Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hebron-ization in Real Time

This article, from last week's Haaretz, was prominently placed on the front page of the well-read weekend section. It reviews the process of settlement and dispossession in Silwan, the Palestinian village in East Jerusalem just outside the walls of the Old City, which has been re-named "The City of David" by those seeking to annex it to West Jerusalem.

Agressive settlement by Jewish settlers, backed by foreign money passing through a shadowy public/private NGO; the acquiescence and support of the government; arrests and harrassment of the current residents; and building up bogus archaeological and biblical claims; while slowly and deliberately creating facts on the ground--this has all been done before. Silwan is being Hebron-ized before our eyes.

The article alludes, though not specifically, to the Israeli and Palestinian coalition of archaeologists, academics, residents, community activists, and lawyers who are fighting this process. Two years ago, no one had heard of Silwan, and now, as Akiva Eldar says, it is "The Very Eye of the Storm."
Whether that will save it from the fate of other Arab localities that have been slowly erased is up to all of us.

--Rebecca Vilkomerson

The Very Eye of the Storm
Akiva Eldar

Jawad Siam pulled out a brochure issued by the Jerusalem municipality heralding development plans for his place of residence, the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. He pointed to the map in the brochure, where the neighborhood's streets were marked. "You see this, Hashiloah Road?" he asked. "All these years, it was called Ein Silwan Street. 'Ma'alot Ir David' Street? That was Wadi Helwa Street. The street next to it, 'Malkitzedek,' used to be Al-Mistar Street."

From two small rooms, not far from the Old City walls, Siam and his colleagues in Silwan's Ein Helwa neighborhood committee, as well as a small group of Jewish friends, are waging a tenacious struggle on one of the world's most volatile battlefields. As he sees it, the "conversion" of the street names, the settling of Jews there with the encouragement of rightist organizations, and the municipality's intention to demolish dozens of buildings in the neighborhood, are merely a prelude to an eventual transfer plan. The real goal, he believes, is the expulsion of Ein Helwa's 5,000 residents, part of a goal of reducing the Palestinian presence in the area.

Silwan, which the Israeli authorities call the City of David or Kfar Hashiloah, lies in the heart of the "holy basin" surrounding the Old City. Here is where Jewish-Palestinian struggles over houses, religion and culture are steadily multiplying: Right-wing organizations keep taking over yet another building and another site, sometimes with the municipality's assistance; straw men tempt Palestinians into selling their homes; petitions to the Supreme Court come on the heels of allegations of libel; archaeologists clash over these organizations' control of antiquities' sites in the area; and the police try to undermine every official Palestinian activity, including cultural ones.

According to the so-called Clinton initiative, presented during the 2000 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Silwan was supposed to become part of the future Palestinian capital. The international community remains concerned about the ongoing attempt to upset the holy basin's delicate balance. Many diplomats tour the area and send detailed reports back to their home capitals.

For years, this balance was preserved by a moderate mayor (Teddy Kollek) and cautious governments (like that of Yitzhak Rabin). In September 1996, the combination of a right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a right-wing mayor, Ehud Olmert, led to the opening of the Western Wall tunnel. This "festive" event culminated with bloody disturbances in the territories, in which 16 Israeli soldiers and more than 60 Palestinians were killed.

The current blend of the old-new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jerusalem's relatively untried mayor, Nir Barkat, as well as the fact that several government ministries (infrastructure, construction and housing) are in the hands of right-wing parties, may herald an increase in the level of tension in the city as a whole and in the holy basin in particular. Last year, before the local elections, Barkat took a well-publicized tour of Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods, accompanied by activists from right-wing organizations, including David Barry, the head of the Elad organization, which promotes Jewish settlement in the city's eastern part. As mayor, one of his first acts was to resume the construction of 230 apartments for Jews in Abu Dis (Kidmat Zion). He also issued demolition orders for dozens of illegal buildings in Silwan that house hundreds of Palestinian residents.

In the meantime, due in part to American pressure, the municipality has frozen the plan to demolish the buildings in the area it calls Gan Hamelekh (David's Garden). "The mayor's approach to upholding and enforcing the law has nothing to do with city residents' national identity," city hall said in a statement two days ago. "He intends to continue upholding the law in the west and east of the city without bias. The enforcement policy in the Gan Hamelekh area was examined by the courts, which found nothing wrong."

The hand of God?

In an article published on the Arutz Sheva Web site, Matti Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, was quoted as saying, "God promised Jerusalem to us. Our generation is responsible for fulfilling the victory of the Six-Day War and strengthening settlement in Jerusalem."

The article tells of 43 sites that Dan and his friends have "redeemed" from Palestinians in the Old City's Muslim and Christian quarters. About a decade ago, Ateret Cohanim began expanding its activity outside the Old City walls, by taking over abandoned properties - both buildings and land - that belonged to Jews before 1948. Thus Jews settled in Silwan, the Mount of Olives (Beit Orot), Sheikh Jarra (Shimon Hatzadik), Ras al-Amud (Ma'aleh Zeitim), Abu Dis and A-Tur. According to data from the Ir Amim organization for an equitable and stable Jerusalem, about 2,500 Israelis now live in the holy basin and the Old City (not including the Jewish Quarter), about 400 of them in the City of David and a similar number in Ras al-Amud.

"The hand of God is clearly visible here," Dan boasted. "The Saudis and the Europeans are investing millions in East Jerusalem in order to stop us, and we're standing up to them alone." The same article quotes Ateret Cohanim sources as saying that, "There is a consensus about Jerusalem ... also in the highest places, even if this is somewhat obscured. We receive full backing that isn't reported in the newspapers. Even those who say otherwise in the media open their doors to us when it's about building Jerusalem."

City Engineer Uri Sheetrit first gave the order to demolish the illegal buildings in Silwan in 2004, explaining that the reasons had nothing to do with urban planning. "Jerusalem's beginnings lie in the City of David tel. These remnants have much international and national value and give the city its standing as one of the world's most important cities," he said. "Emek Hamelekh - together with the City of David tel - constitutes a complete archaeological unit." The experience of recent years shows that Jews will settle in places that Palestinians have been forced to leave.

These kinds of declarations infuriate attorney Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim. In a recent opinion, he wrote that the planning and building laws have become the main means for reducing Palestinian living space in East Jerusalem: Since 1967, Israel has appropriated 35 percent of the land in East Jerusalem in order to build 50,000 apartments for Jews; at the same time, not a single new neighborhood has been built for the Palestinians, despite the fact that their population in East Jerusalem has nearly quadrupled. During all those years, only 600 apartments were built with government support in the existing Palestinian neighborhoods. The Palestinians' natural growth rate in the city means that 1,500 new apartments are needed every year.

According to Seidemann, most of the lands still in Palestinian possession cannot be built upon due to bureaucratic delays heaped on by Israel. The construction potential within the Palestinian neighborhoods has been practically exhausted. Even Palestinians who live in an area for which there is an approved master plan end up so frustrated by the legal, economic and bureaucratic obstacles that they eventually resort to the risk of building without a license. East Jerusalem is the only place in Israel where a unit from the Interior Ministry, rather than the local authority, operates for the purpose of enforcing building laws (vis-a-vis the Palestinians, that is). Thus, even when the municipality freezes the house demolitions, they are still carried out by order of the Interior Ministry.

Archaeological takeover

In addition to staking their claim in the residential neighborhoods in and around the Old City, the organizations Elad and Ateret Cohanim have begun taking over the numerous archaeological sites scattered throughout the area. The City of David national park lies south of the Old City. "Today, 70 percent of the hill in the City of David is in Jewish hands, and the idea is to acquire buildings on the Mount Zion hill next to it, in order to create a continuum with the Jewish Quarter," Elad founder Barry said in a recent interview.

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Ministry ordered the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to place the park's management in the hands of Elad, which argued that it had acquired a majority of the lands there. The order was issued in defiance of protest from the Antiquities Authority, which was upset about the idea of a sensitive archaeological site being run by a politically motivated organization. To this day, it is not clear why the ministry decided to act as it did. Dalia Itzik, who was the environment minister at the time, said this week that she does not recall the matter. The INPA says its standard practice is to transfer sites located on private lands to the landowners' management. However, last year, then-construction and housing minister Ze'ev Boim wrote that the territory of the park given to Elad is not owned by it, but instead belongs to the state and the Jewish National Fund.

At the end of 2000, the national park was returned to the INPA's jurisdiction. The state prosecutor informed the Supreme Court that it had not been proper to grant authorization to Elad, and so it was annulled. But in 2002, the INPA once again transferred most of the park's assets to the control of Elad, including the Herodian tunnel beneath the Armon Hanatziv ridge and the visitors' center in Ya'ar Hashalom (the Peace Forest). The Authority could not provide an explanation for this decision.

The registrar of nonprofit organizations says the symbiotic relationship between Elad and the INPA is also evident in the fact that Elad's Evyatar Cohen, the director of the visitors' center, is also the director of the INPA's Jerusalem district. An INPA spokeswoman responded that Cohen first went through a "cooling-off" period after his activity in the Elad organization. The symbols of both bodies also appeared not long ago on a sign announcing the construction of a new information center on the Mount of Olives, outside the bounds of the national park. Following an inquiry from Peace Now, the INPA's symbol was removed.

Archaeologists opposed to Elad's activity say the organization's guided tours of the site, given to many Israel Defense Forces soldiers, emphasize the place's Jewish history. Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar, chairman of the board of the Antiquities Authority, recently confirmed that Elad is "an organization with a declared ideological agenda, which presents the history of the City of David in a biased way." In response, the organization said that most visitors are accompanied by its guides and that any guides who expressed themselves politically were dealt with severely.

According to the High Court petition recently filed by Peace Now, at least, Elad is building a shopping center and events hall within the bounds of the park, under cover of the archaeological excavations in the area of the park known as Henyon Givati. In the wake of the petition, the court has ordered all work on the site suspended, apart from the excavations.

Elad claims that "Henyon Givati is a private area and the rights to it are registered in the land registry." In response to a request from Meretz city council member Pepe Alalo, Yossi Havilio, the Jerusalem municipality's legal counsel, said this week that he has asked the official in charge of municipal assets to confirm whether city hall, which leased the lot for 30 years (until 2006), had indeed transferred the rights elsewhere and why.

Bleak reality

This week, in a small room in the local community center, Jawad met with several Israeli archaeologists who offer tourists with guided tours meant to exposed them to the bleak reality in Jerusalem. They composed an open letter to Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor, who turned down their request that she issue an injunction against a continuation of the "development works" in the neighborhood, which they believe are designed to improve the lives of the Jewish residents. She determined that it would be unsafe to stop the work, now that it is under way.

"Imagine how you would feel," they wrote the justice, "if one day you were to fall under the power of a group of new residents, whose civil status is higher than your own and that of your family, and who enjoy heavyweight economic backing, including that of the municipal authorities, and have guards stationed outside their homes day and night who roam the streets, armed, and frighten your children."

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
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