A Storm Is Gathering in Silwan

A new storm is gathering in Jerusalem. On March 2nd, Jerusalem's Mayor, Mr. Nir Barkat, held a press conference to announce the plan for "The King's Garden." It calls for the demolition of 22 Palestinian homes on the western flank of the Al Bustan neighborhood in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem. The cleared homes will be replaced with an archeological park. In return for their lost homes, the plan offers to change a zoning ordinance that would allow residents to build two additional floors on existing 2-floor homes on the eastern flank of Al Bustan.

The mayor's claim that residents had agreed to the plan in discussion was immediately denied by the residents themselves, who stated their opposition to the plan in its current form. Indeed, the Ir Amim blog from February 19 quoted the chair of the Al Bustan Residents' Committee, Mr. Fakhri Abu-Diab, as saying, "I like the idea of a park, it is my dream to sit there with my wife, but I want it to be near my house, not in place of it."

From a logistical perspective, the plan presented by the mayor is unrealistic. The evicted residents have no chance of meeting the base requirements for obtaining building permits. Few Palestinians have the documentation required by the Israeli Land Registrar as proof of ownership and after decades of neglect by the Jerusalem municipality, Al Bustan does not have the water, sewage, electrical infrastructure, or parking space necessary to gain building permits.

In fact, the difficulty obtaining building permits is intimately connected with the mayor's plan. In the past, many Al Bustan residents found it impossible to obtain such permits when they needed to expand their homes to accommodate growing families. They decided instead to build without permits. One of the stated goals of the "King's Garden Plan" is to bring order to the chaos, demolishing some of the homes and normalizing the status of others. This plan, developed unilaterally by the city, contrasts sharply with the plan proposed by Al Bustan's residents. In 2005, they hired an architect at their own expense to prepare a master plan for the neighborhood that would accommodate as many of the existing homes as possible while considering open space needs. The plan was developed in coordination with the city and received an official confirmation that it met the base requirements of the Municipal Planning and Construction Committee. But in early 2008, the committee rejected the plan with the sole argument that it "contradicts the City's position against any normalization of illegal construction."

It is worthwhile to refer again to the comments of Fakhri Abu-Diab, chair of the residents' committee, about the city's rejection of the residents' master plan and its replacement by the "King's Garden" plan. About the threat of demolition, he said,

My home is where I used to find shelter from the confusion and pressures of living under occupation, but now the occupation has reached into my home; when I enter, I look around me at the kitchen, the rooms, the furniture that makes a home, and I remember that I might be seeing it for the last time... When a home is demolished, a family is destroyed... In media reports, you don't hear about the emotional toll it takes. I volunteered to tutor a boy in the local school and discovered that he had no books in his school bag, only toys. When his parents asked him about it, he said he was so afraid the bulldozers would come while he was in school that he took his most beloved toys to school every day...

Abu-Diab was asked to describe his family's history in Jerusalem. He told us that he belonged to one of 12 clans that make up Silwan's Palestinian population and can trace his own lineage seven generations back. He was born in 1962 in a one-room home in Al Bustan, right next to the Shiloah spring, which he inherited after many of his 14 siblings left for elsewhere in the Arab world, Europe and America. After he married and children began to be born (there are five of them, ages 17 to 26), he began to worry about enlarging his one-room home, but he could never obtain a building permit from the Jerusalem municipality and eventually decided to build without it. This decision now serves as the grounds for the demolition order on his home.

It is important to emphasize that Abu-Diab and others in the Al Bustan Residents' Committee are committed to non-violence. As he explains,

We work together to educate our children to struggle in legal, democratic ways... For the conflict to be resolved, people must hear each other, meet face-to-face and see the other, talk together over coffee. It is essential if our two peoples are to safeguard the future for our children... But we worry that one day our children will stop believing us, because they see that non-violence brings us nowhere. How can I speak to them of co-existence when they see the home of our neighbors--a family with five children, ages 5 to 11--being destroyed? Reality contradicts our preaching and pushes our youth toward radicalism.

As Abu-Diab words remind us, the "King's Garden Plan" is about politics as well as urban planning. The plan to build an archeological park on the ruins of Palestinian homes is meant, among other things, to deepen Israel's hold on this focal point in the political contest between Israelis and Palestinians. As such, the plan is bound to be seen by the international community and the Palestinians as a provocation by Israel and an attempt to use its control of East Jerusalem to change political realities on the ground. The consequences for both Jerusalem's present stability and its political future could be fateful. If such fears seem overly dramatic, let us not forget that Israeli authorities, including the Jerusalem municipality, have already given extremist right-wing organizations exclusive control over national possessions of the utmost importance in this sensitive part of Jerusalem, and this control is being used to advance a radical political agendas. It would not be far-fetched to presume that the archeological park to be built on the ruins of the demolished homes in Al Bustan will end up being managed by the settler organizations active in Silwan.

Following the wide media coverage of protests against the plan by Al Bustan residents and others, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Mayor Barkat to postpone the plan's submission to the Municipal Planning and Construction Committee. The Mayor was compelled to follow the request, but made it clear that he was not giving up on promoting the plan. A public statement issued by Ir Amim calls on the Israeli authorities to carefully weigh their actions in this sensitive part of Jerusalem and to consider the volatility of the area as well as the needs of its residents. Jerusalem's municipal government in particular must avoid unilateral plans and seek agreement with the residents. The master plan prepared by Al Bustan residents could serve as the base for such an agreement.