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Dark Cloud over Silwan

In November 2004, the Chief Engineer of the Jerusalem Municipality circulated a letter demanding "the removal of illegal construction in the neighborhood of the King's Valley." This is the Israeli term for al-Bustan, a neighborhood in the village of Silwan, which lies southeast of the Old City walls. Israel annexed Silwan to Jerusalem in 1967 along with other villages. In his letter, the Engineer failed to mention the 200 Palestinian families that live in the “construction.” So far more than half of them have received official notice that their homes are to be destroyed. In response to protest, the municipality is attempting to blur the situation, but the fact remains that these families face the prospect of homelessness, as a result of a policy to reduce the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem.


OR the past six months, the residents of the al-Bustan quarter in Silwan have been living in uncertainty, having learned that the Jerusalem Municipality plans to destroy at least 45 of their 88 homes. These people are no squatters. They own the land their houses are built on. They built without permits, however – and why? Because with few exceptions, the city won't grant building permits to Palestinians. (In al-Bustan, for instance, no building permits have been issued since 1977, except for one house.) Under pressure of overcrowding, they have no choice but to build or leave. If they choose to build, then they live in dread of the demolition order.

The plan to destroy the houses provoked an outcry from three quarters: the Arab Knesset members, the Yahad-Meretz Party and human-rights groups. The issue came before the Knesset on June 1, 2005. Roman Bronfman of Meretz-Yahad wrote to the city engineer, Uri Shitrit: "We're talking about ethnic cleansing in the full sense, as well as deportation on a scale that the mind finds hard to grasp." Dr. Meir Margalit (Israeli Committee against House Demolitions) defined the plan as a "mega-attack," whose real purpose is "to eradicate the Palestinian presence from East Jerusalem." (Haaretz June 1, 2005.)

Much uncertainty surrounds the plan, however. The Jerusalem municipality is making efforts to blur the situation. When Mayor Uri Lupolianski was asked about it, he said that the Municipality does not intend to issue administrative demolition orders for the houses (although it has!) and that, in cases where there have been building violations, it will reach an understanding with the residents. He also ordered the establishment of a joint committee with them. (Haaretz June 9.)

Until today, however, not a single demolition order has been canceled. At a June 8 meeting of Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), national Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz assured his listeners that "there will be no massive demolition in Silwan." On the other hand, Fahri Abu Diab, who represents the residents, told Challenge about a meeting with city officials that took place on June 20. They refused to make any commitment, he said, that the demolition orders would be canceled.

Silwan is among the most densely populated areas of the city. Parts of it have already been declared a National Park. Mayor Lupolianski has touted the notion that al-Bustan too should be declared a National Park or archaeological garden. Such a declaration would rule out residential building in the area, which would come under the control of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. The Authority would not be required to compensate the residents, since it does not actually confiscate land. On the other hand, it does not allow the owners to use it. The purpose of such a declaration would be to sidestep any need to pay compensation.

Engineer Shitrit insists that the municipality must implement the decisions of the court concerning illegal housing. (He fails to mention that the city initiated the court proceedings.) His chief concern is for the residents themselves, he claims: living in the valley, they are vulnerable to flash floods. On hearing this concern, Abu Diab replied: "If it could, the city would send us a tsunami."

All the uncertainty affects the mental state of the villagers, especially the 65% of them who are children. We met Hajj Mazen Abu Diab, their elderly teacher, in the neighborhood's protest tent. "One of my pupils," he said, "an 11-year-old, brought a big heavy knapsack to class. I looked inside and saw clothing, games, and photos of his family members and friends. He was worried, it turned out, that when the school day was over, he'd find a pile of rocks instead of a house."

Planned Chaos

Silwan's origins go back four thousand years, a millennium before the biblical David. It is located outside the Old City walls just south of the Al Aqsa Mosque. It includes the archaeological excavations known as the "City of David," a fact that has made it a target for settlement on the part of religious Zionists.

In the 1980's, the right-wing Elad Association began to acquire whatever it could on the western slopes of Silwan, using underhand methods: forgeries, "straw men" to buy Arab property and transfer it to Jews, false claims about abandoned property, and sheer violence. (See Challenge 50 on the Klugman Report detailing the abuses.) In the 1990's Jews settled in two additional houses of Silwan, on the eastern slope of the village.

Ever since the annexations of 1967, Israeli governments and the Jerusalem Municipality have made it their goal to limit the number of Palestinians living in the expanded city and to stunt the growth of their neighborhoods. (See box.) To this end, most of the still-unbuilt areas belonging to the Arab "neighborhoods" (villages) were declared "green areas": no building would be permitted. Yet the population kept growing.1

Demographic Planning

After the 1967 War, Israel annexed to Jerusalem 70,000 dunams (ca. 17,500 acres) and 69,000 Palestinians. Its policy was to include as much land and as few Arabs as possible. The government adopted the recommendations of the Gafni Committee: to preserve the demographic balance of Jews and Arabs as recorded in 1972: 74% Jews and 26% Arabs.

Yet the Arabs had and continue to have a higher rate of population growth. In its attempt to preserve the ratio, the municipality did all it could to limit Palestinian expansion inside the city and encourage outward migration. Nevertheless, the ratio did not hold. By 2002 it was 67:33. Natti Marom, editor of the Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook, predicts that by 2020 it will be 60:40.1

The squeeze on the Palestinians of Jerusalem continues. The master plans color their neighborhoods green, making it illegal to build. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, be it noted, an occupying power is prohibited from designing master plans for the areas it has conquered. This law becomes all the more relevant when the occupier's purpose is to prevent natural increase and drive people out of their villages. "end"

The people of Silwan have tried through the years to get building permits, and in the 1990's they even established a committee for this purpose, but the municipality has turned a deaf ear.

On November 11, 2004, Engineer Shitrit sent the laconic letter mentioned above to Jerusalem's Supervisor of Construction, citing "the national and international importance of the excavations in the City of David and the Valley of the King." He demanded "the removal of illegal construction" in the said Valley.

Relating to this epistle, Attorney Netta Amar wrote Attorney General Meni Mazuz: "From Mr. Shitrit's letter, one gets the impression that we have here a struggle between two publics: Jewish history versus the squatters, whose identity would appear to be non-existent, though known to all: the Arabs." She concludes: "The lack of planning for the neighborhood, which is patently residential in character and constitutes an integral part of an entire village rich in history, has led to pandemonium. For this the municipality is responsible, not the residents."2

The people of al-Bustan did not know about the existence of Engineer Shitrit's letter until March 2005, when city supervisors began to circulate in the village, measuring houses and photographing, on the pretext that their work was necessary to update the basis for property taxes. Only when the panicked residents went to City Hall did they first see the letter. We should note, by the way, that they have been paying local taxes for decades, a fact that does not deter the city from destroying their homes.

In January 2005, five demolition orders were issued for houses that were built before 1967. According to law, a special procedure must precede the destruction of such houses. Therefore, the municipality used a law known as 212(5), which permits demolition without prior proof that a house was built illegally. This law was used only once in the past, just after the 1967 War, when Israel destroyed the entire Mugrabi neighborhood in order to create the Western Wall Plaza. The revival of such a draconian measure increased the villagers' concern.

In recent months an additional 36 judicial orders have been issued against houses built without permits in al-Bustan, along with administrative orders against five more houses. Moreover, in an aerial photograph attached to the orders, all 88 houses there are numbered. To architect Efrat Cohen Bar of Bimkom, who is acquainted with municipal procedures, this fact indicates that all are marked for destruction.

I asked the municipality for clarification, but to date I have received no response.

I also heard the following from Rabbi Arik Asherman of "Keepers of the Law: Rabbis for Human Rights": "A demolition order can be implemented 20 years after it is issued. Until a court cancels it, the danger of destruction remains. I am worried about a practice of 'creeping demolition.'" Efrat Cohen Bar thinks that the city's technique is to threaten massive destruction, so that when it bulldozes only a small number of houses from time to time, those who are temporarily spared will feel relief.

In her letter to Mazuz, Attorney Amar writes: "It is our grave concern that the planned destruction of the 88 houses in al-Bustan is the prelude to the demolition of additional houses throughout the village of Silwan."

Nowhere to go

On June 15, when I visited Silwan, the Jerusalem Municipality destroyed a house in nearby Abu Tor. The sounds of the heavy machinery caused great anxiety in al-Bustan.

The neighborhood – potentially quite beautiful – suffers from neglect. Although people pay their property taxes, heaps of garbage lie everywhere. The waters of the famous Gihon Spring flow through alleys as narrow as those in refugee camps. There is no playground, no club – nothing, in short, that would witness to a positive approach on the part of the city.

When we met with Fahri Abu Diab in the protest tent, his first words were: "The city of Jerusalem has declared war on us." He went on: "My parents had a house of 56 square meters. They had ten children, each of whom has married and had more children. Does the city really think that all of us can live in 56 square meters? Its responsibility is to provide us with services, not demolitions."

Abu Diab spoke with great pain about the neighborhood's children. Instead of enjoying their summer vacation, he said, they talk all day about officials and demolition orders. "Why are they destroying our children? Why must they sleep in fear? The threat of destruction breeds psychological problems and hatred, despite all our efforts to live in peace."

On the east side of Silwan, I met with Fatmeh Qara'in. I had interviewed her in December 1991, after settlers invaded her house in Silwan, banishing her, her husband and her seven children into the Jerusalem winter. Seven years later the district court backed the settlers' action. True, Fatmeh had a legal contract to the house. She had bought it in 1966 from her father, who was living in Jordan. It appeared under her father’s name in Israel’s land registry, and this fact put it under the jurisdiction of the Custodian for Absentee Property.3

Now Fatmeh Qara'in's son, who owns a house in al-Bustan, has received a demolition order.

Fatmeh recalled the eviction of 1991: "The settlers offered me a villa anywhere I wanted if only I'd sign that I was leaving voluntarily. I told them that even if they filled the house with gold, I wouldn't sell an inch of it." "end"

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