If any village represents the long history and endless struggle of Palestinians in Jerusalem, it is Silwan. The village stretches south from Dung Gate in the Old City along the Kidron valley. It has been at the heart of a mythology that reifies Zionist presence in Jerusalem and serves as a pretext for the continued Zionisation - and ethnic cleansing - of the city. Today’s maps, travel-writings, and road signs refer to this place as the “City of David”; the alleged capital of David’s kingdom. The village of Silwan is made up of nine neighbourhoods: Wadi Qadoum, Ras al-Amoud, Ein al-Loza, a-Thori, a-Shayyah, Wasat al-Balad, Hart a-Tanak, Bir Ayoub, Hart al-Yaman, al-Bustan, Wadi Hilweh and Wadi Yasul.1
This historic village2 faces a constant threat from the Israeli occupation forces and colonizing movements: from child arrests to housing demolitions and forced evictions from settler organisations. The residents of Silwan are being slowly forced out of their village.3
Archaeologists and historians believe Silwan to be the birthplace of Jerusalem, dating back before the ‘Old City’ was built based on remains dating back 4,000 years that have been found there.4 5 In his Palestinian Town Dictionary, Mohammed Shurrab, a Palestinian historian, explains that the name is derived from the Aramaic Silon, meaning thorns or from the semitic Shila / Sila, meaning tranquility.6
A Ma’an Network's short film called Ein Silwan: Living History of Jerusalem, features a tour given by Abu Moussa, who grew up in the village. He describes the history of the spring in Silwan:
“In around 700 BC, the Yabousites carved a tunnel under the spring and used it to transport water into Jerusalem. The spring served as their main source of water and ever since, Ein Silwan has marked the borders of modern Silwan. Ein Silwan is particularly sacred to Christians, as Jesus Christ is believed to have used its water to heal the blind man in one of his most famous miracles.
To immortalise the miracle, the Byzantines built the church alongside the canal. Remains of the church exist in the spring, but since its occupation, Israel has attempted to erase Palestinian heritage making it hard for Palestinians to access it.7
According to Shurrab, in the 7th century Silwan was mainly inhabited by monks.8 However, the present village of Silwan was established in the 16th century and became famous for its agricultural produce. It also served as a rest stop for pilgrims and merchants making their way to the Old City.9
Between the Nakba in 1948 and the 1967 war, Silwan was under the control of Jordan. Since then, it has been under military occupation by Israel. After 1967 Silwan was divided into smaller communities by the occupation authority in order to establish more localized control by the municipality - today there are seven neighbourhoods in Silwan: Ras al-Amud, Wadi Hilweh, Ein al-Lozeh, a-Thori, Bir Ayoub, Wadi Qaddoum, and a-Shayah. Despite this division, villagers continue to think of Silwan as a single unified entity.10
The population of Silwan grew rapidly in the years following the War of 1967 when many people who were forced to flee sought refuge there. During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Silwan saw a period of financial stability.11
Beginning in the 1990s, the Zionist settlement organisation of “Elad” - an acronym for ‘City of David’ in Hebrew - began its work of Zionising the village. In October 1991 settlers from Elad raided and occupied the house of the Abassi family in Silwan. After significant pressure from Elad on the ‘Custodian of Absentee Property’ the house was declared ‘absentee property’. Although the Jerusalem district court upheld the Abbasi’s appeal, arguing that the affidavits used to claim ownership of the house was false, the house remains in control of Elad and Jewish-Israeli settlers live there to this day.12 13 In the face of Israeli colonialism and ethnic cleansing, residents of Silwan resorted to self-organised resistance as the bureaucratic structures including the Israeli ‘justice system’ continue to provide means for the colonization of Silwan.
Through local community centres, which face violence by the Israeli occupation, and partnerships with other civil society organisations in Jerusalem, awareness is being raised about the community’s needs and work is being done by community organisers to address them. Outlets such as the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre play an important role in documenting abuses committed by the Israeli army and settlers in Silwan and throughout occupied Jerusalem. The centre sheds light on the daily struggle of Silwan residents which tends to be ignored by mainstream media.14 Other local organisations include the a-Thori Women’s center opened in 2007 and the a-Thori Families Centre from 2012.
The 70s and 80s were a time of economic prosperity in Silwan. In particular the village adjacent to the Old City called Wadi Hilweh became a significant tourist destination, mainly due to the large archaeological sites and significant findings from there. By the mid-1980s however the village began to sink into poverty. There were no opportunities for the growing population, services were severely limited and restrictions on construction make it nearly impossible meant the village became increasingly overcrowded. All these factors contributed to the economic decline of the village.15
Today 75% of Silwan’s residents work in the Israeli labour market. The remaining 25% depend on the trade sector (10%), the government or private employees sector (10%) and industry (5%). The unemployment rate in 2012 was 40%.16
Home construction for Palestinians in Silwan is severely restricted by the municipality.17 For the residents, the choice is to build without a permit or live in increasingly overcrowded quarters. The former serves as a pretext for evictions, fines, housing demolitions and evictions in Silwan.18
On 21 June 2010, the Jerusalem occupation municipality's Planning and Building Committee approved the demolition of 22 houses in al-Bustan, in the center of Silwan, in order to begin excavations and to construct an ‘archaeological garden’.19 One member of the committee for the defense of Silwan lands and estates, Fakhri Abu Diab told Ma’an news agency, that municipality workers distributed demolition warnings in the neighborhoods of Silwan, mainly in al-Hara al-Wosta, al-Bustan, Wadi al-Rababa, Ein al-Lawza, and al Jisr areas), stating that the number of the demolitions reached 11 orders in one day to the families of Abu Sneineh, Awwad, Abbasi, Odeh, al-Rishq, Abdo and Samareen. The houses which are under the threat of demolition contains over 70 people, most of which are children. Moreover, over 62 percent of houses in Silwan are under the threat of demolition by the Occupation Municipality, which aims to displace the residents and control the neighbourhood, and the implementation of the Occupation’s Jerusalem master plan 2020, this scheme aims to undermine the Palestinian identity in Jerusalem and to erase its holy landmarks throughout the coming years.
Aggression by the Israeli occupation police and settlers
Israeli occupation forces and settlers regularly attack residents of Silwan and their properties. Even for the children of Silwan arbitrary detentions, house arrests and abuse by the Israeli occupation police is a part of their daily life.20 Heavily armed Israeli police, accompanied by intelligence officers, regularly raid Palestinian homes in Silwan in the hours after midnight, detain children and interrogate them without the presence of their parents or lawyers.21 Children as young as eight have been arrested by the Israeli occupation forces in recent years. As well, non-violent protests against Israeli presence in the area is frequently met with strong force from the police. The Israeli police are not the only ones attacking Palestinians in Silwan. Private settler security companies also participate in oppressing the residents of Silwan. On May 13th, 2011, Palestinian schoolboy Milad Ayyash was fatally shot by a settler guard in the neighbourhood of Ras al-Amoud.22 The goal of these constant assaults, harassment and intimidation is to drive Palestinians out of Silwan and clear the way to settle and colonise the area.
Since 2009 settlers have moved en masse into Palestinian homes in Silwan. Often arriving armed; the settlers forcibly eject Palestinians in Silwan and occupy their houses. In September 2009, while trying to protect his 11-year-old son from settlers who were beating him, Ahmed Al-Qarain was shot in both legs by an armed settler. In September 2010, Samer Sarhan, a local resident and father of five was shot dead by a settler. The incident sparked intense rioting in Silwan.23 By 2011, approximately 350 settlers were living in 18 buildings in village.
The ‘City of David Complex’ is likely the most overt example of colonial activity. A large-scale excavation project in Silwan’s Wadi al Hilweh neighbourhood, ‘The City of David’ was established by the Israeli settler organisation Elad and draws support from the Jewish National Fund (JNF), called in Hebrew the Karen Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL).24 25 Through excavations, which often damage residential homes, streets, and facilities (including an UNRWA school whose floors collapsed), and armed with biblical passages, Elad continues to colonise and Zionise Silwan.26 27 In 2002, the Israeli government’s contract with Elad to continue the ‘City of David’ project was renewed, despite Silwanis’ appeal to the Israeli High Court.
Eviction & displacement
Silwanis face the continual threat of displacement by the occupation. The main law used by the Israeli government in this on-going struggle to Zionise Jerusalem is the application of the ‘Absentee Property Law’. This law was initially conceived to enable the state of Israel to seize property left behind by Palestinian refugees in 1948. Since 2004 however it has been increasingly used in order to seize property of Palestinian Jerusalemites whose residency has been revoked.28 In 1991, Israel transferred all properties in Silwan that met the provisions of the ‘Absentee Property Law’ to the KKL-JNF which in turn, ‘sold’ them to Elad at extremely discounted rates.29
Infrastructure and Services
In Silwan, expansion, renovation and construction is restricted due to land annexation by the occupation authorities. This land annexation has resulted in extreme overcrowding in the village, and there is inadequate infrastructure to meet the needs of the growing population. One such community facing these problems is al-Thoury, one of the original neighbourhoods of the village of Silwan. Living within its 1500 dunams area, its 23,000 or so residents lack basic services and appropriate planning for growth. In addition to limited housing, community members of al-Thoury suffer from overcrowded schools. There are also no nurseries for infants although the municipality is required by law to provide the community with at least one. As a result of the lacking educational facilities many students struggle in overcrowded classrooms. This, along with the many minors under house arrest in Silwan contributes to the high dropout rates.
12 ACRI (1998). Comments on the Combined Initial and First Periodic Reports Concerning the Implementation of The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Association for Civil Rights in Israel.