Palestine Monitor, 22 June 2010
On Monday, the Jerusalem Municipality approved plans for the expansion of an archaeological site beneath the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. The controversial plan would see up to 88 homes in occupied East Jerusalem bulldozed. Michael Carpenter spoke to Silwan residents.
Children watch an Israeli military jeep pass through Silwan. Photo: Michael CarpenterChildren watch an Israeli military jeep pass through Silwan. Photo: Michael Carpenter
The move met with unprecedented condemnation from the US State Department, Israeli peace groups and even Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who accused the planning committee of a “lack of common sense and sense of timing”. Timing has never been a strong point of Municipality Mayor Nir Barkat, who in March waited for Vice-President Joe Biden’s arrival before announcing 1,600 new homes for Jews in occupied East Jerusalem. With Israel under increasing pressure following the flotilla massacre and fledgling peace talks yet to begin in earnest, Jerusalem’s unilateral announcement has exposed Israel to new criticism over their commitment to a peace agreement.
“Israel is telling us they are above the law,” said Hajj Fahkri Abu Diab of the Popular Committee for Silwan. “They don’t want peace because they don’t need peace. We want the people of the world to know that this is not justice. They are not just demolishing homes, they are demolishing lives and families.”
Bulldozers are a common sight in Silwan Photo: Michael Carpenter
According to Monday’s announcement, 22 of the 88 homes in the El-Bustan block of Silwan have been formally approved for demolition. The Municipality claim residents will be re-housed in the West of the city, although they have refused to give details as yet.
The Palestinian neighbourhood has the misfortune of resting on the ancient site of the City of David, just south of Jerusalem’s old city. The Israel organisation ELAD, which funds archaeological development and supports Jewish settlement in the area, has been pressing the Municipality to implement a plan that would replace 88 homes and more than a 1000 Palestinian residents with a historical garden and tourism centre. In a ’compromise’ the city has formally approved the demolition of 22 homes, pledging that the remaining 66 will then be allowed to obtain legal and permanent permits.
Fahkri fears the worst, “We cannot believe them. They say only 22 homes, but they are lying. Our engineers and lawyers know the plans and the details, and they say it is for all 88 homes, not 22.” The committee will discuss this claim at a press conference in Silwan tomorrow. “If they can give permits why do they wait?” Fahkri continues, “they should give permits now before they demolish. We pay taxes and they promise us clean roads and schools. But we have no clean roads and our children cannot go to school. How can we believe them?”
Remains of a previously bulldozed house in Bustan Photo: Rebecca Fudala
The Popular Committee will contact government leaders and representatives around the world to put pressure on Israel. In addition, they plan to maintain a large presence in committee’s tent around the clock, and are inviting all the resident of Bustan to join them on Fridays.
Not far from the committee’s tent is the home of Yacub Rechek, his wife Umm Yusef, and their seven children. It is not yet clear if their house is included in the targeted list of 22. “If they destroy our home, we have no where to go,” says Yusef. “We will be in the street.”
Yusef explains the nightly terror of harassment from Israeli soldiers, usually between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.. She says that soldiers come into the narrow walkways between homes, climb over fences into the yards and bang on the doors of their homes. They ask countless questions about the people living there: how many there are, their names, ages, whether they are terrorists, where are the terrorists.
“Every night they come. Not sometimes. Every night. And they take boys away for the night, 12 or 13 years old. They ask many questions and hurt them, they make them say things that they didn’t do, and the boys are terrified. They do it to make them afraid, to make them weak, to make them want to leave.”
The narrow pathways between the homes of Bustan block in Silwan. Photo: Rebecca Fudala
Umm Yuself shares a harrowing story about a visit by a man from the Municipality in 2008. “Smiling like it was a joke, he said, ’You will be happy if you leave. We will make gardens here for you and your family to see.’ When my husband heard this, he came out, and the man told him, ’You will destroy this house yourself. Not us. You will destroy this house by your own hands.’ My husband built this house himself. He made everything himself. After, he said, ’I can’t see them destroy my house. If they do, they will destroy me.’ That day, he had a heart attack. After midnight, the neighbours came and took him to the hospital. The doctors said that he almost died. Now his heart is weak and he must take medicine all the time.” Yacub is 41 years old.
The family has a message for the world. “You hear that we are terrorists, but we believe in God, and we just want peace for our children. If you support us and protect our children, we will respect you. If you make pressure on Israel, we will stay in our houses. We don’t hate the Jewish people. We hate what they do. They kill our children, destroy our houses and take our land. They don’t treat us like human beings. They will destroy the future of these children.”
Few residents in the area believe Israel wants peace. Muhammad Rajabi, a 23-year-old hospital worker, says “Israel slaps us in the face and says we hurt their hand. They do not want peace. They want all of Jerusalem. They occupy it with soldiers, settlers, parking lots, gardens, history parks, anything but Palestinians. There are 1500 people in Bustan. It is more than just houses. This is our history. This is not Israel. This is Palestinian land, that they took in 1967. Why do I need a permit from Israel to live in my home in Palestine?”
Umm Yusef and her eldest son in their home, threatened with demolition. Photo: Rebecca Fudala
Red Crescent worker Mai also questions Israel’s motives and is concerned about the long term effects of occupation. “It seems that Israel don’t want peace, or they would not do this. The people here have many problems. They love life, and they have dreams, like any people in the world. But they have a conflict in their minds. They want to live their lives like civilians, like everybody else, but they also want to stop what is happening. They have this conflict. Should they just live their lives like normal, or should they try to resist?”
“Our concern is not toward the Jewish people,” Mai says, echoing the views of Umm Yusef. “Our concern is toward the soldiers and the Ministry of Israel. Let the people here live their lives peacefully.”
Plans for the demolition have delayed once before, but unless the Whitehouse, Knesset and resident groups can make their influence tangible, the new peace process could be over before it begins.
Learn more about Silwan’s troubles here