'Pilgrimage Road' opening turns Silwan residents cynical toward Israel, US

A tale of one city.

The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque are seen from Silwan. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque are seen from Silwan.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Never in their wildest dreams did the Arab residents of Silwan imagine that US President Donald Trump would send his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador David Friedman to their neighborhood.
When the pair arrived on Sunday and helped crack open an archaeological tunnel, the residents’ cynicism toward Israel and America only grew.
The Palestinian Authority and Silwan political activists responded with fiery rhetoric to the opening of the “Pilgrimage Road.” Silwan-born east Jerusalem activist Fakhri Abu Diab said that the excavations had already caused damage to several houses and a mosque nearby.
However, the situation in Silwan, located southeast of the Old City of Jerusalem, has been calm during the week. Flowers are in bloom, and the streets are full of Arab and Jewish schoolchildren returning home. Jews and Arabs seem to coexist, though they mostly avoid interacting with one another.
The strong condemnations by PA officials do not seem to have impressed the residents of Silwan, many of whom said they lost confidence in the Ramallah-based leaders a long time ago. Even claims by local activists that the archaeological excavations in the City of David have caused damage to at least 16 houses have failed to instigate unrest in the neighborhood.
“What has the Palestinian Authority done for us? Nothing,” said Abdel Jawad Siam, a Jerusalem Municipality worker from Silwan. “All we hear are promises and many statements. Palestinian leaders don’t care about Silwan or the Arabs in Jerusalem.”
Asked about claims that some houses have been partially damaged by the excavations, Siam, 55, said: “There are cracks in some walls. But this is not new. This has been going on for years. Some residents have hired lawyers to ask for financial compensation to renovate their homes. I heard that some people did receive compensation.”
THE “TUNNEL” inaugurated on Sunday is actually an ancient 2,000-year-old road discovered about 10 years ago and now known as the “Pilgrimage Road,” the path taken by millions of Jews to go up to the Temple during Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot – a commandment known as aliyah l’regel (literally, "ascent by foot"). The road, which emerged from the Shiloah Pool steps discovered in Silwan, travels all the way to the area adjacent to the Western Wall now known as Robinson’s Arch.
Doron Spielman, vice president of the Ir David Foundation (Elad), said almost all Jewish pilgrims would have entered the city on this road. During the period of the Second Temple, Jesus very likely used this road, as well as famous Jewish scholars.
“This place is the heart of the Jewish people, and is like the blood that courses through our veins,” Spielman said.
Friedman and Greenblatt demonstrated a similar sentiment when they swung a sledgehammer to inaugurate the opening of the tunnel.
“The City of David brings biblical Jerusalem back to life,” Friedman said when he commenced the digging. “It enables every one of us to stroll the corridors where the ancient prophets of Israel gave voice to revolutionary ideals of freedom, liberty and human dignity.”
SIAM AND other Silwan residents are convinced that what is happening in their neighborhood is part of a scheme to “Judaize” east Jerusalem.
“They want Silwan,” said Nariman Ruweidi, a housewife and mother of six children. “They say it’s the City of David. This is their goal.”
Ruweidi says her home is already “surrounded by Israeli settlers.” Earlier this year, Jewish families moved into apartments on the second floor of the building where she lives. The apartments, she says, were sold to a Jewish company by a local resident. Earlier, Jewish families moved into another apartment next to her home.
“Our response is that this is our home,” Ruweidi said. “Where do they want us to go? We will stay here. We have nowhere to go.”
She has no interaction with the Jewish family living above her but sometimes “they make too much noise.”
“Jews pay millions of dollars for the homes,” she said, a contradiction to the PA’s statements claiming Jews violently try to remove Arab families from their residences.
“They want our house. My husband, who works as a driver for the Egged bus company, is being pressured to sell our house to Jews.”
Ruweidi, too, shares the widely believed conspiracy theory that Israel’s ultimate goal is to squeeze Arabs out of Silwan and most of the east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Although her house has not suffered any damage as a result of the excavations, she said she saw cracks in the walls of a house belonging to one of her husband’s relatives.
On the door of Ruweidi’s home, a gold-plated image of the Koran and the Dome of the Rock came into focus. Less than three meters away was another door, leading to an adjacent home that was marked by a mezuzah. It was later revealed that the Jews had been living there for the past few months. Some may believe that the continued silence between the two families is a miracle. But in Silwan, such silence is not unusual.
Abdel Kader Abu Sbeih, another Silwan resident who lives a few hundred meters away from the Ruweidis, appeared calm when asked about the excavations and the opening of the Pilgrimage Road.
“It’s a tunnel that goes under the whole village,” the chain-smoking father of eight said. “They have been digging here all over.”
A father of 11 and “one wife,” Abu Sbeih, who previously owned a restaurant in Minnesota, said he tried to hire a lawyer so that he could see for himself the digging around his house. “Even with a lawyer they won’t let you see what’s going on under our houses,” he added.
Asked whether the PA or any of its representatives had offered to help the Silwan residents, Abu Sbeih, whose family is originally from Hebron, replied with a wide smile: “No!”
Over the past two decades, several Silwan families have tried to prevent Jewish families from moving into homes purchased from local residents, who have been denounced by Palestinians as “traitors.” In most cases, the courts ruled that the real estate transactions were legal, paving the road for the establishment of what Palestinians call a “Jewish settlement” in the heart of Silwan.
“The judges take the side of the Jews,” Abu Sbeih, who describes himself as a former antiques dealer, remarked. “My lawyer was not clever, because he referred to Jews as ‘settlers’ instead of ‘neighbors.’ There’s nothing we can do now. It’s a fight for survival. Israel wants to evict us from our homes.”
Abu Sbeih says that the first floor of his house was damaged by the digging. From his small terrace on the second floor, he points at a nearby site where archaeologists were busy working. “Do you see how close they are to my home?” he said.
Like most Silwan residents, Abu Sbeih says he has no relations with his Jewish neighbors. He claims he has turned down offers from various Jewish groups to buy his house.
“Life is difficult here and anything is possible,” he says, as he watches two of his sons renovate the family’s black and red kitchen. “But money means nothing. You can be rich one day, and the next day you can have nothing. No one knows what’s happening and what’s right or wrong.”
Silwan residents are suspicious of any foreigners who knock on their doors. As far as they are concerned, a foreigner can be a member of a Jewish organization seeking to buy their homes, or an Israeli intelligence officer.
Jewish and Muslim homes can be easily distinguished by whether a security system is installed at the entrance. Jewish homes have the security system. One can also listen for residents speaking Arabic or Hebrew, or look for Israeli flags, or black water tanks (on top of Arab homes), to help distinguish a Jewish home from an Arab home.
In many ways, large parts of Silwan look like a slum or refugee camp. Dumpsters are topped off with garbage and trash is in the streets, and the Jerusalem Municipality public services are less inclined to keep the place clean.
But for the residents, the digging under their homes is part of a larger problem facing many Arabs in east Jerusalem. Severe construction restrictions and bureaucracy have led to an unprecedented increase in illegal building in most Arab neighborhoods. The municipality has served many Silwan residents with house-demolition orders in the past few years.
“We are under attack,” complained Muhammad Abbasi, who belongs to one of the large clans in Silwan. “Israel is taking everything here. They are already controlling what’s under Silwan, and soon they will take our houses and turn the village into a Jewish settlement.”