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Israeli High Court Issues Stop-Work Order on Silwan Excavations

Palestine Monitor
2 April 2008

The arrest of eight Palestinian and Israeli activists in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on March 13 came as yet another unsettling, though unsurprising development in the community’s ongoing battle to protect itself from expanding settlement activity.

The situation in Silwan is unique among West Bank and East Jerusalem communities resisting the expansion of Israeli settlements: since 1986, when the Ir David Foundation and its parent organization Elad were founded, the neighborhood, which fell within the walls of ancient Jerusalem during the time of the first and second temples, has been marketed to tourists and Israelis as the “City of David.”

The initiative undertaken by Elad to excavate as many artifacts of ancient Jewish history as possible in the Silwan area is seen by its Palestinian inhabitants as an effort by the organization to consolidate Israel’s hold over East Jerusalem land that it occupied 1967.

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Situation map of the Silwan neighbourhood

On March 18, after months of campaigning by the local community to stop Elad’s activities, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the excavations to be put on hold.

“This is a victory,” said Jawad Siyam, a social worker who lives in Silwan and who was also arrested by Israeli police for participating in the non-violent protests. “But we know this is not the last issue…we should continue to act and protest here, because this is damaging the living conditions here.”

Siyam added that while Elad is an extremely powerful organization with a multi-million dollar budget, the Silwan community has mobilized against the settlement activity without any national or international backing. "We are doing this without any support, either financial or moral, from the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Elad has a long-term goal to “Judaize” East Jerusalem, and in particular Silwan. Tensions between the company and the local community have intensified in recent months when it was discovered that some of the excavations were taking place without a permit and directly below some of the Silwan residents’ houses. Numerous residents have reported that their houses have been cracked and damaged by the excavations. In another incident last year, a Palestinian resident of Silwan was injured when a hole opened up in a road.

Elad prides itself on having established a “thriving” Jewish community in Silwan, which amounts to roughly two dozen appropriated houses and buildings scattered throughout the area, each with a state-funded security guard and an Israeli flag mounted conspicuously over its roof.

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A settlement in Silwan

Uri Bank, of the pro-settlement Moledet party, articulated the strategy in 2005, shortly after the municipality issued demolition orders against 88 Palestinian houses in Silwan: "We break up Arab continuity and their claim to East Jerusalem by putting in isolated islands of Jewish presence in areas of Arab population. It’s just like Lego - you put the pieces out there and connect the dots…Our eventual goal is Jewish continuity in all of Jerusalem."

The demolition orders caused a flurry of protest, and have not been carried out to date. Several other demolitions have taken place in the neighborhood over the years, however, and the excavation of a new tunnel towards the Western Wall plaza, which lies just a few hundred meters from the City of David’s visitors center, is exposing more of the community’s houses to the threat of damage.

“The major danger here is transfer,” said Mr. Siyam, adding that Elad has publicly admitted that it seeks a strong Jewish majority in the area by 2020. “The other danger is that [some of these] houses could fall down at any time.”

Elad’s activities in the area began soon after its founding, when its director David Beeri, a former undercover commander of an elite Israeli military unit, evicted a local resident from his house under the Absentee Property Law. Three justices of the Israeli High Court of Justice later released a statement saying that the requisitioning of the house was “tainted by extreme lack of good faith,” although Elad remained in control of the property. Elad has appropriated several other houses by illegal means since, resulting in numerous clashes between the settlers and the local community.

“Both governmental authorities and extreme right-wing organizations like Elad, often with the collusion of the police, are doing everything they can to expel Palestinians from Silwan," said Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who was among those arrested on March 13. The arrest followed a scuffle that broke out the day prior between some of Elad’s employees and a group of local activists, who have erected a protest tent adjacent to the City of David visitors center.

Ascherman says that he and two other activists had gone to file a complaint against Elad employees’ acts of aggression towards local residents, but were detained when they arrived at the police station. He was held for one night and accused of “inciting Palestinians” after he refused to agree to a restraining order that would keep him out of the area for fifteen days.

Five other residents of Silwan who had been involved in the filing of a demand for a legal investigation into Elad’s activities in Silwan were also arrested at their homes on the night of March 13.

Dahoud al-Siyam, an accountant who was among those arrested that night, reported that an extreme degree of collusion is occurring between the police and Elad. After being detained for one night he was released without charge, although the police did issue a restraining order on him, forcing him to stay away from the protest tent.

“They [issued the restraining order] just to make the settlers pleased – just to make them happy,” he said.

Ascherman agrees that the relationship between Elad and the authorities is disconcerting. "With all my experience throughout the West Bank and occupied territories I’ve never seen such obvious collusion between the police and a group like Elad as we do there. I’ve seen a lot but this takes the cake," he said.

News of the stop-work order came as a surprise to the Silwan community, and many are hoping that it will ease tensions and eventually lead to more responsible management of the excavations.

"I hope that the tide is turning here a bit," said Ascherman. "Elad is an incredibly powerful organization, and there’s a very unfair, uneven battle when the resources of an entire state are coming to side with extreme right-wing fanatics."