JERUSALEM (AP) — Residents of a hotly contested part of east Jerusalem said armed Israeli guards moved into two buildings in the area before dawn Monday — a step likely to raise already heightened tensions in the disputed neighborhood.
A similar move last month in the same neighborhood of Silwan drew sharp condemnation from the U.S. and created a high-profile spat with Israel.
Ateret Cohanim, an organization that settles Jews in Arab areas of east Jerusalem, said it facilitated the purchase of the two buildings from their Arab owners. Spokesman Daniel Lurie said the buildings contain nine apartment units and that Jewish families and religious studies students would soon move into the properties, immediately doubling the Jewish presence in that section of Silwan.
"For the Jewish people, having Jewish life back in an old Jewish neighborhood is paramount," said Lurie. The homes were purchased in an area where Jewish immigrants from Yemen lived for a few decades before they left amid Arab riots in the 1920s and 1930s.
Late last month, Jewish settlers took over six properties in another area of Silwan, in the biggest settler acquisition in the neighborhood since Jews began moving there two decades ago. The White House called the move a provocation, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended it, saying residents may buy properties wherever they want.
But in a speech Sunday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin criticized the way the homes were occupied. He is a supporter of Jews moving to the Arab area, but said Jerusalem cannot be a city, "where sneaking into apartments is done in the cover of night."
Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it, a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital, while Israel says all of Jerusalem will forever remain its capital. The international community, including the U.S., does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem and says the area's fate must be resolved through negotiations.
The Silwan neighborhood where the homes were purchased is one of the city's most sensitive areas. Located adjacent to the walled Old City and the city's holiest site for both Jews and Muslims, the Arab neighborhood sits atop ancient ruins where Jewish tradition says the biblical King David established his capital.
Palestinians say the move is an effort to cement a Jewish presence in the contested neighborhood while driving locals out.
"They're all thieves," said Umm Muhammed Shiyoukhi, a Palestinian who lives near one of the homes occupied Monday. She hit the door of the home with a rubber squeegee and repeatedly jabbed it through a small hole in the glass window as an occupant inside tried to patch the hole with a rag.
Jewish real estate deals in the neighborhood are often conducted in the shadows.
Residents claim that Arab brokers purchase homes from local residents and then quietly sell the homes to settler organizations. Settler groups say purchases are purposely kept confidential to protect Arab sellers from attacks by their neighbors.
Israeli lawyer Avi Segal said in an email that Kudram Ltd., a foreign real estate investment company he represents, legally purchased the two buildings, which were occupied Monday with the help of the Ateret Cohanim group.
Segal said another real estate company he represents, Kendall Finance, purchased the six buildings that were occupied in Silwan late last month, a move that a different Jewish settlement organization, the Elad Foundation, helped facilitate.
The lawyer did not respond to questions about the identity of both companies.
Associated Press journalists Nebi Qena and Alon Bernstein in Jerusalem contributed to this report.