Settler security camera in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (All Photos: Allison Deger)
Nearly once a week clashes break out in East Jerusalem. Settlers live on top of Palestinian businesses or across the street from Palestinian homes, and white security cameras peek over the sides of buildings every 20 feet like, flags in an American suburb. They prowl for arrest around the clock, capturing the faces of Palestinian children. At times the armed private guards in striped t-shirts that tail each settler provoke neighborhood kids. In some instances the children throw stones. In those cases later the same night the police will show up and arrest them, recognizing their faces from the security recordings. In other instances, the children will awaken to tear gas canisters smashing through their windows.
Israeli settlement on the second story of Palestinian owned buildings in the Christian quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement situated between Palestinian businesses
near the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, East Jerusalem
In other parts of the city, near the Haram al-Sharif, the compound that encapsulates al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, daily religious settlers plead with the Israeli military to let them pass through the tourist check point so they can enter the Muslim holy sites. There is a movement among Israel’s hardliners to pray at al-Aqsa mosque, and destroy it in order to build a Third Temple on the site. According to a recent report by Shany Littman in Haaretz Magazine, 92% of religious Jews believe they have a right to pray at the location of the historic and long destroyed Second Temple. Littman reports, “52 percent of the entire Jewish public” believe Jews should be able pray at the mosque, and “17 percent of Israeli Jews, religious and secular alike, want to see a Third Temple built.” Since 1967 it has been illegal for Jews to pray at the mosque, yet in cases like last Friday not only did Jews break the law and pray, they brought in busloads of faithful extremists.
For the past two months clashes have broken out in East Jerusalem once or twice a week resulting in either arrests or mob violence against Palestinians. When I visited Haram al-Sharif it was the day after a violent confrontation between 140 Israeli-rightists on a Sukkot themed tour to the mosque. Twenty-four hours after the fighting, the Israeli military was not letting religious Jews into the compound. Here everyone is profiled, including Israelis and with a glance at the black pants and payot, the soldiers knew trouble would follow. The youths forced their fingers through the gated door and pleaded once more for entry. The military had locked the gate, and then one solider shooed the teenagers away. That is all it takes to prevent a major outburst of violence that, like the day before that ended with tear gas billowing inside of al-Aqsa.
Of course when it’s quiet in East Jerusalem, that is the time between chemical dispersants, arrests and public beatings, there is still a tremendous level of violence pressed upon Palestinians. And oddly, although everyday there are literally hundreds of tourists mulling through the streets they do not see the violence taking place. Stand on the Via Dolorosa, a path Jesus was believed to have once walked, and Christian pilgrims flood over the stone walkway. They take pictures and sing hymns, but they are blind to the settler houses on this street that evicted Palestinians in the 1980s. Their tour guides manufacture their entire experience, lying to them about what is in front of them. At one overlook point in East Jerusalem I overheard a tour where the guide told the tourists that the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem were part of the “Judea Desert.” He mentioned only the Jewish sites, excluding the Mukataa, the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah. This showing and telling, yet omitting constitutes a major emphasis of hasbara programs, which offer free trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. So many times have I heard the Zionist argument, “just go and see Israel for yourself.” But when guides do not explain that the black smoke off in the distance is tires burning from a demonstration, and the house above you is filled with extremists who used false affidavits to evict a family, tourists are able to walk through conquest in action without noticing any conflict.
The Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, now under threat of demolition by the City of David, or the Elad company.
Last Saturday after passing the holy sites I walked through the narrow corridors of Silwan into a sub-section of the neighborhood called the Bustan, where it was quiet except for the occasional giggles of children popping their heads over mine from nearby verandas. They asked my name and where I was from. Just after introductions, the kids, no more than eight years old, would point in unison to a settler home. Invariably the commotion would catch the ear of the private armed security whose presence is paid for by city taxes. On quiet days, the armed guards turn away after spotting the children.
The Bustan is an embattled area for no other reason than a biblical tale. It is said that the wife of King David once walked through this region and so the city of Jerusalem has posted demolition orders on almost every home—of course excluding the two settler houses. Both public and private city planners run the permit process in this part of East Jerusalem. In fact, this area is the only neighborhood where the Israeli government shares municipal duties with a private company. Elad, or the City of David, wants to evict around 1,000 Palestinians and in place of these families, which number between 65 and 85, construct a Green Zone. The nature reserve is slotted to geographically connect to the City of David Visitor Center at the top of a hill near the Old City, effectively bisecting Silwan.
When it is quiet like last Saturday, still the Elad company and the Jerusalem municipality illegally construct archaeological tunnels underneath Palestinian homes. According to one archeologist who disagreed with the planning process, there are nine tunnels that run underneath Silwan for the purpose of excavating Jewish remnants. Due to Israeli legislation on antiquities, the presence of artifacts found from these tunnels could green-light further demolition orders on the homes above. And the tunnels also cause another danger for homeowners — collapse. There is one house in the Bustan where the living room floor gave in to the tunnel. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition, the family sofa fell into the gaping hole.
After walking through the neighborhood I was invited into the home of a Palestinian family that live within eye-shot of a massive seven-story settler structure called “Jonathan’s House.” A typical settler edifice, the home is adorned with tattered Israeli flags and security cameras. Settlers moved into the building in 2004, and unlike other cases in Silwan, they legally purchased the building, however the previous homeowner is currently in an Israeli prison on charges unknown to the neighbors. I watched as adult men and one woman carried baby items into the building. According to the neighbors, who wished to remain anonymous, the settlers are unpleasant neighbors. They are loud, play music late and just that day they had erected an over-sized light on the roof, which was expected to cause problems during sleeping hours.
But living next to a settlement causes more serious problems. Just a few weeks ago the settlers, or their guards shot two tear gas canisters into the Palestinian home, one into the living room and one into the youngest boy’s room. When the child’s father tried to open the window to air out the home because the children were choking, more tear gas entered from the outside. And another time, when Palestinians families in the area got together recently for a hefla, a party, Israeli soldiers showed up and started checking identification cards.
At times the settlers from this large building walk with their guards through the Bustan to the other settler home on the same road. Sometimes they even take the full 15-minute trek to the City of David Visitor Center, which boasts a large outdoor patio, a smoking area, and public restrooms. Most of these properties were taken over by settlers claiming the properties used to belong to Jewish owners before 1948. Haaretz has reported extensively on settler organizations relying on falsified evidence of ownership to carry out evictions of Palestinian families, but in certain cases the settlers are correct. Before the nakba and the founding of the state of Israel Yemeni Jews did live in Silwan. But when Israeli law forbids Palestinians from reclaiming their property and not only allows Jews to reclaim property, but allows Jews with no affiliation to the original owner to reclaim property, the policies look like Apartheid. As the Palestinian man who invited me into his home in Silwan said, “how come Jews can reclaim their houses from before 1948 and we can’t reclaim Lifta or Jaffa.”