Capping a week of boiling tensions and an increase in violent attacks in the area, some 200 Arabs hurled stones and firebombs at security forces in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Sunday night, during large-scale rioting that left at least six Border Police officers and four private security personnel lightly wounded.

Dozens of Palestinian  rioters were lightly hurt by inhaling tear gas. Some claimed police fired canisters into their homes.

Police and additional Border Police units were called to the scene and used stun grenades and pepper spray to disperse the crowds, as security guards from the Jewish-owned Beit Hadvash property inside the neighborhood fired warning shots in the air.

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Residents of both Beit Hadvash and the adjacent Beit Yehonatan – two Jewish-owned properties in the heart of the predominately Palestinian neighborhood – accused police of letting the situation spin out of control, telling Israel Radio on Sunday night that rioters were using the roofs of their homes as vantage points from which to attack Jewish-owned buildings and vehicles.

Although sporadic rock-throwing and the odd firebombing have been the status quo in Silwan over recent years, Sunday night’s rioting marked a dramatic increase in what Jerusalem Police had described earlier Sunday as an “upswing” in violent incidents in the area, since an announcement last Monday of preliminary approval for a redevelopment plan involving 22 home demolitions in the El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech, section of the neighborhood.

Sources in the municipality have stressed in recent days that Mayor Nir Barkat is determined to press ahead with the plan despite opposition from some residents, Palestinian officials and some in the international community.

On Sunday afternoon, an Israeli vehicle that accidentally entered the neighborhood was damaged when a group of young men hurled stones at it, although no injuries were reported.

Police spokesman confirms spike in violence

“There has been an upswing in violence in Silwan in recent days,” Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby confirmed in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday afternoon, although he declined to comment on the reasons for the increase.

“We have forces operating in the area constantly, and they will continue to do so,” he added.

National Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld echoed Ben-Ruby’s comments, telling the Post that “a number of incidents” had taken place in Silwan over the past week, and that security forces on patrol in the neighborhood had “been attacked a number of times with stones, cinder blocks and firebombs.”

“Private security guards [who protect the Jewish homes in Silwan] have also had damage done to their vehicles, along with [police] vehicles,” Rosenfeld said. “More than 20 officers have been injured in Silwan over the past two months.”

Rosenfeld added that two Border Police officers had been lightly injured in Silwan on Saturday night, when cement blocks and at least one firebomb were hurled at their jeep.

The two officers were treated at the scene and did not require further medical care, he said.

Nonetheless, Rosenfeld differentiated between the violence currently unfolding in Silwan, and remarks made last week by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who warned of potential “widespread disturbances” in and around Silwan that might accompany the implementation of demolition orders in the area.

'Unrest may spread beyond Silwan'

Police were already preparing for such a scenario, Aharonovitch said, and security forces expected the unrest to spread “beyond the [Silwan] area” once it began. Yet according to Rosenfeld, the current level of violence is not what Aharonovitch was alluding to, although the scope of Sunday night’s rioting remained unclear as of press time.

“The scale [Aharonovitch] was talking about is obviously much larger,” Rosenfeld said earlier on Sunday. “The kinds of attacks we’re dealing with now in Silwan, we unfortunately deal with all the time.”

Last Monday’s approval of Barkat’s plan for Gan Hamelech by the Local Planning and Construction Committee continued to draw criticism both at home and abroad over the weekend.

The plan stipulates that the 88 homes inside the Gan Hamelech area, which were built without proper permits and are considered illegal by the city, will be divided into two groups and either retroactively legalized or demolished to make way for the restoration of park land – which the entire area was originally zoned for.

Officials at City Hall have maintained that the plan is aimed at improving the residents’ quality of life, and that a number of individual agreements have already been hammered out with Palestinian families living in Gan Hamelech.

But the announcement of the plan’s preliminary approval has drawn a chorus of criticism from the UN, the Palestinian Authority and even the State Department, whose spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said last week that the US was “concerned” about the plan and its implications for the peace negotiations.

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of left-wing activists descended on Silwan, rerouting a weekly protest that is normally held against home evictions in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to the Gan Hamelech area, in a show of solidarity with the neighborhood’s residents.

Chanting “Free Silwan!” and “There is no sanctity in an occupied city!,” the activists marched from the entrance to the Wadi Hilweh section of the neighborhood, where the City of David archeological park is located, down into the Gan Hamelech area.

No arrests were reported and the demonstration concluded peacefully. 

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