Our guest blogger is Joseph Dana, a writer and filmmaker living in Jerusalem.
Silwan is a dangerous neighborhood. Not only because of the simmering political tensions between the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers occupying houses in the city, but also because the neighborhood is one of the centers of the drug trade. But of all the cities and villages in the West Bank, the Palestinians of Silwan have a reputation as being on the forefront of resistance to Israel’s steady takeover of Palestinian land. In fact, they often proclaim that the third intifada will begin in Silwan regardless of what is happening in the rest of the West Bank.
Recently, a thirty five year father of three living in Silwan was shot by a private settler security guard. Days of rioting and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli border police followed. I was in Silwan during these riots and at times it felt as though the third intifada was already underway.
Silwan is located in East Jerusalem’s holy basin, which encompasses the north, east and south of the Old City. Over the past five years, the Israeli government has been encouraging Jewish settlers to settle in the holy basin in order to disconnect East Jerusalem from the rest of Palestine, effectively making an equitable two state solution impossible. From Sheikh Jarrah in the north to Silwan in the south, settlers have been taking over and changing the ethnic make up of what would, according to the 2003 Road Map, become the Palestinian capital.
The method of Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and property in East Jerusalem varies. In Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli courts have sided with settler organizations attempting to prove that certain houses in the neighborhood were owned by Jewish families before 1948 and thus should be returned to Jewish families today. This, of course, raises the questions about homes belonging to Palestinian families in 1948 in places like Jaffa, Lod, and West Jerusalem. But that question has been left unanswered. Due to the historical depth of Silwan, settler organizations lead by a group named ELAD, which is listed as a 501 c3 charity in the United States, have invested millions of dollars to create archaeological parks which attempt to strengthen the Jewish claim to the land through archaeology.
CBS’ 60 Minutes recently visited Silwan to interview settler leaders, visit their archaeological parks and discuss the situation with Palestinians. Their report began with a tour of ruins with an ELAD representative named Doron Spielman. Spielman’s last position was as an IDF spokesman, and he has recently been featured in the acclaimed documentary Budrus, which describes one West Bank village’s non-violent struggle against the Israeli separation barrier. In the film, Spielman unabashedly defends the arbitrary placement of the separation wall on Palestinian farmland. In the 60 Minutes segment, he defends the paramount importance of Jewish history in Jerusalem above everything, including the rights of Palestinians who have been living in Silwan for generations.
The segment explores the fever pitch at which Israel is working to excavate biblical ruins in order to provide justification for removal of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The logic on display is clear: The more archaeological ruins that are found in Silwan, the greater rationale for kicking Palestinians out of the neighborhood by demolishing their homes. Shockingly, the 60 Minutes producers do not attempt to water down the story, instead allowing the settlers and their representatives to appear as they are: Zealots hellbent on making permanent Israel’s control over Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Even the secular mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barket, comes across as a politician unwilling to address the suffering of his Palestinian constituents. At one point in the segment, Barket is discussing his plan to demolish twenty two Palestinian houses in order to make room for a garden which will form an important part of the archaeological theme park which he envisions for Silwan. His rationale for demolition is that the houses are considered “illegal” by the Israeli government. What is not explained, however, is that these houses are considered illegal because it is virtually impossible for Palestinians of East Jerusalem to obtain building permits. In a truly Kafkaesque system, Palestinian life is stifled by a myriad of bureaucratic measures which do not allow for any growth.
What is on display in the 60 Minutes segment on Silwan is the complete lack of regard that Israeli officials have for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. From the settler leaders of ELAD to the mayor of Jerusalem, the message of intolerance towards the rights of East Jerusalem Palestinians is clear and unavoidable. At this point, the resistance to Israeli occupation in Silwan is unarmed and largely non-violent. However, the aggressive polices of the Israeli government are pushing Silwan toward a violent outcome. Of course, armed resistance would play right into the hands of the settlers and their supporters, enabling them to cast Palestinians as terrorists who simply oppose the existence of Jews in Jerusalem. The 60 Minutes piece clearly shows that this is not the case.