Settlers or squatters?

The politics of demolition and construction in East Jerusalem have always been fraught. Now Israeli

On a bright, sunny morning in early December, I stood on the stone ramparts of the Beit Hatzofeh lookout tower in the heart of the tourist attraction that calls itself the “City of David”, and counted off the touchstones of the three great monotheistic religions: the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, rose above the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, 100 metres to the north; the Western Wall – the holiest shrine in Judaism, “where the divine presence always rests” – lay hidden beneath it, no more than five minutes’ walk away. To the east, the Valley of Jehosophat, where, it is said, humanity will assemble on the Day of Judgement, ran past the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives towards the location of the Garden of Gethsemane and the tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Despite these overlapping spiritual topographies, no one disputes ownership of the Temple Mount – save for a small minority of Jewish fanatics who would like to demolish the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild Solomon’s Temple in their place. But what is disputed, as the Israeli flags fluttering in the breeze around Beit Hatzofeh confirm, is ownership of the Palestinian village of Silwan, which pours down the hillside below the southern walls of the Old City and rises again on the far side of the biblical Valley of Kidron.

Silwan lies in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. It is home to approximately 40,000 Palestinians, and 300 Jews, who exert a disproportionate influence on life in the village. Their activities are co-ordinated by a group called El-Ad – an acronym derived from the Hebrew phrase for “to the City of David”. Far from operating on the fringes of the law, like many of the organisations that establish outposts in the West Bank, it enjoys the backing of several institutions of the Israeli state. And since 2002, it has controlled Silwan’s most important asset: the archaeological site it calls the City of David.

Biblical chronology suggests that King David – the first ruler of the united kingdom of Israel – conquered Jerusalem in 1000BC and made it his capital. Though most reputable authorities regard David as a folkloric figure, El-Ad takes it for granted that he lived somewhere among the stone-clad walkways and winding streets of the historic city centre. “It’s the true Jerusalem: it is where David walked and Solomon walked,” says Tzi Goldwag, a settler who works as a guide on the site. Goldwag believes that the City of David must remain in Israeli hands: “It’s like the Western Wall – it’s a symbol, a part of our history, and no normal people would give up the cradle of their history.”

El-Ad also supports other settler organisations which are trying to increase the Israeli presence in Palestinian areas of inner Jerusalem, such as Sheikh Jarrah, in an attempt to encircle the Old City. Meanwhile, the Israeli ministry of housing and construction is developing three further Jewish neighbourhoods with the aim of driving a wedge between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his ultra-nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are also said to have agreed a plan for 3,000 homes in the area known as E1, the last patch of open land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the conventional formulation, the question of what will happen to Jerusalem is a “final-status issue”, to be resolved once the outline of a peace agreement has been achieved. However, groups such as El-Ad are already shaping the debate about the city’s future in decisive ways: as a member of its administration told a Haaretz journalist in 2006, El-Ad wants to “create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City”, excluding the possibility that it might one day become part of an independent Palestinian state. Already, its website claims that the area is now a “thriving Jewish community”, as if the vast majority of its population did not exist. “It’s like there’s no one living here,” observes Jawad Siyam, a local community organiser. “In Silwan, 300 settlers are more important than 40,000 Palestinians.”

The most important weapon in El-Ad’s pursuit of the “residential revitalisation” of Silwan has been a piece of legislation called the Absentee Property Act (APA). Originally passed in 1950, it states that the property of anyone who lived outside the borders of Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49 would pass to the Israeli Custodian for Absentee Property, without compensation. It was designed to allow the kibbutzim to cultivate land in Palestinian villages abandoned or destroyed in the fighting, and to prevent refugees from reclaiming land in the new state of Israel. The law was extended to East Jerusalem after the Six Day War, though it wasn’t applied until the early 1990s, when the housing department was being run by Ariel Sharon. In 1991, all the Palestinian holdings that met the provisions of the APA were transferred to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Shortly thereafter, the JNF leased all the land in its possession in Silwan to El-Ad, without offering it to tender as it normally would.

An official board of inquiry concluded that Sharon’s policies in East Jerusalem were “tainted by systematic and blatant illegality”. El-Ad insists it wasn’t criticised in the ruling, though many locals attest to the tricks the organisation has employed to acquire property.

Refusing to sell their houses is one of the few ways the local population can resist El-Ad’s influence, although not everyone observes the unofficial ban. In 2006, two brothers from the Abu al-Hawa family sold El-Ad a house in At-Tur, a village above the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount, for $925,000; one of them was later murdered in Jordan.

Jawad Siyam’s brother Nihad denies that those who choose to accept El-Ad’s money are threatened with violence, but he does admit that they are ostracised and most end up leaving the village.

Jawad and Nihad grew up under the Israeli occupation. As children, they felt they had “room to live”, but now, they say, the settlers control every aspect of life in the village. They are even changing the name of the road that runs from the walls of the Old City past the entrance to the City of David: the Palestinians call it Wadi Hilweh Street, but to the settlers it is Maalot Ir David, or King David’s Ascent. Throughout the winter, the brothers were part of a small group of Palestinian men who sat on plastic chairs halfway down Wadi Hilweh Street, beneath a banner that said, “Occupation by Construction”. They were protesting against a plan to re-pave the road, re-lay sewage and water pipes, and build parking lots, on the grounds that it was being done without their consent, and that it placed the interests of tourists above those of residents. In March, the district court upheld their request to delay the work.

The previous month, residents in Silwan had noticed that the main road had begun to subside and cracks had begun to appear in the walls of their houses. They discovered that El-Ad had subcontracted the Israeli Antiquities Association to excavate a tunnel that runs from the walls of the Old City to the Valley of Kidron. Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for a “stable and equitable” Jerusalem, believes that the settlers aim to connect it with the Hasmonean Tunnel beneath the Temple Mount, and another section of tunnel in the north of the Old City: “They want to be able to enter the Old City near Damascus Gate, traverse it without encountering a single Palestinian, emerge at the Western Wall, saunter across the plaza, re-enter the burrow and exit at Silwan.”

El-Ad’s interest in archaeology began by accident in 1995, when it was planning to build a new visitor centre above the Gihon Spring. A “salvage excavation” was required, to establish the site’s archaeological potential. It was expected to last a couple of weeks, but archaeologists discovered the remains of a Bronze Age compound; the work is still going on today. Since then, El-Ad has spent millions of dollars on archaeology, and the excavations it has funded have added to knowledge of the area. Yet there remains great unease about its pedigree as a curator of antiquities. In 1994, for example, a writ was issued against it for “knowingly damaging antiquities”.

For the past two years, El-Ad has been funding a major excavation in the Givati parking lot, opposite the gates of the City of David. In November 2008, Peace Now and the residents of Silwan claimed that the work was being done without proper permits, and accused El-Ad of sinking foundations for a building housing an events hall, commercial centre, motel and parking lot. Raphael Greenberg, an academic who runs a group called Alternative Archaeology, says El-Ad has a “vested interest in the site – they live here, and they combine archaeology and construction”. Architecture, he argues, has become just another way of dispossessing the marginalised inhabitants of Silwan. Jawad Siyam agrees: “We know that this area is full of history. We’re supposed to be proud of it, but, we’re afraid of it, because it’s used against us. The stones are more important than human beings.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the suburb of Bustan – a densely packed collection of favela-style buildings clustering in the bottom of the Valley of Kidron. Black water towers stand sentry on every roof and spidery power lines run through the pageantry of laundry hung out to dry in the sunshine. Spots of bright purple bougainvillea are interspersed among the satellite dishes. There are no pavements on the narrow streets, and children play on the rubble-strewn patches of empty land between houses. Greenberg says the area is of no interest to archaeologists, yet the municipality wants to clear the houses to make way for an “archaeological park” called the Valley of the Garden of the Kings. “They say King David had a park here 3,000 years ago,” says Fakhri Abu Diab, chair of the local residents’ association. “But if he was here then, what about us now?”

Abu Diab says the residents of Bustan have nowhere else to go, and if his story is typical, it is hardly surprising that their houses have spread to fill the bottom of the valley. He was born in 1964, one of nine children, each of whom had at least five children of his or her own, and by the time he decided to build his own house, his extended family numbered 65 people. He is an accountant, and he took an evening job at a restaurant and worked for six years to save the money for his house. It cost $350,000, and it stands on the edge of a patch of wasteland.

Two years ago, the municipality threatened to demolish all the houses, and Abu Diab’s committee led a campaign to save them. “We went to the court and the diplomats, we wrote to the UN, and we told the municipality that we won’t leave our houses – I said, ‘I’m not going to make my wife and children sleep in the street: if you want to demolish it, you’ll demolish it with us inside it.’” International pressure delayed clearance of the suburb, but on 5 November last year, the municipality demolished two houses, provoking protests that the police and army quelled with tear gas and live ammunition.

One of those two houses used to stand on the corner of the empty plot in front of Abu Diab’s house, and as we surveyed the wreckage late one Sunday evening, we heard one of his friends calling us from the houses that rise up the hillside on the far side of the valley. We went to meet him, almost getting lost in a dense network of alleys along the way.

Taweel Walid – a small man with neatly brushed dark hair, dressed in a dark blue coat – was sitting on the sofa, hands folded in his lap. For 27 years he had lived in Bustan in a house he had helped his father build. Three weeks earlier, he had hired a bulldozer and a sledgehammer and reduced it to rubble – if he hadn’t, the municipality would have done it for him and charged him 60,000 shekels (£9,500) for the privilege.

The physical and mental consequences have been severe. Walid produced a doctor’s report detailing a range of post-traumatic symptoms, as well as a long list of pills prescribed to address them. “He doesn’t feel good,” Abu Diab said, unnecessarily. “He has problems with his heart.”

“Self-demolition”, as it is known, saves the municipality time and money and allows it to omit a house from the list of properties it has demolished. The subterfuge is only partly successful; when Walid’s six-year-old son appeared from the family’s private room, Abu Diab asked him who had demolished his home. His answer did not need translating: “Yehudi.”

In March this year, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, visited Israel, and criticised Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in Silwan: “Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful,” she said. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, responded by saying that the houses had been built illegally. Barkat was elected mayor last November, succeeding the Ultra-Orthodox Uli Lupolianski, who had been in office for the previous

five years. None of Israel’s major political parties put up a candidate – Jerusalem is increasingly poor, and the city’s large Ultra-Orthodox population, many of whom do not work, is an unattractive proposition for most politicians. Barkat, who is a millionaire businessmen and secular, won’t pander to Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Lupolianski did, but his policies will appeal to the religious right in at least one respect: like Bibi Netan­yahu, who was meeting President Barack Obama in Jerusalem this past week, he opposes dividing the city as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, and has promised to build extensively in occupied East Jerusalem.

Most Palestinians boycotted the election, because they believe that voting would constitute de facto recognition of Israel’s sovereignity over the whole city, and on the day Barkat assumed office, Abu Diab organised a protest outside City Hall. The intention was to start at 11am, but when I arrived there was no one there – the municipality was demolishing another house in Silwan and the local community leaders had gathered at the site, on a road parallel to Wadi Hilweh. The police and army had sealed all approaches to the house, but Jawad Siyam and some of the family members were watching the demolition from the far side of the valley on a side road that led to the gates of an Orthodox monastery.

The head of the family, Uraby Ismail Shqer, aged 64, had lived in the house for 55 years. He shared the top floor with his wife, two of his children, and his 84-year-old mother, who had been taken to hospital when the police arrived at 8.30 in the morning. Another 17 members of the family lived on the floors below. His father had built the house, and he said they would not leave. If the house was destroyed, they would put up a tent and live on the land outside.

According to Jimmy Johnson of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who was also in the small crowd, most of the houses built in East Jerusalem in the past 42 years are likely to be in contravention of planning and zoning laws, and approximately 10,000 of them have been issued with demolition orders. The municipality demolishes 150 a year, and there is no way of knowing when a crew might arrive. The police had looked at the house the previous night, but they hadn’t warned the family that they planned to return. Johnson called it a “half-assed operation”, designed to derail the demonstration and remind the citizens of Silwan where power lies. It certainly didn’t seem very well planned. A red truck with a cherry-picker platform was parked on the narrow road beneath a house built into the steep face of the hill, and a group of men was at work on the top floor, demolishing its concrete walls with hammers and hand tools. Showers of rubble poured off the roof, clattered on the red hood of the truck and tumbled down the hillside, joining the screes of stones and litter running between the olive trees.

Later, I walked back to the Old City. Looking up at Silwan from the bottom of Wadi Hilweh Street, I could see the satellite dishes and black water towers on the roofs of Palestinian houses, and the Israeli flags flying above the newly refurbished settlements. As I climbed the cobbled street towards the Meyuhas house where Tzi Goldwag lives, the whine of a reversing car rose from the floor of the valley. A Palestinian labourer was working on the semi-circular patio in the newly planted garden at the back of another renovated house, and there were signs pointing to the Pool of Shiloach, and CCTV cameras monitoring the street. The armed guard sitting on the roof of Tzi Goldwag’s house was further proof that I had entered settler territory.

The contrast with the dirt and congestion in the valley below was marked, but the residents of Bustan remain surprisingly resilient. On my first evening there, I had met another of Abu Diab’s homeless neighbours. Abu Samed Said was a straight-backed great-grandfather, dressed in a green jacket and grey trousers. His dress and bearing were those of a retired British colonel, and his attitude emulated the mythical forbearance of his country’s colonial governors. He had built a house on land fifty yards away from Abu Diab’s, and the municipality had demolished it in 1994. He rebuilt it, and the municipality demolished it again in 2003. A month ago, it had been demolished a third time, but Abu Samed was planning to build again as soon as he could raise the money.

Rebuilding the house was not just a practical necessity, but also a kind of spiritual observance from which he drew a paradoxical affirmation: “When they destroy your house one time and you sleep, God will send you to the fire. But build one time, and another time, and he will always help you.” l

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. Two of his pieces for the NS on the Israel-Palestine conflict are in the shortlist for this year’s Amnesty International Media Awards. For an archive go to: www.newstatesman.com