Strife in the Garden (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Palestinian residents of a Jerusalem neighborhood fear their homes are slated for demolition in what they view as a political plot to displace them "A park of flowers and trees, breezeways and cafés: this is the Israeli blueprint to cover the ruins of al-Bustan," says Um Khaled, 43. With no makeup, her forehead creased, she wears a simple white scarf. Um Khaled's small house, like all the others in the crowded neighborhood, is built of crude white stone. Clotheslines filled with colorful children's garments hang and sway on the rooftops, next to satellite dishes. Just east of Um Khaled's doorstep, only a few hundred meters away, the golden Dome of the Rock shimmers. For the past nine years, Um Khaled and the other residents of al-Bustan, which means garden in Arabic and Hebrew, have been living under a cloud of uncertainty, ever since they received notice in the year 2000 that the Municipality of Jerusalem intends to destroy 88 homes in their neighborhood, displacing some 1,500 people. With only a few exceptions over the years - the latest in November, when several structures were demolished - the municipality had not enforced these, largely, most experts assume, in response to international pressure and ongoing legal battles by the residents against the orders. But on March 2, Jerusalem city bulldozers razed a home and garage in al-Bustan, deepening the residents' fears that, despite criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to the region and despite international and domestic protest, the orders will be carried out. Al-Bustan is a part of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. The area, with a population of some 50,000 residents, has been the focus of controversy and conflict between the residents and right-wing Jewish settlers, the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality for nearly two decades. The neighborhood extends along the Qidron Valley and runs alongside the eastern slopes of Jabal al-Mukabbir, just to the south of al-Aqsa Mosque. It is a central part of what is known as Jerusalem's "historic basin," which includes most of the sites holy to the three religions. The Israelis refer to Silwan as the City of David, and believe, based on extensive archaeological evidence, that it is the site of King David's Jerusalem. They refer to the al-Bustan neighborhood as Emek HaMelekh" (The King's Valley). The municipality issued the demolition orders as part of a plan to surround the Old City and the historic basin with open green areas and to create an archaeological park in the Silwan and al-Bustan region. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat isssued a statement March 5: "It is important to the future of Jerusalem that this area be treated with the utmost strategic importance. The King's Valley is not intended for residential development but rather it is intended to be an open public space. This position is concurrent with positions taken during the British Mandate and going back to Ottoman control of the area." However, according to what is referred to as "the Clinton Plan for Jerusalem," first proposed in December 2000, the area of Silwan would be part of a future Palestinian capital when, and if, a Palestinian state were to be established. During her visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in early March, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, in a rare public criticism of Israel, called the demolitions "unhelpful" and a "violation of international obligations." Speaking at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, Clinton also said, "It [the demolition plan] is a matter of deep concern to those who are directly affected, but the ramifications go far beyond the individuals and families who have received the notices." In response, Barkat, speaking to foreign journalists on March 5, denied that the demolitions were politically motivated and claimed that Clinton was "ill-informed." Insisting that the demolitions are an issue of law and order, and not politics, he emphasized repeatedly that all of the buildings slated for demolition have been built illegally. Jessica Montel, director of B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, maintains that the demolitions are politically motivated. "There is a… general [Israeli] policy in East Jerusalem not to allow expansion of Palestinian neighborhoods. Israel wants to maintain what it calls a demographic balance between Jews and Arabs. The way to achieve this balance is by encouraging Jews to move into East Jerusalem and by restricting Palestinian development, not allowing Palestinians to build, and demolishing Palestinian houses." ] Right-wing nationalist-religious Jewish settler groups, in particular ELAD (an acronym for "To the City of David") and Ateret Cohanim, both backed by private donors, mostly from the United States and Russia, have been settling in Silwan since the early 1990s. To date, some 70 Jewish families, totaling approximately 350 people, have moved into Palestinian homes in the area, claiming that they purchased the homes and land from Palestinians. A series of court judgments by various Israeli courts, going back more than a decade, have found that the settlers falsified documents and that, moreover, the settlers themselves have built without permits and have violated local planning regulations. Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.