JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Radical Jewish settlers are readying to move into a major property in the commercial heart of occupied East Jerusalem, overlooking the walls of the Old City, officials have told AFP.
A large part of the property, which also houses East Jerusalem's main post office and an Israeli police station, was purchased last year by a radical settler group called Ateret Cohanim, which bought it from Israel's Bezeq telecoms company.
Located on the corner of Salah al-Din and Sultan Suleiman in the busy center of East Jerusalem just outside the Old City walls, the property is currently being converted into a Jewish seminary, or yeshiva, an Israeli official and Palestinian workers said.
Ateret Cohanim actively works to settle as many Jews as possible in densely populated Palestinian areas in and around the Old City.
The purchase was first reported in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, which published part of an email in which Ateret Cohanim’s executive director Daniel Luria contacted supporters to announce the acquisition of more than 1,000 square meters in "a very large and strategic building" just outside the Old City.
An Israeli official confirmed the group had bought parts of the property and was currently carrying out renovations in order to have it ready for occupancy before the week-long Passover festival begins in mid-April.
"They are now renovating it for the yeshiva and for a school to prepare Orthodox Jews for military service," he told AFP. "They are trying to set it all up before Passover on April 13."
Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Bezeq refused to confirm who was behind the purchase.
"We will not disclose the identity of the buyers," he said.
Luria declined to speak to AFP.
The building is currently being renovated by Palestinian workers under the supervision of Israeli technicians and engineers.
"We work day and night. It is almost ready," said one worker who refused to give his name.
Local shopkeepers said they had been aware of the plan for several months.
"We found out four months ago from the workers that settlers had purchased the property and are turning it into a yeshiva," said Adel al-Sharbati, who owns a nearby mobile phone shop and spoke of a sense of powerlessness.
"They’re the strong ones here -- who should we complain to?" he told AFP, saying it was likely to raise tensions in the area.
"The whole area will be affected negatively once they're here," he added.