Strife in Silwan

Residents promise to resist further house demolitions.

Yakoub Rishe fears returning from work one day to find his home wrecked. His wife, Aida, worries that any stranger knocking at the door was sent to kick them out. Their small cinderblock home is one of 3,000 unlicensed constructions in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhood of Silwan. On Monday, city bulldozers toppled a nearby home and garage, spiking residents' fears that more demolitions will follow. Silwan sits atop the City of David, and the government has designated an area in the neighborhood as an archeological park. But the park's expansion is prevented by the illegal homes. Arab residents acknowledge they lack building permits, but say they owned the land before Israel gained control of east Jerusalem in the the Six Day War. They consider the demolition orders an attempt to diminish their presence in the capital of a hoped-for Palestinian state. Much of the conflict centers on the neighborhood's Bustan quarter, where 88 homes have been slated for demolition since 2005. Last week city officials and security forces visited 15 houses, residents said. Rishe, 40, said two city officials and four soldiers came to his house and asked for his permit. When he said he didn't have one, they wrote down his name and ID number and photographed the courtyard of his home and the alleyways leading to it. Other residents gave similar accounts. The officials didn't say why they came, though Rishe and other residents thought they knew. "These were the practical preparations to destroy the house," he said. A municipal spokesman acknowledged that city personnel visited the area but provided no further information. After the officials left, residents erected a protest tent of two-by-fours and black tarp to draw attention to their cause. While visiting the tent last week, Sheikh Raed Salah, a former mayor of Umm el-Fahm and currently leader of the radical, northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, encouraged residents to fight the demolition orders. "Our position is clear: Either we live on our land or are buried in it," he said. Speaking about the issue during a visit to Sweden on Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that carrying out the demolition orders would have "a devastating impact on the peace process." Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said in a statement last week that the government had issued no new orders for the area, but added that "illegal construction is illegal construction no matter where it is." The Interior Ministry had rejected residents' permit requests on their private land because the area is intended for "public recreational use," not for residential construction, Barkat said. Arab residents of Silwan worry that the City of David excavations are just the beginning of a massive redesign of the area to complete the archeological park. The park land is allocated by the government but developed by the Elad Foundation, an organization associated with Jews committed to preventing Israel from ceding the area in a peace deal. Besides financing digs, Elad buys land from Arabs in the neighborhood so Jews can move in. About 70 Israeli families now live in the area, said Doron Spielman, the group's international director of development. Israeli flags mark their homes, and the government provides armed security. Spielman called the area "a microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict," but said his group will continue to bring in Jewish families and expand the excavations, which had 500,000 visitors in 2008. "The goal is to excavate as much of the City of David as possible and to bring as many visitors to the site as possible," he said. Spielman said the group's work had no relation to the demolition orders. However, after the demolition orders were issued in 2005, city engineer Uri Sheetrit said the park would be established "as soon as possible" once the homes were razed. Efrat Cohen-Bar, of the Israeli group Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights, whose goals include retroactively legalizing illegal construction in Arab neighborhoods, said Arabs often build illegally in areas like Silwan because city plans have given their communities little room to expand. Only 34 percent of the 70,500 dunams (7,050 hectares) of east Jerusalem taken by Israel in the 1967 war - including both open space and population centers - were designated for Arab residents, she said. Growing populations soon expanded outside their designated areas. Rishe said he and his wife spent their whole lives in Silwan but built their home a year and a half ago on land owned by her family. Rishe lives in the four-room house with his wife, aunt and six children. During a demolition in November, more than 100 troops fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to push back stone-throwing residents. Eleven people were arrested, five policemen wounded and a police horse stabbed. The Rishes said future demolitions would meet with similar resistance. "If they want to destroy the house, they can bring it down on our heads," said Aida Rishe.