By David Kattenburg
As Donald Trump ponders whether or not to fulfill his campaign vow to transfer the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – thereby endorsing Israel’s claim to the city as its “eternal, undivided capital” – Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is moving heaven and earth to cleanse East Jerusalem of its Palestinian residents, thus consolidating Jewish supremacy where Palestinians aim to establish the capital of their future state.
Captured by Israel in June 1967, then annexed – in violation of international law – East Jerusalem is now home to an estimated 200,000 Jews and a quarter million Palestinians. Over the years, Israel has deployed a variety of tactics to turn the demographics around: systematically denying building permits to Palestinians; bulldozing Palestinian homes and shops; limiting access to water and sanitation services; expelling entire neighborhoods – Abu Dis, for example – by sealing them off on the occupied West Bank side of its Separation Wall, almost an hour by car from the center of Jerusalem, more directly reached in a taxi in fifteen minutes.
Some of Israel’s measures border on the sadistic: Coercing Palestinians to give up their Jerusalem residency by refusing family reunification requests; revoking the residency of families whose children have committed violent crimes against Israelis, or who’ve simply absented themselves for too long.
While immiserating the lives of Palestinian Jerusalemites, Israeli authorities have encouraged Jewish settlers to move in. Palestinian neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, a fifteen-minute walk north of the old city, and Silwan, beneath the city’s southern walls, just to the west of the Mount of Olives, have been the scenes of brutal, sudden dispossession — Jewish settlers occupying Palestinian homes, hurling Palestinian property onto the street, drilling holes through walls, blocking passageways — as Israeli soldiers and police stand by and laugh.
I went on a long stroll to Silwan, one fine day in May 2016, heading east along the northern walls of the old city, then south, past crooked headstones in an old Muslim cemetery, then right for a long walk up Jericho Road. Gazing west now, above a sea of Jewish head stones glistening white beneath a blazing sun, beyond the Tomb of Absalom, the golden Dome of the Rock peaked over the golden crest of the old city’s ramparts. At the top of Jericho Road, the east Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al-Mud appears. Squeezed against the edge of the Valley of Kidron, along narrow streets, an intrepid visitor enters Batan al-Hawa — one of Silwan’s half dozen neighborhoods.
Silwan means tranquility, or peace of mind. Little of this sort is readily available for Silwan’s estimated 55,000 Palestinians. Discrimination, harassment and violence is their daily lot. In densely-packed Batan al-Hawa, eighty-one Palestinian families now face eviction at the hands of the Jerusalem Municipality, a variety of Israeli government departments, and a right-wing settler organization named Ateret Cohanim (backed by several North American entities), to which nine of Batan al-Hawa’s fifty parcels have been assigned.
Silwan’s Jewish settlers are not the sort of newcomers who arrive, smiling shyly, with hellos and a few gifts for future neighbors who’ve been living here for generations. Rather, they show up in the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by armed police and private security guards, kicking down doors, tossing sleepy eyed children and property onto the street, not to mention seniors (not citizens) deserving so much better.
Gazing down the narrow, winding streets beneath me, I hesitated for a moment. A pair of youths approached. One of them spoke English, and offered to show me the way. He urged me to put my camera inside my bag. At first I did, then pulled it out again. He invited me inside a building, where he offered me a glass of water to drink.
After a few moments of friendly chat we bid adieu, and I descended the steep streets to the bottom of the valley. There, beside the entrance to Gihon Spring – from which, tradition has it, King David irrigated his gardens – I met another man who bid me hop into his car for a short ride to a nearby tourist shop. Save for a few humble tourist trinkets, the shelves were empty. The owner, behind a counter, called upon a youth to fetch me a glass of cold, freshly squeezed orange juice. I drank the juice, we spoke a bit more, then the first man drove me back up the hill to the Old City.
I returned to Silwan a few days later, this time from its western side, through the Dung Gate, on the Old City’s southern margin, then up Derech Ha’Ophel and south along Al-Tourba street (can’t recall the Hebrew name assigned to it by Jerusalem authorities). A few steps down the steep hill, one of Jerusalem’s mega-tourist destinations – the City of David – steals a commanding view of Silwan and the Valley of Kidron. The archaeological site, presumed to be Jerusalem’s original location and King David’s residence (disputed by some), offers right-wing Israelis a splendid platform for asserting their exclusive claim to the city, and to the lowly Palestinian neighborhoods beneath.
Beginning in 1986, the Ir David Foundation (Ilad) has played a lead role in developing the site, in cooperation with Israel’s Nature and Parks and Antiquities Authorities. Non-governmental archaeologists have taken Ilad to task for carrying out excavations in a reckless manner, alleged political aims in mind. Others accuse Ilad of dispossessing local Palestinians, in cahoots with the Jewish National Fund. Israelis of the highest credentials have given the site a thumbs down.
For the Palestinian residents of Silwan, the consequences of City of David excavations have been horrible: nighttime drilling; crumbling ceilings; homes bulldozed in search of Hebrew relics.
I spent half an hour wandering around “Jerusalem Walls National Park.” This being Saturday Sabbath, the ticket kiosk was conveniently shut tight, enabling me to stroll about without having to contribute.
Straight to the viewing platform I strode, for a long look at little Batan al-Hawa, clinging to the Valley of Kidron’s eastern slope, then headed out the park gates. To the left, a couple of hundred yards down the hill, through the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh, one comes upon a spot breathless Jewish and Christian Zionists surely never visit.
The Wadi Hilweh Information Center has been a gathering spot for the neighborhood’s 6000 residents since 2007. I spoke with Sahar Abbasi, the center’s deputy director and woman/children activities coordinator. The center has provided a safe space where several hundred local kids can read, write, play music and do theater, safe from harassment by armed settlers, and from the temptation to throw stones, then get dragged off to Jerusalem’s notorious Russian Compound, Sahar told me. (This and this report describe Israeli abuse of children at the hands of soldiers and police).
Of course, Palestinians are sociable and creative. A women’s group formed in 2009. Mothers, sisters and wives gathered to cook, sew, embroider, create jewelry and mosaics, and to discuss their legal rights; how to prepare for arrest and interrogation, or just to drink coffee and talk. Youth formed a rap group called Dandara.
Silwan Palestinians are unhappy with how they’re treated. They are tax-paying Jerusalem residents, Sahar told me, but receive few if any municipal services in return. To the contrary, the threat of eviction hangs perennially over their heads.
Sahar is typical. She holds Jordanian nationality, and is free to travel through Israel proper. But her Jerusalem residency card is only good for ten years, and what Israel gives, it takes away. Stripping families of their Jerusalem residency is a favored form of collective punishment.
There are no truly safe spaces in Wadi Silweh, Sahar tells me. Police go wherever they wish. Kids are liable to be arrested the second they step onto the street.
On more trivial matters, East Jerusalem authorities, soldiers, police and settlers go to great length to impress upon Palestinians how worthless they’re deemed to be. Wall art is declared “provocative” and painted over.
In spite of it all, Sahar Abbasi thinks Palestinians and Jews can live side by side in Silwan, provided terms are equal. Yemeni Jews and Arabs coexisted harmoniously in late 19th century Silwan, her grandmother told her. Back in the eighties and nineties, Jewish students and tourists came and went without a fuss, Sahar says. Why not today?
If Donald Trump ends up endorsing Jewish supremacy over all of Jerusalem, Jews and Palestinians will clearly have to figure out how. Until they do, blatant, hardcore apartheid will no doubt prevail throughout poor little Silwan for an indefinite period of time.
Listen to these audio-pics. All images by David Kattenburg.