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Confronting Settlement Expansion in East Jerusalem

merip_logoJoel Beinin, Middle East Report Online, 14 February 2010
(Joel Beinin is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and a contributing editor of Middle East Report.)

The neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a 20-minute walk up the hill from the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem, has become the focal point of the struggle over the expanding project of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the first week of February a settler in Sheikh Jarrah attacked a young boy from an Arab family evicted so that Jewish activists could move in. The al-Ghawis were displaced in August 2009, and since then they have been living in front of their former home in a tent, refusing to move in protest of the eviction. Settlers have gone after them more than once. On this occasion, an older al-Ghawi, Nasir, was beaten and menaced with an M-16 by a settler when he attempted to protect the young boy. Police arrived on the scene and disarmed the settler. But they also served Nasir with a restraining order forbidding him to enter Sheikh Jarrah for 15 days. Then the police destroyed the al-Ghawis’ tent. The makeshift abode was rebuilt, but the next day police and municipal officials came to the site and threatened to dismantle it a second time.

Police Intimidation

Every Friday since December, Israeli, Palestinian and international demonstrators have gathered in Sheikh Jarrah to protest Jewish settlers’ takeover of the homes of the al-Ghawis and two other Palestinian families in the neighborhood, the Hanouns and al-Kurds, who are also living in tents out front. In Hebrew and Arabic, the activists chant, to the beat of rhythmic drumming: “Thou shalt not steal. Get out of Sheikh Jarrah immediately.” “Sheikh Jarrah is Palestine. Evacuate the settlers.”

The protests have been entirely peaceful. But Israeli police have arrested nearly 100 of the activists, beating many in the process. Among those detained on January 15 was the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad. Another form of police intimidation is the intrusive photographing of protesters by undercover agents posing as journalists. One such “journalist,” later identified through his Facebook page, even physically assaulted a demonstrator with impunity.

At the outset, the demonstrators marched to Sheikh Jarrah from downtown West Jerusalem. But the police will not issue permits for such marches if they are larger than 50 people, and they no longer permit demonstrators or journalists to step into the street where the settlers now live. So the rallies convene in a park nearby. While the demonstrations have grown larger, the number of Palestinians participating has shrunk because the consequences of being arrested are much more severe for them than for Israelis or foreigners.

Police harassment of the evicted families, restrictions on peaceable assembly and the arrest and abuse of demonstrators are all aspects of Israel’s escalating efforts to repress non-violent, popular resistance to the settlement project in the occupied West Bank, which is nowhere more aggressive than in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stridently excluded Jerusalem from the parameters of the ten-month pause in settlement construction he announced in a belated and partial response to President Barack Obama’s now abandoned demand for a freeze on new settlement activity.

In Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Ras al-‘Amud and other Arab neighborhoods surrounding the Old City, the radical, religious settler organizations Ateret Cohanim and Elad are remaking the demography and geography of the city, making it increasingly unlikely that it could serve as the capital of a Palestinian state. Moreover, the expansion of metropolitan Jerusalem to the east threatens to cut the West Bank in half, undermining the possibility of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state of any sort in the West Bank. Ateret Cohanim, Elad and the settlement project in Ras al-‘Amud are funded heavily by the American Jewish bingo and gambling magnate Irving Moskowitz, who is ideologically committed to “judaizing” the eastern precincts of the city.[1]

Court Battles

Israeli courts do not work on the Sabbath. So anyone arrested on a Friday afternoon, no matter how trivial or spurious the charge, must remain incarcerated until Saturday evening. Hagai El-Ad and 16 others were released at the conclusion of the Sabbath after their January 15 arrest because the Jerusalem magistrates’ court rejected police assertions that the demonstration had required prior authorization because the protesters shouted anti-occupation slogans and used a megaphone.

In defense of the right to peaceable assembly, a much larger group of about 350 people — including Muhammad Barakeh, a Member of Knesset and chairman of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, and former MKs Uri Avnery, Avram Burg and Yossi Sarid — gathered in Sheikh Jarrah the following Friday. The police declared the gathering illegal and arrested 22 demonstrators, loading them onto vans along with their placard declaring, “Jews and Arabs Don’t Want To Be Enemies.” Commenting in his weekly column in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Sarid wrote, “If the police view Friday’s demonstration as a criminal act, then the democratic right to demonstrate has been destroyed, and Jerusalem has begun to resemble Tehran.”[2]

The demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah erupted in response to an August Israeli court decision evicting the Hanouns and the al-Ghawis, who together number 53 people, including 20 children. The families’ clothing and furniture were dumped on the street and their homes were handed over to a settler organization, which immediately occupied them. The al-Kurd family had been kicked out already, in November 2008. All three families are part of a group of 28 Palestinian refugee families (altogether, approximately 450 people) who were settled in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956 based on an agreement between the UN and the government of Jordan, which then ruled the area.

The Sephardic (Jewish) Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee maintain that they have deeds to the properties dating to 1875. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 the two committees asserted their claims to ownership. A lengthy legal battle ensued. In 1982 the lawyer for the Palestinian residents agreed to an out-of-court settlement granting them the status of “protected tenants.” This status would ordinarily mean they could not be evicted as long as they continued to pay rent. Nonetheless, the Hanoun and al-Ghawi families were removed in 2002.

They returned to their homes after a 2006 Israeli Supreme Court ruling determined that Jewish claims to the properties were not incontrovertibly established. Subsequently, a Palestinian named Sulayman Darwish Hijazi presented documents showing that his family has owned the buildings since at least 1927. Lower courts have not recognized this evidence of Arab ownership. Consequently, the two families were evicted for a second time in August 2009.

Settler organizations have regularly employed claims of prior Jewish ownership to seize properties in East Jerusalem. Some of these claims are legitimate, as thousands of Jews did live in and around the Old City, including in Sheikh Jarrah, until Jerusalem was divided as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli courts have disallowed some settler claims. But the executive authorities rarely evict Jewish settlers, no matter how dubious the documentary evidence of their ownership. Moreover, no Israeli court has recognized the property rights of any of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have resided in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since becoming refugees in 1948 and who owned land and buildings subsequently included in the territory of the state of Israel.

“We’re Just Cleaning”

Another settlement flash point is the Palestinian village of Silwan (pop. 55,000), which lies south of the Dung Gate of the Old City. There, ancient claims of ownership based on archaeology are being used to dispossess the Arab inhabitants. The Elad Association, whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David,” has been subsidizing excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Silwan since the late 1990s.

Elad believes that Silwan is the site of the original Jewish settlement in Jerusalem established by King David, on a slope below where David’s son Solomon built the first Temple. Some Israeli archaeologists contest this biblical version of the area’s history,[3] and to date no archaeological evidence of King David’s presence in the area or of the existence of a Temple on the scale described in the Bible has been found. The excavations funded by Elad are meant to supply the proof for its claim. In the process, they are destroying the evidence of the presence of many other peoples and cultures on the site — from the Canaanites who established the city 5,000 years ago to the Muslims who ruled it from the seventh to the twentieth centuries.

A videotape of a guided tour of the dig shows that Elad admits it is undermining the structural integrity of the homes of the Arab residents of Silwan. Elad’s founder, David Be’eri, explains, “At a certain point we came to court. The judge approached me and said, ‘You’re digging under their houses.’ I said, ‘I’m digging under their houses? King David dug under their houses. I’m just cleaning.’ He said to me, ‘Clean as much as possible.’ Since then, we’re just cleaning; we’re not digging.”[4]

The epicenter of Elad’s activities in Silwan is a district known to most of its inhabitants as Wadi Hilwa. On January 2, an excavation tunnel dug by Elad caused part of the main road of Wadi Hilwa to collapse, creating an enormous pothole. Although Silwan has been part of what Israeli governments since 1967 have called the “united and eternal capital of the Jewish people,” no police or other municipal authorities were immediately dispatched to the scene. The police arrived only four hours later to help rescue a bus serving the settler population, which had driven into the pothole. Through dubious legal maneuvers and other chicanery, Elad has occupied about 25 percent of Wadi Hilwa.

Be’eri, a former officer in an Israel army unit which specialized in impersonating Arabs, came to Wadi Hilwa in 1986 and, posing as a tour guide, befriended one of the residents, Musa ‘Abbasi. ‘Abbasi unwittingly helped Be’eri collect information on the legal status of houses in the village and which owners were living abroad. Be’eri used this information to petition the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property to have these buildings declared “absentee property.” In October 1991 Be’eri took possession of ‘Abbasi’s house.

Many of the Arab homes in Silwan were built “illegally.” After Israel annexed Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, some villagers who also owned and farmed land in the Hebron area moved back to their property in Silwan and built homes on it in order to maintain their presence. These structures did not appear on the aerial photos of Silwan taken earlier by the Israel Defense Forces and so were declared “illegal.” Others who have lived continually in Silwan expanded their homes or built new ones for their growing families. Since the Jerusalem municipality rarely gives permits for construction by Arabs, they had to build illegally. Demolition orders have been issued for 88 homes sheltering some 3,600 people in the Bustan neighborhood to make room for the expanding settler presence.

Elad has also used fraudulent deeds and purchases conducted through front men to acquire property. In 1992 an Israeli government investigation concluded that Jewish settler organizations had acquired Arab property in East Jerusalem using false affidavits, misapplication of the Absentee Property Law, illegal transfers of public property to private, ideologically motivated associations and illegal transfers of tens of millions of shekels in public monies to settler organizations. Nonetheless, in one recent case that has gained attention, Jerusalem’s right-wing mayor, Nir Barkat, has refused to implement a court order to evacuate “Beit Yonatan” in Silwan, which is occupied by settlers affiliated with Ateret Cohanim.[5]

In 2002 the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority gave Elad a ten-year contract to manage the “City of David National Park” located in Wadi Hilwa. The Israel Antiquities Authority, reflecting the opinions of many professional archaeologists, has expressed reservations about Elad’s excavation methods. But it did not oppose awarding the contract.

Elad also plans to build on the Giv‘ati parking lot, which is used by buses taking tourists to visit the nearby Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Israel Antiquities Authorities objected to proceeding with the construction without an archaeological survey of the site. So Elad is now funding salvage excavations aimed at quickly finding and preserving evidence of a Jewish presence in preparation for constructing a large function hall, a commercial center, guest rooms and an underground parking lot. Elad’s presence at the parking lot has taken away the livelihoods of Arab residents of Silwan who formerly worked there, such as Jawad Siyam, who sold souvenirs and refreshments to tourists. Now Elad keeps the tourists away.

Distress and Solidarity

Silwan is one of the poorest parts of East Jerusalem. Its residents pay the same taxes as Israeli citizens but receive few municipal services in return. There are no playgrounds, green parks, public libraries, sports facilities or public medical clinics. The dearth of public services depresses private investment — there are no cafés or cinemas, either. The settler takeover of tourist-related economic activities has further impoverished Silwan. An estimated 75 percent of its children live under the poverty line.

In response to economic distress and settler encroachment, Silwan residents established the Madaa (Horizons) Silwan Community Center in 2007. Danny Felsteiner, an Israeli student in a Dutch musical conservatory, and his wife, Fabienne van Eck, volunteered to teach music in the center during summer visits to Jerusalem. When Danny finished his studies in The Hague, he and Fabienne moved to Jerusalem to teach music at the center on a long-term basis. Danny explains his motivations in an e-mail: “For 42 years the Jerusalem municipality has completely neglected Silwan. Madaa Silwan was the residents’ answer to this neglect and discrimination. I care about this country and this city, and that’s why I put so much effort into giving the children in Silwan what my country, Israel, denies them: the right to be children, to play, to learn, to grow, especially through music. Children are the future of this region, and if we take away their childhood, I’m afraid the future might be darker than the present.”

Danny and Fabienne set up a non-profit foundation in the Netherlands to help fund the center and helped the center’s staff prepare a grant proposal for a ten-month library project. The Dutch legation to Ramallah accepted the proposal and is funding the purchase of books and computers for the library. The grant has allowed the center to hire Muna Hasan, a young Palestinian woman, as librarian. In addition to music instruction, the center now offers classes in art, dance, theater, sports, computer skills and languages. The center promotes non-violent methods to secure the civil and social rights of the residents of Silwan and collaborates with other Palestinian-Israeli organizations like Ta‘ayyush (Coexistence).

The community center has also contributed substantially to transforming Silwan from a center of poverty, drugs and criminal activity into a node in the network of Palestinian grassroots resistance. Riyad, a former drug user, now volunteers at the center and has recently planted a garden in the entryway.

Jawad Siyam, the ex-souvenir vendor and one of the center’s leaders, says, “We are not going to call for freeing Palestine. Each neighborhood has its own problems.” For the residents of Silwan, these local travails are not only the loss of their property and livelihoods, but discrimination in every aspect of their daily lives from the assessment of parking fines to the removal of Arabic street signs and their replacement with Hebrew signs. Wadi Hilwa has become Ma‘alot ‘Ir David, or City of David Heights.

The local character of the struggle in Silwan and the close collaboration between Israelis, many of whom, like Danny Felsteiner, have learned Arabic, and Palestinians are characteristic of popular struggles that have developed throughout the West Bank since Israel began constructing its separation barrier in 2002.[6] The embattled villages of Bil‘in and Budrus, along the route of the wall in the West Bank, are known globally as centers of non-violent resistance to occupation involving Palestinians, Israelis and internationals alike. But it has been more difficult to sustain resistance and establish coordination among Arab residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods than in villages of the West Bank. Jerusalem is the center of Israel’s power in the West Bank. There are already nearly 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. And the economic dependence of the city on tourism undermines any kind of broad-based militancy.

Silwan is, therefore, exceptional in the Jerusalem area. The Madaa Silwan Community Center has created enough bonding in the community to motivate residents to organize to defend their rights. This strengthened sense of solidarity led to the establishment of the Silwan Information Center, whose mission is “to tell the stories of our forefathers…to all people without reservation, hesitation, intolerance, or racism.” While acknowledging “all the civilizations that have passed through the village,” the Information Center’s website asserts the “historical and humanitarian right” of the Arab residents of Silwan to remain there.

To that end, the Silwan Information Center has effectively used the Israeli civil legal system to challenge some of the property claims of the settlers and succeeded in obtaining the court order to evacuate Beit Yonatan. As Siyam says, “They accuse us of being radicals because we go to court to get our rights. But we don’t go to an Iranian court. We go to an Israeli court.”

As the cases of the al-Ghawis, Hanouns and al-Kurds show, however, Israeli courts have proven unreliable protectors at best of the residency rights of East Jerusalem Arabs. In the face of the settlement’s project’s relentless forward creep, protesters continue to assemble on Fridays to voice their demand: “From Sheikh Jarrah to Silwan, stop [Jewish] colonization.”



[1] Guardian, July 19, 2009.
[2] Yossi Sarid, “Jerusalem Is Starting to Resemble Tehran,” Ha’aretz, January 24, 2010.
[3] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: Free Press, 2006). See also the information at
[4] Ha’aretz, October 5, 2009.
[6] Joel Beinin, “Building a Different Middle East,” The Nation, January 15, 2010.

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