This is a three part story about the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan which threatened by Jewish settlers who are in control of archaeological tourism in the area. The state of Israel supports the settlers in order to consolidate its hold over Jerusalem, while the settlers are seeking control over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount area – a site of religious importance. Part 1 of this series focuses on the destruction of homes in Al Bustan; Part 2 talks about the rise of settler archaeology; Part 3 covers the role of municipal planning which when taken all together amounts to a bureaucratic form of ethnic cleansing in slow motion.
In Silwan, a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem that faces the daily brunt of the Israeli occupation, 50,000 Palestinians live on the hills outside the Old City of Jerusalem in full view of the Noble Sanctuary, where the prophet Mohammad is believed to have ascended up to heaven. Israelis however, refer to the coveted holy site, where they pray at its Western Wall, as the Temple Mount – the exactly location where the historical temples of Israel once dwelled.
Because of this and other claims that date back to the time of King David in the bible, Silwan is now a village whose ill-treated residents are forcibly evicted from the homes by religious Jewish settlers in cooperation with the Municipality of Jerusalem.
A quick glance at the daily headlines from a Silwan neighbourhood website http://silwanic.net/ gives some indication of the every day situation here, providing valuable insight into what lies beneath the grand fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Second police attack on Ras al-Amoud primary school in a week. Israeli forces attack hospitalized man. Ten-year old boy offered hash and cash by Israeli police.
Everyday reality in Silwan is ruptured with tension, which embodies the essence of the conflict over territory and demography. The Palestinians who live here have never been at peace with the 45 year old occupation.
In Silwan, all too often the local headlines read, “Municipality issues home demolition orders.” This happens because the municipality believes there are 20,000 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem without proper building permits. It issues demolition orders like it’s giving out tainted candy on Halloween. Israel is relocating thousands of Palestinian residents in order to build a series of archaeological parks that will attract international tourism and lay its historical claim to the area.
On Sept 9, 2012, a press conference was held at a large white canvass makeshift tent on the side of the road in Wadi Hilweh, one of the neighbourhood’s in Silwan. The tent serves as a community meeting spot and a frequent battleground for confrontation with Israeli settlers and security forces. Today the tent is hosting international media to express Palestinian opposition to a plan that would destroy 88 houses and displace 100 families, or 1400 residents. Jerusalem wants to build another archaeological tourist theme park – the King’s Garden.
Speaking before the press is Oshrat Maimon, the lawyer from the Jewish human rights organization Ir Amim. Ir Amim is one of the chief defenders of Palestinian rights in Silwan and a primary negotiator on their behalf before the municipality. Maimom had just come from an early morning meeting with the Municipality where they discussed razing the houses of the Silwan neighbourhood of Al Bustan.
“As a Jew and a citizen, I feel it is your right to stay here and live here as a Palestinian neighbourhood,” says Maimon. “The policy of planning in East Jerusalem is appalling and in Al Bustan particularly, it is demographic and racist.”
“It is not a just plan. We told the Mayor Nir Barkat that if he wants tourism in Jerusalem to be so great, he must admit there are two communities with the right to the city. In order for more tourists, we don’t need the King’s Garden, or more monuments, we just need a non-violent city. Archaeology is no better than the rights of residents to live in their own place.”
The King’s Garden is said to be the site where David composed his psalms and where Solomon walked with his wife. It is an extension of a municipal plan to develop a broader area-wide tourist park in Silwan called the King’s Valley. Since 2005, the residents of Al Bustan have been fighting the project with the support of the international community.
In the recent past, the municipal plan to further develop tourism in the Silwan has largely been frozen because of international criticism to the project. But on October 25, 2011, the municipality decided to announce it was going to go ahead with it anyway.
Municipal lawyers released a letter stating, “The Municipality of Jerusalem is determined to pursue approval of these plans and will do so with all legal means at its disposal.”
Reaction from Residents
Traveling down a steep road which descends into the valley away from the Old City, nestled somewhere between a rat’s nest of houses upon the hillside, lie the wooden beams and hand painted sign that marks the Wadi Hilweh Information Center. The Center was established, despite demolition orders when it was built, in 2009 in order to tell the story of Silwan and speak out against the agenda of the settlers’ associations which aim to Judaize the entire village.
Salim Siam, who is a representative of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, says he is disillusioned with the past seven years of negotiations the residents of Silwan have been engaged with the municipality of Jerusalem. He believes the municipality is not willing to make any sort of compromise on Al Bustan, while its 1500 residents have done all they could to reach an understanding.
In broken English he says, “The people Al Bustan tried to bring in an engineer to come up with solutions, something that could work for both sides. They (the municipality) didn’t want to accept this. They didn’t want to accept any proposals.”
In sardonic tones he continues, “They gave us a solution, but they know we can’t accept it. They say ‘there is room in this person’s house, so put another room on top of it. They put this on the table just to say, ‘okay we tried to find a solution.’ What solution?”
What Siam refers to is that the King’s Garden development plan would have the residents who live in the western half of the Al Bustan neighbourhood forced to move to its eastern half. The eastern half of the community would be forced to accommodate the influx of the western residents.
The irony is that all of the houses in Al Bustan are considered illegal. If the residents are forced to move, they would be moving “into” illegal housing. Since the 1967 war, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have not been allowed to build much of anything.
According to Ir Amim only one building permit has been issued in Al Bustan since 1997, and that house was subsequently demolished.
The problem is such that Palestinians who build extensions onto their houses are fined huge amounts of money and are subjected to forced evictions. Thus, many residents feel that if they move to the other half of the neighbourhood, it will eventually result in the loss of the entire Al Bustan neighbourhood, not just its western half.
“They don’t care about the people. They don’t care whether they throw us out. They don’t care where we will go,” says Siam.
These are sentiments shared by Ida Abu Sheikh, who is the mother of a young family living in Al Bustan. Ida’s mother used to plant vegetables in Al Bustan long before it was so developed. “It is an occupation, you can’t understand it. You hear about little organizations of terrorists. This is a country of terrorists.”
“Slowly, Israel moves from plan to plan over a long period of time. Al Bustan is not like what they have in their plan. After Al Bustan, they will think about the whole village of Silwan.”
Ida says she has given many interviews to journalists and news agencies from around the world. She asks why despite all the media coverage, nothing has stopped Israel from pursuing these policies against her village.
“Israel tells the world they are one of the best countries, that they are taking care of the children and protecting human rights,” says Ida. “What freedom have they given to our people? Just look at this example.”
It remains unclear when exactly the families in Al Bustan will be forced to leave their homes. The most recent incarnation of the development plan holds that only 22 houses of the original 88 will be demolished. Residents of the area are unclear which 22 houses the municipality is referring to, and almost no one believes the plan will be limited to such a small number.
Implementation of house demolitions tied with upcoming Israeli elections
Attending the press conference was Dr. Meir Margalit, a member of Municipal Council who belongs to the left wing Meretz Party.
“There is no date set yet (for the house demolitions). The issue is the elections which will take place at the end of next year. The Mayor will need the right wing voters, and in order to get them he will try to do something here before the next election,” says Meir. “The last six months of 2013 this area will be at a very high risk”
“There are 88 demolition orders, but Mayor Barkat realized it is impossible to demolish all 88 so he’s trying to implement a policy of stages,” continues Meir, “In the first stage they will demolish the 22 houses. I’m sure that after this stage there will come another 20 and another 20. In the end they will demolish all the houses in Al Bustan.”
The house demolitions in Al Bustan could be the last straw for a community that has faced dislocation pressures from settlers and the municipality for the previous two decades, in what amounts to a bureaucratic form of ethnic cleansing in slow motion.
Jawad Siam, a longstanding community leader and founder of Madaa Silwan Creative Centre as well as the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, spoke directly to the international media at the press conference.
In an impassioned speech he conveyed the essence of his message: “There is nothing that is illegal in Silwan, there is no building that is illegal.”
“International organizations always speak about the human rights situation in East Jerusalem. This is not the issue. We are under occupation. Do not misrepresent what is happening. This area is a part of Palestine.”
“The Palestinians are ready to die for their houses in Silwan. If the Israelis think they can take our land they are mistaken. They will have to kill us,” says Siam.