Contesting Past and Present in Silwan

by Joel Beinin | published September 17, 2010

On September 1, Elad -- a Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David” -- convened its eleventh annual archaeological conference at the “City of David National Park” in the Wadi Hilwa neighborhood of Silwan. Silwan, home to about 45,000 people, is one of 28 Palestinian villages incorporated into East Jerusalem and annexed by Israel after the June 1967 war. It lies in a valley situated a short walk beyond the Dung Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Elad, a militant, religious, settler organization, claims that Silwan is the biblical City of David mentioned in the second book of Samuel and that the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) located there watered King Solomon’s garden.

The public was invited to tour recent excavations and hear a program of lectures advancing Elad’s thesis that its unearthed findings prove its historical claims. Palestinian community activists in Silwan joined with Israeli Jews from Ta‘ayush (Living Together) and “Solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah” to organize a demonstration exposing Elad’s political manipulation of archaeology. The call for the demonstration explained: “We will be there to remind everyone that the Elad Association is not a research institution interested in archaeology, but a political tool for the Judaization of East Jerusalem through the expulsion of the Palestinian inhabitants. We will remind them that they are in an occupied village called Silwan, and not in a Biblical tourist site.”

The protest organizers continued: “Various state organs that are supportive of Elad’s project, like the Israeli police, the Jerusalem municipality, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and many others, are trying…to hide from the public eye the fact that these excavations are carried out in the service of the settlements.”

Historical “Facts on the Ground”

The atmosphere in Wadi Hilwa was already heated. On August 26, for the third time according to Arab residents, Elad settlers attempted to break down the iron door of the mosque near the Pool of Shiloah using an acetylene torch. [1] Wadi Hilwa resident Muhammad Qara’in called the Jerusalem police for assistance, but the duty officer hung up on him. When clashes began between Arab residents and settlers the Border Guards arrived and began shooting live ammunition and tear gas at the Palestinians. Two settler cars were torched and the windshields of several others were smashed in the melée. Police cordoned off Wadi Hilwa. But this measure did not prevent the continuation of clashes the next night, since the aggravating factors -- the Elad settlers -- are in the middle of the neighborhood.

Since 1994 Elad has been underwriting archaeological excavations to supply proof for its version of Silwan’s history. In the process, they are destroying evidence of the presence of many other peoples and cultures on the site -- 21 strata dating from the time of the Canaanites, who established the first permanent settlement in Silwan some 5,000 years ago, and the levels of the Muslims who ruled the place from the mid-seventh to the early twentieth centuries. [2]

Elad also began seizing Palestinian homes in Silwan in 1991 and settling Jewish families in them, using dubious legal maneuvers that were criticized by a 1992 commission of inquiry appointed by the Israeli government. But Jerusalem municipal executive authorities have done nothing to remove Elad from the Palestinian homes it has illegally occupied. Elad now controls about 25 percent of the Wadi Hilwa neighborhood as well as other properties in Silwan.

Some Israeli archaeologists accept Elad’s claims that its excavations are “scientific” and unrelated to its settlement project. Other renowned Israeli archaeologists contest Elad’s version of Silwan’s biblical history. [3] According to Benjamin Kedar, chairman of the board of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Elad is “an organization with a declared ideological agenda, which presents the history of the City of David in a biased way.” [4] To date, no conclusive archaeological evidence affirming the presence of King David or King Solomon or of a Jewish temple on the scale described in the Bible has been found in Silwan or elsewhere.

Policing Protest

Although the Elad tour and conference were in a national park and open to the public, police and Border Guards blocked the access of the demonstrators on the grounds that, “You are leftists,” as one officer put it. Daniel Dukarevich, a physician and an immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union, attempted to cross the police barrier and attend the conference. Border Guards seized him and beat him viciously. Dukarevich was immediately surrounded by a group of young women who bravely tried to protect him -- and themselves after the Border Guards began beating them as well. Several demonstrators recorded the incident and later uploaded their video footage to YouTube. [5] Others chanted, “Brave soldiers are beating [female] demonstrators,” while drummers, a regular presence at demonstrations, kept up a military cadence. Dukarevich was eventually dragged away by police with blood streaming down his face. Police can later be seen ushering a settler car through the barricade.

Veteran CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl and a crew from “60 Minutes” happened to be on the scene to do a story about Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Stahl’s jaw dropped and her face became visibly strained as she watched the beating. When some semblance of calm was restored, she interviewed a Wadi Hilwa resident who told her, “The Elad organization will not be successful in its attempts to falsify the history of this region and to ignore the indigenous people of the village. The collusion between Israeli authorities and ‘private’ settlement enterprises such as Elad are clear to us all -- highlighted by the military’s attempts to shut down this demonstration today.” Stahl’s story has not yet aired.

Later, ten more Jewish demonstrators who attempted to enter the conference were arrested. They were taken off to the jail and courthouse complex housed in former pilgrim hostels in the Russian Compound -- a picturesque plot of land in central Jerusalem originally owned by the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox cathedral. After the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917 they expropriated the area, except for the church itself, to build a government center. The state of Israel compensated the Soviet Union for the land in 1964 with $3.5 million worth of oranges.

Five of the detained demonstrators were released at 1:30 am the next day. One of them, Matan Cohen, is a student at Hampshire College and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine on that campus. He was one of the prominent organizers of the campaign that led to Hampshire’s February 2009 divestment from six corporations with holdings in companies complicit in Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (College administrators claim the divestment was unrelated to the activists’ demands, though the president acknowledged “the good work of Students for Justice in Palestine that brought this issue to the attention of the committee.”) Cohen had spent most of his summer break working with the renowned Israeli filmmaker, Udi Aloni, teaching film to youth in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. As a condition of his release, police officers demanded that Cohen sign a document consenting not to return to East Jerusalem for three months. Although he was due to return to Hampshire for his senior year within days, he told them, “I’m not signing anything and I’m not leaving before the others are also released.” Frustrated with Cohen’s resolute stand, the police eventually let him go without conditions.

When the court opened for business on September 2, Cohen and ten others who had participated in the demonstration were present to check on the status of those who had not yet been released. There they met Nasir Ghawi, the head of household of one of the four Palestinian families who have been evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, also to make way for Jewish settlers. Further evictions are threatened. Ghawo is the most articulate spokesperson for all the Sheikh Jarrah evictees. He and his lawyer were in court to argue that someone acting for the Sephardic Community Committee, which claims to own his home, had falsified the eviction order by adding names not included on the original court document to it. “I only want basic justice,” he said. “If the document is falsified, than we should be returned to our home and the settlers removed until the case is settled.” The court postponed the hearing on the forgery question until November and the Ghawi family remains in the street. It had earlier ruled similarly with regard to the Hanun family.

The relationship between the Jews who had participated in the Silwan demonstration and Nasir Ghawi was warm, familiar and mutually supportive. All of the Jews present were regular participants in the weekly demonstrations held at Sheikh Jarrah since November 2009 to protest the eviction of Palestinian families from the neighborhood. Ghawi knew most of them by name or face. He speaks fluent Hebrew, which makes it easier for those who do not speak Arabic to get to know him well. (Ta‘ayush has members who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, but the Jerusalem branch is an entirely Jewish group today, although they work closely with Palestinians in both Sheikh Jarrah and the south Hebron hills.)

Since most East Jerusalem Palestinians speak at least some Hebrew, there is less pressure on Jewish activists there to learn Arabic. Sara Benninga, who was prominent in the demonstration at Silwan (and also in the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations), due to her extraordinary stamina in leading chants in Arabic, Hebrew and English, said: “We know we should learn Arabic. I have tried to do it several times. But it is hard to find the time while working, going to school and maintaining political activity.” The language dynamics are somewhat different in the West Bank, where many of the prominent young Jewish activists speak at least enough Arabic for basic communication and several, like Matan Cohen, are totally fluent. Many West Bank men, of course, speak Hebrew because of their extensive experience in Israeli jails. But for Cohen and his peers in Anarchists Against the Wall, the language of communication whenever possible is Arabic.

More surprising than the cordiality between Arab and Jewish protesters is the intimacy between Jewish protesters and the police. The police and the protesters recognize each other and address each other by name. It is obvious who the police commanders are; the officers imagine that the demonstrators have a similar hierarchy, although this is far from the case. At the Silwan protest, the police commander asked Asaf Sharon, a Ph.D. student in political philosophy at Stanford University, to step aside and speak to him one on one. Sharon later reported that the officer told him, “If you calm your people down, there won’t be any more arrests. If you don’t, I will start arresting more of you” (Dukarevich had already been taken away). Sharon held up his wrists as though they were already handcuffed and said, “Take me first.” He was later arrested for trying to enter the conference area.

A New Protest Generation

At Sheikh Jarrah and in Silwan, as in the villages of the West Bank, the Jewish protesters demonstratively disregard the authority of the Israeli state, although Palestinians must be more circumspect since they would likely suffer grave consequences for openly challenging the occupation authorities. The Jewish protesters aim to make the police and the army pay as high a price as possible for continuing the occupation. Every demonstration requires the deployment of extra police or soldiers to a place where they would not normally be. Every arrest requires the time and energy of the court system, whether or not detainees are eventually charged. Every instance of gratuitous police brutality -- and there have been many in East Jerusalem, even according to Israeli courts -- delegitimizes the police, exposes their political bias and draws more establishment personalities into the movement.

Intense direct confrontation with the authority of the Israeli state is a considered strategy, according to one of the influential behind-the-scenes organizers of the Jewish participation in the protests in Sheikh Jarrah. It is designed to produce “a transition from protest to struggle…. We are there to struggle in a subversive way.” [6] The protest organizers are consciously striving to create a conflict between the many “left Zionists” among whom it has become fashionable to attend the weekly demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah -- people like prestigious Hebrew University professors Menachem Brinker, Moshe Halbertal, Avishai Margalit and Zeev Sternhell, novelist David Grossman, and former speaker of the Knessset Avraham Burg, who typically function as a loyal opposition -- and the Israeli state apparatus. But the young organizers are not concerned with ideology as such.

Some call themselves Zionists; some do not. Some are secular; some are modern Orthodox or formerly observant but respectful of religion. As such, the new protest generation has a very different social makeup than the mostly older and resolutely secularist “left Zionists” of Peace Now, the nearly defunct Meretz party and the Labor Party. The protests are animated by social networks that have been formed over the last decade in struggles against Israel’s separation barrier and efforts to protect the Palestinians of the south Hebron hills from the depredations of violent, radical settlers. The Arab and Jewish protesters regard the creeping Judaization of East Jerusalem -- which is now most aggressive in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah -- as a mortal threat to Palestinian-Israeli peace. Rather than ideology, the glue that binds the Jewish protesters together and the Jews and the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan to each other is moral outrage over blatant injustice and discriminatory application of Israeli law.

However many states there may or may not be on the horizon in Israel and Palestine, the new generation of Israeli protesters see themselves as building a culture of peace and living together with Arabs in opposition to the segregationist version of peace -- “us here, them there” -- long promoted by the “left Zionist” peace camp. This approach to peace remains marginal in Israeli society, although it has many Palestinian proponents, even among those who remain committed to a two-state solution. It is surely more hopeful than the diplomatic exercise now underway.

Endnotes

[1] See the Wadi Hilwa Information Center’s report online at: http://silwanic.net/?p=5692.
[2] Jane M. Cahill and David Tarler, “Excavations Directed by Yigal Shiloh at the City of David, 1978–1985,” in Hillel Geva, ed., Ancient Jerusalem Revealed (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2000), pp. 31–45.
[3] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: Free Press, 2006). See also the information at http://www.alt-arch.org/.
[4] Akiva Eldar, “The Very Eye of the Storm: Silwan,” Ha’aretz, April 2, 2009.
[5] The footage is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCOwQL7w_Rg.
[6] Interview, Jerusalem, August 19, 2010.

Filed under: