Raising the stakes in Silwan

It would be terribly provocative to make 22 families homeless or impose a development plan on the neighborhood without the agreement of its residents.

silwan protest arabs 311 (photo credit: AP)
silwan protest arabs 311
(photo credit: AP)
On Friday afternoon, about 500 organizers and supporters of the Sheikh Jarrah movement brought their weekly protest to Silwan, where Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently announced a plan to raze a wide swath of buildings, 22 in all, to build an “archeological park.”
Barkat’s idea is to expand what he, his NGO partner, the right-wing Elad (recently awarded the right to administer the site), Elad’s zealot settler- supporters and American funders and the Tourism Ministry all call the “City of David.”
This site has been developing beneath the radar for several years across from the Dung Gate, where you enter to the plaza leading to the nearby Western Wall.
Just to be clear, there is about as much evidence that King David’s palace would be excavated by this project as evidence that Queen Helena actually found the grove from which the true cross had been cut in the Valley of the Cross. But like Helena’s sites – she was said to be the greatest archeologist in history, because she never looked for something she didn’t find – Barkat’s City of David is actually meant to excite pilgrims – you know, guests of a bar mitzva who are looking for something to do on Sunday afternoon.
But even if the site had some scientific value – excavations were carried on here under British auspices during the Mandate Period – it would be terribly provocative to make 22 families homeless, as in Sheikh Jarrah, or impose a development plan on the neighborhood without the agreement of its residents (who have a neighborhood committee, willing to negotiate).
SILWAN IS the heart of the most heavily populated, impoverished and angry parts of the city, certain to be in any future Palestinian capital.
Which means that protests in this part of the city are much more explosive than in Sheikh Jarrah. In Silwan, stoning of police and settlers is commonplace, as are armed threats by settlers against residents. Youth gangs and neighborhood resistance are hard to tell apart.
When we walked down the streets and neglected alleyways of Silwan, it was clear from the men on the stoops, women and children in the windows and preening young men on the corners that they had never seen, nor expected to see, so many Jewish Israelis coming into their neighborhood to back them – and that for some, the mere presence of more Jews of any kind was not entirely welcome.
Call it a teaching moment for all of us who were, on both sides, making ourselves vulnerable to the other’s decency.
Halfway through, someone in the settleroccupied houses overlooking the march let off a couple of stun grenades, which made a dreadful boom, but caused no real hesitation.
Then, in the middle of the square slated for demolition, we gathered for speeches, and one of the heads of the neighborhood association took the megaphone. He picked up the Hebrew chant protesters have used often in Sheikh Jarrah: “Jews and Arabs are not meant to be enemies” – a banal thought when you think about it, but deeply moving surrounded by this kind of tension.
I approached the unofficial leader of the protest, Assaf Sharon, and found him relieved, even gratified, by how many protesters had come out, given how much grittier, and potentially dangerous, was the confrontation in Silwan than in Sheikh Jarrah. He was running back and forth, scanning the hills for potential disruptions, feeling responsible, like the father of a toddler near a jungle gym.
The idea, he told me, was to let Barkat know that if he brings bulldozers, there will be hundreds sitting down this time, his eyes betraying both weary optimism and a certain apprehension.
“Anyway, just look at these people coming out, and the way they are being received.”
The writer is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and the author of the recently published The Hebrew Republic. This article was originally published on www.bernardavishai.com.