By Joharah Baker
There are some people whose faces betray the difficulties they have encountered throughout their lives. Salah Shweiki is one of them. Sitting under the large tent set up in Silwan’s Bustan Quarter, seeking warmth from the wood burning in an old wheelbarrow, Shweiki emanates the aura of an elderly sage. In his 56 years of life, he has seen a lot, maybe too much, but today, he is focused, his face determined and his will iron solid.
Salah Shweiki is one of approximately 1,500 people who are being threatened with expulsion from their homes by the Israeli Jerusalem municipality. According to the eviction order distributed among the residents of the Bustan neighborhood, the demolitions are being carried out under the pretext of lack of proper licensing. Once the homes are torn down, Israel plans to construct a national park in its place, a park, its archeological experts say, is part of the ancient City of David.
Shweiki disregards any and all of these claims, saying the eviction order falls under a larger scheme for Jerusalem, which is to expel as many Palestinians from the city as possible.
Looking at Israel’s recent activity in Jerusalem, I would say Shweiki hit the nail right on the head. Silwan has been plagued with Israeli demolition orders for years, many of this latest group having been handed orders back in 2005. The residents of Silwan say the claim that their homes are built without the proper Israeli licensing is preposterous since most of them were built even before Israel captured the city in 1967.
Shweiki, for example, says he has deeds to his house and land that date back to the British Mandate, which in turn prove that the house was built even before that. "Besides," he says, "This is Waqf land," he said, in reference to the Islamic Endowment that handles the administrative affairs of Jerusalem’s Muslim areas. "Wafq lands can neither be bought nor sold," he adds, thus discrediting any claims that Palestinians sold their lands to settlers who have taken up residence in the heart of Silwan.
If these demolition orders are put into effect, Israel claims it would relocate the residents in other areas of east Jerusalem, mainly in the suburbs of Beit Hanina and Shufat. The people of Silwan’s Bustan neighborhood are not having any of it, though, saying they will fight the Israeli order tooth and nail. "Before they take our land, they will take our lives," Shweiki says defiantly.
He is not the only one who feels this way. Sitting with him in the tent are at least ten other men all huddled around the fire drinking coffee and tea. One man, Abed Shaloudi, says the residents have set up the Public Committee for the Defense of Silwan’s Bustan Quarter in order to attract as much media and international attention possible to their plight.
Shaloudi himself is no stranger to hardship. He served 10 years in an Israeli prison back in the nineties during which Jewish settlers made a claim on his home. He is still in his house but admits he does not know when the day will come when settlers will force him out with a court order.
Shaloudi’s youth is reflected in his passionate convictions. He says representatives from various media outlets have visited them, emissaries from the Egyptian embassy and European groups have all come to their tent. He has a guest book he asks all to sign as evidence of those who came in solidarity. His hopes are high that their activities will make a difference. "We are planning a march from Sheikh Jarrah to Al Bustan", he says, referring to another east Jerusalem neighborhood under constant attack and confiscation by Israeli settlers. "We also hope to form a human chain of children around Silwan."
These are all commendable efforts and could certainly bring attention to the injustice being meted out in Silwan. The question is, will it be enough to halt the demolitions? If history is to be our indicator, this possibility is pretty slim.
Take Sheikh Jarrah for example. For years settlers have taken over houses in this neighborhood claiming to have ownership deeds that date back before 1948. While Israel insists that the Palestinian families whose homes are being taken over have legal recourse in the Israeli court system, this is hardly a comfort. The best they can hope for is a stay of the demolition or eviction order for a few months, at best years, but never a reversal. The latest settler takeover was the home of Um Kamel, who slept in a tent with her elderly husband (who later died after their eviction) while settlers moved into their house.
In Silwan, Jabal Al Mukabber and the Old City, the stories only differ in the details. Claims of original ownership by Jews almost always trumps years of ownership and family inheritance by Palestinians. The problem with this logic is manifold, first and foremost the fact that it is one-sided. As recent as 1948, Palestinians owned and lived in homes in what is now west Jerusalem, passed down to them by their parents and grandparents. The fact that they hold original and authentic documentation to these homes just across the city’s seam line is completely irrelevant to Israel, which disregards any Palestinian claim to what is now Israel.
If only it would stop at that. Israel has systematically refused to accept even the principle of the right of return on the basis that any major influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel would alter the Jewish character of the state. Its aspirations, unfortunately, go even further than Israel proper. In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Israel has built tens of Jewish settlements in the heart of occupied Palestinian land and has filled them with half a million Jewish settlers. In Jerusalem, the thorniest of all final status issues, Israel continues to impinge on Palestinian land and residency rights in a bid to vacate the city of as many of its Palestinian-Arab residents as possible.
So, it is hard not to agree with Salah Shweiki. When he says the battle is not about Silwan but about Jerusalem, he is right. When he says the issue is not even the buildings, but the land, I can only shake my head in agreement. In Jerusalem, Israel does not hide its intentions. To make it the Jews’ eternal capital, it will have to rid the city of those who dare to defy that assertion. Sadly, as anyone can see, it is doing just that, one house at a time.
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com. (Originally published in MIFTAH, www.miftah.org)