by Lindsey, Jerusalem team
55,000 people live in Silwan, a beautiful but run-down area of East Jerusalem, close to the walls of the Old City. Its name comes from the Greek Shiloam whose pools are mentioned in the Old Testament books of Nehemiah and 2 Samuel, as well as in John’s Gospel where Jesus heals a blind man. It is perched precariously on steep slopes along both sides of the Kidron Valley, above the Gihon Spring. The upper part of Silwan is known as Al-Bustan and the lower as Wadi Hilweh.
Until 1967 the area of Silwan was an almost totally Palestinian Muslim area, under Jordanian rule. The families here owned their properties since Ottoman times. After the 1967 war, the area was annexed by Israel and it is the declared plan of the Jerusalem Municipality to have 75% of Silwan Israeli-owned. To this end, illegal Israeli settlers are moving into the area, particularly at the end nearest the Old City.
In a tour with Mahmoud Qaraeen, who works at the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre and leads regular tours of the area, he describes the variety of ways Israeli settlers are able to move into Silwan. Some of the houses have been purchased using middle men so that Palestinians are unaware that they are selling to Israelis; some obtained by the forging of documents. Most have been acquired by invoking the Absentee Property Law, a law which came into being after the Nakba of 1948 declaring that any Palestinian property which was empty for three years – or for which no documents of ownership could be produced – could be appropriated by the Israeli State. Many Palestinians have no documents to prove their ownership. Historically, land and property has been passed down informally through families.
Israeli settlements and archaeology in Silwan
According to Mahmoud, there are now 250 illegal settlers in Silwan. Many Silwan residents have been evicted from their homes and 64% of the houses in the area are under demolition orders. In 2013, 123 houses were demolished in East Jerusalem; many of them were in Silwan.
The biggest illegal settlement establishment in the Silwan area is the controversial City of David archaeological park, to be called the Garden of the King. Some Israelis believe that this is the actual location of the biblical city of Jerusalem captured by King David over 3,000 years ago. The City of David Foundation (Elad is the Hebrew acronym) is dedicated to the preservation and development of the Biblical City of David and its environs.
The excavations, however, which are still ongoing, have been carried out clumsily by bulldozers and some ancient Islamic remains have been carelessly destroyed.
Adina Hoffman writing in the Nation in 2008 describes the methods used:
“As Rafi Greenberg (University of Tel Aviv professor of Archaeology explained during an alternative archaeological tour) the digs in Silwan are being conducted in the most tendentious way–with bulldozers clearing huge areas in haste and multiple levels being dismantled in a race to get to “Jewish” bedrock. Settlers build houses right on top of relics, and extremely tenuous conclusions are being drawn on the basis of nationalist ideology and a literalist reading of biblical texts, not the actual shards and stones that turn up in the course of the digging. Historical cross sections aren’t being preserved. Instead of the usual timetable for a dig-with one season of excavation followed by months in the lab-the City of David excavations are taking place year-round, straining professional standards and leaving no time for careful analysis.
It is, says Greenberg, ‘bad science.’”
Life in Silwan
In Silwan, the roads are pot-holed and narrow like a refugee camp and the neighbourhood itself is greatly overpopulated. Palestinians residing in Silwan are plagued by poor infrastructure. Even though East Jerusalemites pay 47% of the city’s municipal taxes they receive a mere 5% of the revenue back in benefits. There is no secondary school, no post office and the small number of green spaces they had have been appropriated by Elad and named as archaeological sites, off-limits to Palestinians.
Mahmoud Qaraeen says that the Silwanis feel that they are constantly under scrutiny from the Israeli police and army. There are more than 550 CCTV cameras around the area. There are many night raids and child arrests. Both children and adults are frequently assaulted and abused by settlers, the settlers’ armed guards and the Israeli army. There are not enough school places for the children of Silwan and the school dropout rate is 65%, compared to 52% in Jerusalem as a whole.
Overcoming difficulty with creativity
In 2007, the residents of Silwan decided to take matters into their own hands and, with mostly European funding, established the Madaa Silwan Creative Centre, as a means of non-violent resistance. Here women can do courses in cookery, sewing and life skills and children can learn music, dabke dancing, drama and art. It started small but has grown and now has after- school activities for the children, including a computer room and a well-stocked library. More than 200 children per week participate in the activities here and it also provides a safe place for adults to meet and talk.
Life is still hard for children in Silwan. In 2012, Jawad Siyam the General manager of Madaa Centre, formed a Children’s Protection Committee. It came as a result of the frequent assaults and abuses of children, who are often kidnapped and arrested in ways which flagrantly violate the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Room No 4 is a photographic project which was based on a Madaa report published in 2012: The impact of child arrest and detention.
Room number 4 is the room in the Russian Compound – the main Israeli police station in Jerusalem – where Palestinian Jerusalem residents, including children, are investigated. The exhibition, which is based on real testimonies of children aged 7-17, deals with issues such as night arrests, investigating children without the presence of their parents and assaulting and threatening them. It has been shown in various places in Palestine and Israel and also in Europe.
To return to Adina Hoffman’s account of the area, she reports on the Israeli plan to take over the area of Silwan:
“Most clever of all was Elad’s decision to fix on archaeology as the key to winning the hearts and minds of the wider Israeli Jewish public. Archaeology has, of course, long been something like Israel’s national pastime, a “scientific” discipline that, in this particular cultural context, has often blurred into the realm of major-motion-picture-scale mythmaking (see under: Masada). Since the early days of the state, archaeology has provided vivid settings and props that have helped Israelis both secular and religious to dramatize the stories they like to tell themselves about their historic bond to the modern homeland.”
Dig, popularizing ‘explusion disguised as archaeology’
In the last few weeks, Hoffman’s words have come to seem prophetic. NBC, which owns the USA cable network, has started shooting its Dig archeological thriller series there. Starring Anne Heche and Jason Isaacs, it will be broadcast on popular channels in the United States and has brought tens of millions of dollars in investment to Israel. It is based on the story of an FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem who is investigating the murder on an American archeologist at the Silwan excavations. NBC will receive a $6.5 million grant from the Israeli government, via the Jerusalem Development Authority, to make the series. A film by Dave Lippman about the project calls it a celebration of ‘expulsion disguised as archaeology.’
The raising of Silwan’s profile by the presence of Hollywood is unlikely to make any positive difference for Silwan’s Palestinian residents. It is much more likely to give strength to the Israeli settlers moving into the area. As with many, many of the injustices of the occupation, the international community appears to be turning a blind eye.
In the gospel of John, Jesus takes dirt from Silwan and makes a blind man see. Is it too much to hope that it can happen again?
The article Celebrating ‘expulsion disguised as archaeology’ in Silwan was originally published on our EA’s blog This Year in Jerusalem.