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House sale on Mount of Olives leaves trail of blood

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, Apr 18 (Reuters) As far as the Abu al-Hawa family is concerned, the sale of two floors of their home on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives was perfectly legitimate.

Muhammad Abu al-Hawa sold the real estate to a Palestinian businessman nearly a year ago, his brother Mahmoud says, earning 650,000 dollars. The money was used to buy another home on the Mount of Olives, a cherished spot overlooking Jerusalem's Old City.

But last week Muhammad's bullet-riddled body was found lying next to his burnt-out car on a road near Jericho. Branded a traitor for selling his property to Jews, he had been shot seven times, including once in the temple, Mahmoud said.

''I saw the body. I had to identify him,'' he says, sitting in mourning with his brother's wife and the rest of his family at their home -- the ground floor of the same building where the two upper levels were sold, and Israelis are due to move in.

Mahmoud acknowledges that the property is now Israeli-owned, but says he has proof that his brother originally sold it to a Palestinian. It was then sold for profit along a chain, ending up in the hands of Elad, an Israeli non-profit group, which Mahmoud says paid 10 million dollars for the two floors.

For years, Elad and its wealthy private donors have been buying up property in Palestinian East Jerusalem and moving Jewish settlers in, changing the balance of communities.

The Arab-dominated Mount of Olives, overlooking the most hotly contested site in Jerusalem -- the shrine revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount -- has been a prime target of Elad's aspirations.

Muhammad's deal is not the first time Arabs have sold East Jerusalem property to Israelis, either directly or indirectly, but Mount of Olives' residents said it was the first time that a sale had happened in their historic neighbourhood.

As a result, they have turned against the Abu al-Hawa family, despite the fact that it is one of the oldest, largest and wealthiest in the district.

OSTRACISED When relatives tried to bury Muhammad in the Mount of Olives' Arab cemetery on Friday, residents drove them away. The family was forced to bury him outside Jericho instead.

''Our family has been in the Mount of Olives for 350 years, and now my brother is buried elsewhere,'' said Mahmoud. ''The people of this village, they do not understand.'' Asked who he thinks killed his brother, Mahmoud is unsure. He says gunmen from the powerful Palestinian movement Fatah had put pressure on Muhammad in recent weeks, and his brother had visited Fatah leaders in Ramallah and Jericho to try to prove that he had originally sold to a Palestinian.

It is possible, he says, that one of the middle men that handled the property between the original sale and the last had Muhammad killed to ensure he could not identify them. At least three middle men, including a Jordanian businessman, handled the property after the first sale, he says.

Amid the doubt and confusion, one thing is clear in Mahmoud's mind -- there is no way his brother would have sold to Israelis and then bought another house on the Mount of Olives. That would have been tantamount to suicide.

''When you sell to the Israelis you don't stay here. You run away to Europe or the United States,'' he says. ''If he wanted, Muhammad could have sold for 10 million dollars and fled the country.

But he didn't, he stayed here in the Mount of Olives.'' Reuters SHB GC0915

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