East Jerusalem: What's brewing in Silwan?

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Border policeman checks Palestinians 248 (photo credit: )
Border policeman checks Palestinians 248
(photo credit: )
The week leading up to Rosh Hashana is always a hectic time in Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City, where thousands of tourists and pilgrims converge on the holy sites as the Muslim month of Ramadan and the Jewish month of Elul converge in a parallel approach toward their climactic finales. This week was an especially hectic one in the capital, beginning last Friday, as police were in a heightened state of alert due to massive Ramadan prayers at the Aksa Mosque, and a seemingly minor confrontation was beginning to unfold nearby, in the Wadi Hilweh section of Silwan, just outside the Old City's Dung Gate. The confrontation, part of which was revealed on a security tape released later in the week, apparently began when a group of Arab men approached two Jewish men, one of whom, as seen in the video, was armed with an M-16 in front of the neighborhood's Givati parking lot. The video shows the Arabs, visibly angry, pointing their fingers at the Jews, as if they are directing them to leave, and as they get closer to them, an Arab man can be seen kicking one of the Jewish men as the others look on. The video clip is but a minute and a half long, but an important factor that was not caught on the tape was the continuation of that confrontation and the subsequent wounding of two Arab members of the crowd - a 40-year-old and 13-year-old - by gunshots, reportedly fired by the man who had drawn his weapon. That man, an off-duty soldier whose identity has been barred from publication by the police, was arrested moments later, but Silwan residents responded to the shooting by pelting police officers with rocks. The following night, when Wadi Hilweh residents heard that the Jewish man had been released from a Jerusalem jail to house arrest, the anger level in the neighborhood went soaring. Sporadic disturbances continued throughout the night and the following day; a woman was injured when she became the target of rock-throwers near the City of David archeological park. Police were quick to brush off the violence as a few "isolated incidents," telling The Jerusalem Post that while they would remain on alert due to the holiday period, "the situation in Silwan is returning to normal." "We did have a heightened presence in the area during this week's incidents," a police spokesman said. "And while we watch every part of the city very closely all of the time, we're not looking at Silwan in any sort of special light." Residents of the area - both Arab and Jewish - on the other hand, gave a different account, saying that tensions in Silwan were now boiling, and that it was unclear where the current hostility would lead, or how it could end. While the neighborhood has long been a hotly contested heritage site for both Jews and Arabs - archaeological excavations have revealed extensive Jewish ties dating back to the reign of King David - recent proposed projects by the Jerusalem Municipality, alongside increasing numbers of Jewish residents moving into the neighborhood, have prompted more overt unrest among the neighborhood's Arab population. But it was this week's violence in Wadi Hilweh - a major fault line for Arab-Jewish tensions in Silwan - that residents said may be a harbinger of the neighborhood's future. "There's a lot of tension, we all feel it," said Silwan resident Jawad Siyam, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Wadi Hilweh, a group that fights evictions and house demolitions of Arab residents of the area. "And for the police to release the man who shot those people says to us that in Silwan the settlers can shoot anybody and get away with it." While Siyam said he wasn't sure how the current situation would play out, he did say that emotions in the neighborhood had reached a fever pitch and that the shooting only added fuel to the fire. "People have had enough," he said. "We feel as though the police and settlers always blame us. It's like we're always the bad ones, and the settlers can do no wrong." Siyam further alleged that Friday's incident had begun when one of the Jewish men involved hit one of the Arab residents' sons. "He hit his son, and so the man was responding to that. He's not a violent person," Siyam said. The main problem in Silwan, he added, was not the shooting incident itself, but what he deemed the "immense frustration" residents feel with the police. "The residents feel as if they have no recourse for protest," he said. "If we complain to the police, they arrest us, and when the settlers shoot us, they release them from jail. For us, for the residents in Wadi Hilweh, if the police keep acting this way, I don't know how people are going to react the next time something like this happens. "It's gotten to the point where everyday things, like arguments over traffic, can trigger an argument between Arabs and Jews, and then who knows where it will lead. Day to day life has become dangerous." It wasn't just Siyam who said that Silwan was under particular pressure these days. "The tension in all of the neighborhoods around the Old City during Ramadan is quite intense," said a Jewish former resident of the area. "People are fasting, the police presence is beefed up, and yeah, just while you're sitting in traffic, a road rage incident can turn into a full-blown ethnic conflict. "Obviously there's a situation there that we want to get past. And the [Arab] residents of Silwan will have to get past it, because the Jews aren't going anywhere. They're all going to have to learn to live together." But while this former resident said he could understand the high levels of tension in a general sense, and stressed the need for coexistence in the area, he also said that the shooting incident was a natural response when someone feels their life is endangered. "You make your own bed," he said. "Those guys were ganging up on him, and they saw he had a weapon. They put his life in danger, and he responded; and the only reason he was released from prison the next day was because he was right." Others however, said that the situation in Silwan - regardless of the holiday season - was nothing short of a powder keg, and one that needed to be addressed before it was too late. "Silwan is a boiling pot next to one of the most explosive places on earth [the Temple Mount]," said Orly Noy of the Ir Amim Israeli-Palestinian coexistence organization. "The tensions that are felt there are the kind of result you have when any ideological settlement is built inside of a Palestinian neighborhood. It has nothing to do with coexistence, no matter how the settlers put it. "The situation there puts the stability of the city at risk. And not just because of the prospect of violence, but because it's preventing any kind of future political agreement." The former resident, however, took issue with this point, saying, "The road to peace is living together, and unfortunately there are bumps along the way. But the only way forward at this point is for the Jewish and Arab communities of Silwan to come together and defuse this situation between themselves."