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It didn't have to be this way in East Jerusalem's Silwan

The neighborhood of Batan al-Hawa is today the site of major friction and tensions between Palestinian residents, Jewish settlers and the massive security presence that accompanies them. But things weren’t always like this, and they don’t have to be.

By Hussam Abed

Private security guards stand atop a home taken over by Israeli settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, February 21, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Private security guards stand atop a home taken over by Israeli settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, February 21, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Try and imagine this: Jews move into a Palestinian village and are welcomed with open arms. They become part of the local economy, share in joyous occasions and sad ones, and together with their neighbors form a unique, rich human tapestry. The tensions are the same you’d find in any society: they are not shaped along the rigid lines of ethnic, national or religious identity.

Now return to the reality I see daily as a B’Tselem field researcher in the neighborhood of Batan al-Hawa, where the largest expulsion effort from East Jerusalem in our time is underway. The settlers encroaching on this neighborhood, which Israel annexed in 1967, come not as neighbors but as occupiers. The foothold they have taken in Batan al-Hawa in recent years is based on a legal battle in which they claim ownership of Palestinian homes that were in Jewish hands before 1948.

This is violent dispossession rooted in discriminatory legislation: Palestinian families are being thrown out of their homes, which are then taken over for the purpose of “Judaizing” the neighborhood. A right of return of sorts — one of the many privileges that the State of Israel bestows on Jews only. Several Palestinian families in Batan al-Hawa have already been evicted in this way, and eviction claims are pending against 81 more. The claims were filed by settler organization Ateret Cohanim, a key player in this dispossession process, which has the support and cooperation of government ministries and of the Jerusalem Municipality.

The families who have lost their homes and those who face a similar threat are not the only ones to suffer: when settlers insert themselves as occupiers into the heart of a Palestinian community, the entire neighborhood is subjected to human rights violations. In Batan al-Hawa, as in Hebron, the settlers have brought with them police, Border Police, and many private security guards. These state and private forces employ violence against the Palestinian residents, using live fire and crowd control measures in this densely-populated neighborhood and regularly threatening and provoking residents.

File photo of private security guards escorting a Jewish settler family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan as Palestinian youths look on. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

File photo of private security guards escorting a Jewish settler family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan as Palestinian youths look on. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

This ever-present tension and violence has deeply affected community life, and simple things once taken for granted are now difficult or impossible. The people of Batan al-Hawa, marginalized to begin with, have become even more isolated as relatives and friends are now afraid to visit. Weddings are held only outside the neighborhood, ambulance drivers refuse to enter, and with minors frequently arrested, all neighborhood kids talk about is the tension that comes with the presence of the security forces, while adults live in constant fear for their safety. Many children who have been arrested or imprisoned have dropped out of school. The road from there to becoming cheap labor is all too short, and the disastrous impact on their future — and on that of generations to come — all too predictable. This is especially worrying in a neighborhood that already has quite a high poverty rate.

Could these children have a different future? The tragedy of Batan al-Hawa is that the utopian scenario I imagined at the beginning of this article is not actually so far-fetched. It is, broadly, a description of a real chapter in the history of this neighborhood — formerly the village of Silwan — where, by many accounts, Arab residents lived in harmony with Jewish neighbors for many years.

This began when new Jewish Yemenite immigrants to Jerusalem were shunned by the veteran Jewish community, but were welcomed by the Arab residents of Silwan when they began settling there in 1884, with the help of the Ezrat Nidahim charity. Although getting along was possibly more of a constraint than a choice, these neighbors did, for a time, build a community together. The loyal partnership they formed was put to the test during the unrest of 1929, when the Arab residents of the village successfully rallied to protect their Jewish neighbors.

What would Rabbi Boaz Bavli and the people of Ezrat Nidahim say if they saw the neighborhood now? Would they agree to Palestinians being forced out of their homes by a settler organization purportedly acting on behalf of all Jews? The occupation controls people, their land, and their homes. We must not allow it to also control our most basic resources: memory, imagination, thought, and faith.

If we wish to see the neighborly relations that today may sound imaginary, but in fact are as natural as it gets, we must remember Batan al-Hawa’s past, and we must believe in, and work for, a better future for its children right now. Delegates of Silwan’s Jewish community concluded their letter of thanks (Hebrew) to their Arab neighbors for protecting them during the unrest with the following statement: “We hope that this kind of relations between us will remain for many years to come. The good Lord is trusted to reward all who do good, as it is said in the psalm: ‘Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.'”

Hussam Abed is a field researcher for B’Tselem in East Jerusalem.

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    1. Mark

      You’ve got to admit it looks nicer than the clinical new neighbourhoods further out of Jerusalem……and the wall is nowhere in sight.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Subhana

      Interesting historical narrative. Sounds really convincing if it history ended in 1929. Yet, somehow the Jews of Shiloah (Silwan) ended up leaving, with Arabs moving into their houses and claiming ownership. It happened in 1936, the next time the Arabs in the Land of Israel decided to riot their opposition to Jews living amongst them.

      I presume the occupation was to blame in 1936 as well. That is the only thing that makes the story spun in this article make any sense.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        First of all the story was not “spun,” it is true. Second, Hussam Abed quite clearly tells it in a very different spirit than you acknowledge. Third, history did not end in 1929, 1936, 1948, 1967, 2000, or 2008. You don’t want it to end in 1929 but you want it to end when you want it to end. Abed is looking to the future. As for the period 1936-1939, it is much more colonial and colonizing that you want to admit:

        “Jewish and British officials worked together to co-ordinate manhunts and collective actions against villages and also discussed the imposition of penalties and sentences.[120] Overall, the Jewish Agency was successful in making “the point that the Zionist movement and the British Empire were standing shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy, in a war in which they had common goals.”[121] … The 1936–39 Arab Revolt has been and still is marginalized in both Western and Israeli historiography on Palestine, and even progressive Western scholars have little to say about the anti-colonial struggle of the Palestinian Arab rebels against the British Empire.[183] According to Swedenberg’s analysis, for instance, the Zionist version of Israeli history acknowledges only one authentic national movement: the struggle for Jewish self-determination that resulted in the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May 1948.[183]Swedenberg writes that the Zionist narrative has no room for an anticolonial and anti-British Palestinian national revolt.[183] Zionists often describe the revolt as a series of “events” (Hebrew מאורעות תרצ”ו-תרצ”ט) “riots”, or “happenings”.[183] The appropriate description was debated by Jewish Agency officials, who were keen not to give a negative impression of Palestine to prospective immigrants.[184] In private, however, David Ben-Gurion was unequivocal: the Arabs, he said, were “fighting dispossession … The fear is not of losing land, but of losing the homeland of the Arab people, which others want to turn into the homeland of the Jewish people.”[10]

        Reply to Comment