the first day of the Israeli work week), Israeli demolition machines that look like large mechanical dinosaurs arrived at the site of the “Shepherd’s Hotel” in East Jerusalem.

Just over an hour later, these dinosaur-like machines began their work:

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now writes on her blog, Eyes on the Ground in East Jerusalem, that today’s move was the “demolition of hope”.

Haaretz says ownership of Shepherd’s Hotel in East Jerusalem is “contested”.

The property has stood vacant for years, as a behind-the-scenes struggle was waged over its fate. It is not far from the Hyatt Regency Hotel that Israel constructed in the nearby Mount Scopus neighborhood, where a main campus of Hebrew University is located, as well as the Hadassah-Mount Scopus Hospital.

The demolition of this “iconic” building — which Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat reminded us today was originally constructed in the 1930s as the family home of the then-Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and nationalist leader, Hajj Amin al-Husseini — will make way for “a major new Jewish settlement…backed by American settler financier Irving Moskowitz”, according to the report by Hagit Ofran.

She adds that it will be the first settlement construction since the June 1967 war in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (north of the Old City of East Jerusalem).

Husseini was exiled by the British, who seized his house and turned it into a military base. In the 1948 fighting that surrounded the creation of the state of Israel in the former British Mandate of Palestine, the property was under the control of the Jordanians, who allowed a trustee for the Mufti’s estate to “rent” it to “hoteliers”, Sa’eb Erekat’s message said.

However, a Palestinian source in East Jerusalem previously recounted that the Farwaji family, which operated several hotels in East Jerusalem, acquired control of the property during the Jordanian administration, and operated it as the Shepherd’s Hotel. Upon the death of the principal member of the family, some of his heirs — his sisters — decided they could not keep up the Shepherd’s Hotel, and it was sold.

In 1984 or 1985, Irving Moskowitz reportedly bought it…

The Los Angeles Times reported (perhaps at least partly wrongly?) here that “Israel took control of the building in the 1980s on the grounds that it was absentee property, meaning the owner did not live in Jerusalem or was a member of an enemy state. It later sold it to Irving Moskovitch, an American multimillionaire and strong supporter of the Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem”.

The Guardian reported here that “His ownership is contested by the Husseini family”.

The Guardian story added that “A handful of settler supporters witnessed the demolition. Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim, a rightwing pro-settler organisation, said: ‘There is no more beautiful sound than the destruction of the house of a notorious, not just Nazi sympathiser, but Nazi’. Haj Amin al-Husseini was an ally of Hitler”.

The Jerusalem Post reported here that “The building received a construction permit from the municipality six months ago, the last stamp of approval needed before construction can begin. Construction was delayed for six months over a dispute with [AbdelQader?] a son of Faisal al-Husseini (1940-2001), a cousin of Haj Husseini and a former Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs, who claimed that the family owned part of the parking lot that will serve as an entrance to the future complex. They lost the court case about a month ago, allowing Moskowitz to start demolishing the building”.

The JPost story added that “Moskowitz’s original plan included 100 apartments, but it was scrapped because it would have needed to go through a lengthy approval process by the Local and District Planning and Building committees. Since the plot had been zoned for up to 20 residential units under the a master plan for Sheikh Jarrah, by not exceeding the zoning plan Moskowitz was able to bypass the regular approval process, which includes approval from the Interior Ministry”.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “this move contradicts the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties on the status of Jerusalem. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards its status for people around the world. Ultimately, the lack of a resolution to this conflict harms Israel, harms the Palestinians, and harms the U.S. and the international community”.

Earlier, the EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement saying: “I strongly condemn this morning’s demolition of the Shepherd Hotel and the planned construction of a new illegal settlement. I reiterate that settlements are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace. Furthermore, we recall that East Jerusalem is part of occupied Palestinian territory; the EU does not recognise the annexation by Israel”.

And Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said “The demolition of Shepherd Hotel by Israeli settlement organizations in the Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, which seek to impose new realities on the ground, runs counter to international law and the relevant UN resolutions”. He urged immediate international action.

Despite all the international comment, and all the local outrage, the site was quite quiet on Sunday evening. One — just one — police van was on stand-by across the street. And the two demolition machines were folded up like two great dinosaurs, sleeping on the front lawn… ready to resume work in the morning.