The Municipality of Jerusalem intends to demolish an entire East Jerusalem neighborhood — 88 homes housing 1000 residents — in the el-Bustan area of Silwan village in East Jerusalem, close to the walls of the Old City. The reason, according to the City Engineer, Uri Shitreet, who issued the orders, is that this area is an important cultural and historical site for the Jewish nation because it stands on the site where King David established his kingdom. The aim, says Shitreet, is to return this densely-populated Palestinian part of the city “to its landscape of yore.” The operation, the largest demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem since 1967, is code-named “The Cherry in the Crown.” The earliest houses in the neighborhood date from the 1940s and ’50s, though most were built in the 1980s and early ’90s on private land belonging to Silwan villagers. Some of the houses in this area were built before 1967 and another portion were built in the 1970’s. The first forty houses have already received demolition orders.
Since the Israeli government zoned almost all the unbuilt-upon land of Palestinian East Jerusalem as “open green space” after the 1967 war (and since Palestinians would not be allowed to live in Jewish West Jerusalem), there is little space for them at all. The reasons are political, not urban. Amir Cheshin, Mayor Teddy Kollek’s Advisor on Arab Affairs and one of the architects of the post-1967 policy, describes the intention in detail in his book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 31-32):
[In 1967], Israel’s leaders adopted two basic principles in their rule of east Jerusalem. The first was to rapidly increase the Jewish population in east Jerusalem. The second was to hinder growth of the Arab population and to force Arab residents to make their homes elsewhere. It is a policy that has translated into a miserable life for the majority of east Jerusalem Arabs.Israel turned urban planning into a tool of the government, to be used to help prevent the expansion of the city’s non-Jewish population. It was a ruthless policy, if only for the fact that the needs (to say nothing of the rights) of Palestinian residents were ignored. Israel saw the adoption of strict zoning plans as a way of limiting the number of new homes built in Arab neighborhoods, and thereby ensuring that the Arab percentage of the city’s population 28.8 in 1967 did not grow beyond this level. Allowing “too many” new homes in Arab neighborhoods would means mean “too many” Arab residents in the city. The idea was to move as many Jews as possible into east Jerusalem, and move as many Arabs as possible out of the city entirely. Israeli housing policy in east Jerusalem was all about this numbers game.
Planners with the city engineer’s office, when drawing the zoning boundaries for the Arab neighborhoods, limited them to already built-up areas. Adjoining open areas were either zoned “green,” to signify they were off-limits to development, or left unzoned until they were needed for the construction of Jewish housing projects. The 1970 Kollek plan contains the principles upon which Israeli housing policy is based to this day expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods.
Shitreet thus bases his decision to demolish on the fact that the “King’s Valley,” as he calls the Bustan neighborhood, has been designated by the Israeli authorities as “open green space,” therefore off limits to Palestinian building even though the home-owners own the land. Although the Israeli Master Plan overrules the Jordanian Master Plan for the city that allowed residential building in the Bustan neighborhood, international law prohibits Israel, as an Occupying Power, from imposing its own laws and regulations. Nevertheless, Shitreet has instructed city officials to deal “most forcefully” with building code violations, and says that the process of bringing law suits against the Palestinian residents has already begun.
The politics of Silwan go far beyond demographic considerations, however, or even concerns over parks. Silwan or “The City of David” as it has been rechristened by the Israeli authorities who opened a visitors’ center on the site — is considered the site where the city of Jerusalem began, and thus it is coveted by Israeli settlers who have conducted an aggressive campaign to remove Palestinians from the place. In fact, a settler organization called El Ad focuses exclusively on the Silwan area, and does so with discreet help from the Israeli government. In 1992 Haim Klugman, then-Director General of the Ministry of Justice, issued what became known as the Klugman Report. It reported that tens of millions of dollars had been given to the settler groups, including El Ad, by government ministries; that false documents supplied by Arab collaborators had been used to classify Palestinian houses as “absentee property;” that the Israel Lands Authority and the Jewish National Fund had allotted much of Silwan to the settlers without offering it up for tender; and that public funds had been used to finance the settlers’ legal expenses.
“We break up Arab continuity and their claim to East Jerusalem by putting in isolated islands of Jewish presence in areas of Arab population,” say Uri Bank, a leader of the pro-settlement Moledet party. “Then we definitely try to put these together to form our own continuity. It’s just like Legos – you put the pieces out there and connect the dots. That is Zionism. That is the way the state of Israel was built. Our eventual goal is Jewish continuity in all of Jerusalem.”
In the past decade El Ad has taken over more than 50 houses in Silwan, displacing the Palestinian families (often in nighttime operations) and moving in Israeli Jewish families. Despite ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes over the years, settlers just completed a seven-storey apartment building in Silwan which now stands over the village sporting a huge Israeli flag. The City Engineer’s office claims it did not notice the construction. Needless to say, no demolition order has been issued, nor will be.
“Let there be no qualms about it: we want this to be a Jewish neighborhood,” says Gary Speiser, an avionics engineer quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, who was among the first Jewish residents to move into the neighborhood under the umbrella of Elad. “It is not just another Jewish site. It is the Jewish site. And we cannot trust that if this remains an Arab neighborhood, Jews will always be able to come here. So now is the time. We’ve been dreaming of coming back for 3,000 years. This is the fulfillment of our dreams.”
Nor is the timing coincidental. Many in the Israeli peace movement suspect that such a major initiative would not come from the Municipality, and certainly not from the lowly City Engineer. More than likely it comes from above, from Sharon and government officials anxious to placate the settlers over the Gaza redeployment by presenting them with a Jewish neighborhood on a prime site next to the Old City and with an archaeological garden in place of the Palestinian residents.
All this is part of an explicit process of “Judaizing” Jerusalem, says Meir Margalit, a former Jerusalem City Councilman and a member of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. “Look at the larger picture,” he says. “Put the settlement actions in Silwan together with the ongoing demolition of Arab houses in East Jerusalem. Put it together with the building of the wall through Abu Dis. All these features together paint a very dramatic picture where the Israeli government, together with the settlers, are part of a national program to make the life of Palestinians so hard they will leave Jerusalem. It is that simple.”
Margalit acknowledges the City of David’s extraordinary archeological value. “But the issue is who lives in the village, not where David walked 3,000 years ago,” he says. “The country is full of places where Jewish history is found. For that matter, you can even find such places in Iraq. But this cannot be a reason to take houses of people who have lived there all their lives. This is not about buying houses. This is political.”
That view finds confirmation in the words of Ruhama Avraham, the Deputy Minister of Interior. Responding in the Knesset to criticism from MKs, she “blessed” the initiative, adding that besides the need to punish “law breakers,” “a large portion” of the residents of Silwan are illegal immigrants from the Hebron area (Palestinians from the West Bank are prohibited from working or living in Jerusalem) and, to top it all, “there is a fear that terrorists have infiltrated them.” She also admitted that there is no connection between the planned demolitions and plans for a national park (Ha’aretz 6.2.05).
As for Shitreet, he vows to continue his plans of mass demolition “no matter what pressures are brought upon me.” He has many instruments at his disposal. Houses built before 1967 are not “illegal” and there exists no legal way to destroy them. Nor, because of the statute of limitations, is there a legal way to demolish houses built without a permit more than seven years ago. These technical obstacles Shitreet intends to remove by use of statute (5)212 of the Israeli Laws of Building and Planning. “The building offense runs out, but there’s no statute of limitations on using the illegal house, so we can bar residents from entering their homes, even if we can’t destroy them,” Shitreet says. By sealing the homes and preventing their Palestinian residents from entering them, he can then demolish them as “abandoned” or “absentee” property. Statute 5(212) was last used in 1967 to clear much of the Old City of its Palestinian inhabitants. And that, as Banks says, is Zionism.
We at ICAHD call upon the international community to express its opposition to the plans of the Israeli government and the Jerusalem Municipality to demolish an entire Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Destroying Palestinian homes and communities has become an obsession with Israel, proceeding without pause despite initiatives to renew a diplomatic process of peace or create that “calm” on the ground that Israeli insists upon so vociferously. The threatened Silwan action contravenes not only the spirit but the letter of the Road Map, which specifies that, already in Phase 1, “the Government of Israel ends actions undermining trust, including attacks in civilian areas and confiscation/demolition of Palestinian homes/propertyas a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction.”
Stop the demolitions immediately!
JEFF HALPER is Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).