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Silwan continues struggle for human rights in East Jerusalem

By Mike J.C.

27sj128010237.jpg

Photography by Eugene Peress.


January 27, 2014

Amid expanding Israeli settler development projects, mounting demolition orders on Palestinian homes, and ongoing night raids to frighten and detain children, the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan remains resilient, launching a new creative protest on Wednesday, 22 January.
 
Khaled Zeer had difficulties supporting his father and six daughters on sporadic work when he still had a modest home. After Israel demolished it in August of last year, Khaled moved his family into a small cave just down the slope. But Israel recently evicted the family again, saying they had "damaged the cave." In response, Khaled decided to take his plight to the face of the international community. He and some local activists loaded a truck with building materials and headed to the center of the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in the nearby East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. When the office staff and security prevented him from erecting a protest tent in their lobby, he set up the temporary structure across the street on the side of the road.
 
In the presence of a dozen journalists, activists, and passers by, Khaled accused the international community of hollow, self-serving rhetoric. "We [the people of Silwan and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods] don’t get any help from the Red Cross, just words. They say they are helping Palestinians get their rights, but, pardon the word, this is bullshit."
 
Silwan’s troubles
 
Silwan is a particularly contentious area of East Jerusalem, because the beautiful valley neighborhood, home to 55,000 Palestinian residents, descends just south of the old city in the shadow of its ancient walls and beneath the looming al-Aqsa mosque. Outside of Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina, this is the most revered site in the Islamic world, forming part of the massive Haram al-Sharif complex, known as the Temple Mount to Jews, with the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, just meters away along the lower western edge.
 
Sprawling away down the slope, the densely populated village of Silwan also has the misfortune of lying on the alleged remains of the 3000-year old Jewish City of David. In recent years Israeli development companies have wedged a few hundred settlers into the Palestinian neighborhood and funded archaeological digging where Palestinian buildings once stood. Ongoing excavations and tunnel constructions—which have been criticized as "bad science" even by Israeli archaeologists for putting ideology and politics ahead of archaeology (see also here, here, and here)—frequently cause collapses in the narrow streets and cracks and other forms of property damage in the homes, schools, and mosques above the digging. In their efforts to strengthen Jewish ties to the Palestinian neighborhood, the organizations conducting the work have been accused of destroying Islamic-era artifacts in the process (for example here and here).
 
 
Demolishing Palestinian homes is another central facet of Israel’s strategy to Judaize East Jerusalem. According to B’Tselem, Israel flattened 69 housing units in East Jerusalem in 2013, including several in Silwan. Hundreds more homes exist under standing demolition orders. For example, the al-Bustan block in Silwan, home to a thousand people, has been living under threat of destruction since Israel first issued the order about ten years ago to demolish all 88 houses. The residents happen to live precisely where Israeli settler-backed development companies have decided to build a biblical tourist park. The demolition plans have been delayed, scaled back, and ramped up again, as public outcries and civil society pressure compete with the ambitions of the powerful settler-development complex.
 
What justification does Israel give for demolishing Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem?  They were constructed without permits. Since Israel wrested East Jerusalem from Jordanian control in 1967, the Palestinian population has more than quadrupled to around 300,000, but Israeli restrictions and zoning laws are heavily biased against the majority non-Jewish population. For example, only 11 to 14 percent of East Jerusalem land is eligible for Palestinian construction (see here and here), and within those confines, building permits—even to add a new room onto an existing structure—are notoriously difficult to obtain, due to financial, political, and linguistic barriers (see section II.E of this UNCTAD report). On top of this, the laws are selectively enforced. For example, when Jewish settlers contracted the construction of a large apartment building in the middle of Silwan without a permit, illegally according to Israel’s own laws, the Jerusalem municipality retroactively approved the structure.
 
However, under international law, and according to the official positions of every other country in the world (except Costa Rica), East Jerusalem is outside of Israel’s internationally recognized borders, along with the rest of the Palestinian territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all occupied in 1967. Per the Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is signatory, an occupying power is prohibited from destroying property (except under strict military necessity) or transferring its own population into the occupied territories. Israel systematically violates both precepts.  
 
And while the still-stateless Palestinians expect the occupied territories to constitute the bare minimum of their future sovereign state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel has unilaterally annexed the predominantly Palestinian half of the city into its predominantly Jewish western half, proclaiming the whole its "eternal and undivided" capital.
 
Along with the invasive settler projects and systemic home demolitions, Israeli forces regularly terrorize the families of Silwan—often targeting the children—with night raids into their homes at two and three in the morning. Sometimes soldiers just search the rooms, photographing and questioning the occupants; other times they detain children for hours or days of questioning.
 
In 2013, according to staff at the Silwan Information Center, there were about 450 detentions of children under 18, some as young as six and seven. There continue to be three to four night raids a week in Silwan. (See also B’Tselem’s statistics, and reports by Save the Children and Madaa.)
 
Security forces give the excuse that they are seeking out stone throwers in order to deter future clashes in the streets. In reality, they are sowing the seeds of hatred, ensuring that Palestinians will continue to resent Israeli authorities, and contributing to a multipronged effort to "encourage" the Palestinians to leave of their own volition, or surrender their national aspirations.
 
But the Palestinians won’t do either.
 
Silwan’s nonviolent struggle
 
Holding fast to their land is a part of their deep-rooted national resistance. In 2005 local residents established the Silwan Information Center, which provides courses, arts and crafts training, summer camps, and computer/Internet access to the children of neighborhood. Their services are greatly appreciated and desperately needed, as an estimated 75 percent of children live below the poverty line.
 
The Information Center is part of the Silwan Popular Committee’s nonviolent resistance strategy of independent community building and disengagement from Israeli institutions. While the committee has decided to boycott numerous other services and extracurricular activities offered by the Israeli-controlled municipality—refusing to sugarcoat a brutal occupation—they continue to pay full property taxes and mandatory insurance fees for fear of going to prison or losing their homes.
 
Yet for all the taxes and fees they pay, the residents of Silwan get just an estimated 2% back in services. This is most evident in the dire lack of schools. There are nine in the community of 55,000 people.
 
 
"The municipality is supposed to give us enough schools, as a community under occupation, according to international law," says Mahmoud Qaraeen, a young man and representative of the Information Center. Beside us, a small boy is hard at work coloring at a small table. Children’s artwork decorates the walls. "We are talking about [just] 3,000 spots for students in the schools, and we need another 11,000."
 
Mahmoud wishes his people didn’t have to accept anything from Israel, but as they are compelled to pay their taxes to an occupying power, they expect to at least get their money’s worth in fundamental services. Instead, they are indirectly financing the settler projects, the bulldozers, and the night raids.
 
"There are not enough post offices, no public transportation. No kindergarten, no playgrounds, nothing," he says. "In all of Jerusalem, there are 3,020 playgrounds, and 3,012 of them are in West Jerusalem."
 
The refusal to normalize the occupation is related to the East Jerusalem residents’ refusal to accept Israeli citizenship (an offer not available to the millions of other Palestinians in the refugee camps and across the West Bank and Gaza). Accepting citizenship would come at the cost of pledging loyalty to the Jewish state and formally renouncing their own nationalist claims, while still not making them equal to the state’s privileged Jewish citizenry.
 
For all these reasons, Khaled set up his protest tent outside the Red Cross offices in East Jerusalem. Speaking through a translator, he expresses frustration: "Everyone in the international community says they oppose Israel’s policies, but they are not taking action to stop them. They are even supporting the illegal actions."
 
"Okay," he says. "Forget about a Palestinian state. Just give the people, the human beings living here, the basic human rights they deserve. Forget the state at all, okay? Just let us live like human beings."
 
By the following morning, Israeli police had demolished the protest tent and threatened the demonstrators with arrest if they did not leave the area.
 
See also:
 
 
 
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