In grief-stricken Silwan–contempt for politicians, and talk of a third intifadah

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Palestinians rioted this afternoon in Silwan, a village right outside the Old City of Jerusalem, following the killing earlier in the day of a Palestinian man by an armed guard at a Jewish settlement in the occupied neighborhood. Joseph Dana posted pictures of the “revolt” here.

An activist friend in West Jerusalem said that the riots were the start of the third intifadah, and with that sense of moment, I went to Silwan. It was 6 o’clock. Smoke rose from fires in the village center, and heavily armed Israeli forces were mustered at the walls of the Old City, in part to protect Jews who were flocking to the Jewish Quarter to celebrate the start of Sukkot.

I walked down the hill past the City of David settlement, a messianic Jewish colony on occupied land, with a big gold sign in English. I found my way to the Wadi Hilwah Information Center. A man with a limp– shot by a settler guard in both legs, I was later told–walked me back to Jawad Siyam, the director of the office. A thin, intense man of about 35, he vented his despair over Palestinian powerlessness as he fielded telephone calls and a teenager brought me coffee. 

The 55,000 people of the village were “sad and shocked” tonight, Siyam said grimly. Villagers had continually complained to Israeli police that the settlers had taken the law into their own hands; but the complaints were ignored. Armed guards in the settlement– which has been spearheaded by a religious group called Elad– roamed the town freely, with the support of the Israeli border police. They threatened Palestinians with impunity.

The incident today began–Siyam said witnesses had told him– when Palestinians and settlers shouted abuse at one another, as they often do, and the guards had fired guns in the air. The Palestinians had run away. The guards had chased them, and shot at them. Two men were seriously injured. Israeli security forces had arrived within minutes, but Samar Sarchan, 35 years old, lay on the ground for an hour before an ambulance arrived. He later died of his injuries.

“It’s disgusting that Palestinian life is so cheap to the settlers, and to the Israeli police, and to Netanyahu himself, and even [Palestinian Authority president] Abu Mazen,” Siyam said with bitterness. “And we see that to Americans, too, we are a very cheap people.”

Siyam said he was not even reading condemnations of the attacks. He is “bored” by them. The only thing that matters is “banishing the people who make these crimes.” But the settlers won’t be banished. They have the support of the Israeli government, as they seek to turn this Palestinian neighborhood in the shadow of the Al-Aksa mosque into a Jewish one.

Is it the beginning of the third intifadah? I asked. Siyam said that the third intifadah began several months ago. It is rising in villages across Palestine that are affected by Israeli encroachment. This intifadah will not involve attacks in West Jerusalem, it will be like the first intifadah– only it will be met by greater Israeli violence.

I asked Siyam about a political solution to the conflict. He is in utter despair about a political solution. Obama’s Cairo speech sounded good 15 months ago, and “we said, let us be optimistic,” but Siyam and others in Silwan knew that Obama would not change American policy– and he hasn’t. “It is the same movie, the same song.” American leaders have done nothing to address the ongoing dispossession by Israel of Palestinian land. 

“Golda Meir said, ’No land, no nation. No nation, no land,'” Siyam said. “And today this means that what is Israel is Israel’s, and what is Palestine, they want to share with us. How can we share our land? Can we share Haifa also, and Tel Aviv?”

As for the current negotiations, he knew that they were a failure when official statements said that leaders would discuss the status of the City of David. Well the City of David is a recent messianic settlement on stolen land. Its status is clear. Why should this even be discussed?

I asked Siyam about whether the international solidarity movement gave him any encouragement. More pessimism. Yes it is a good movement, and the boycott movement is good, but– 

“Unfortunately, they are very weak. These people who want change, they are weak. Palestine is not for them a subject that they take to the heart. It’s volunteer work. They do it when they have time. If you want to solve this problem, you have to take it on as a job, not as a hobby.”

Was he so discouraged because of the killing? Would he have said the same thing two days before? He would have felt it, Siyam said, but not said it. The killing has made him blunter.

I walked back up the hill past the evidence you see everywhere in this land of Palestinian powerlessness and Israeli power. Muscular armed guards stood outside the City of David settlement. Two of them were arguing in English about a legal matter– in American accents. At the top of the hill a dozen Israeli armored vehicles lined the road on either side, and soldiers walked about nervously, with semi-automatic rifles in their hands. Some ate their dinner on the hood of a truck. A group of commando-looking soldiers strapped on black bulletproof vests, as if preparing for a raid. 

Siyam had said that Israel could wipe out the village easily, destroy it with rockets and grenades, and the world would condemn Israel for a week and then forget about it. The other option, he said, is that the world would grant Palestinians the only thing they have ever sought, political freedom. Who can blame Palestinians for thinking that day is very far away.  

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