At the foot of Al-Aqsa the struggle ensues over every house. If this neighborhood is called Silwan, the Palestinians have a chance of staying. But if it’s named after King David, their chances are nil.
If you don’t want to know anything about the hard life Palestinians are leading in Jerusalem, you won’t find out even if you visit the Holy Land dozens of times. Most tourist guides talk about Jerusalem like the Palestinians are not there at all, and if they are, they are nothing but an unfortunate part of the landscape.
But if you do want to find out about how Palestinians live in Jerusalem you needn’t go far: The Silwan neighborhood is right there at the foot of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Israel occupied this neighborhood along with the entire Jerusalem in 1967. Israelis call this place the City of David and consider it the oldest part of the city. For them it’s of key importance in terms of identity, so they want to live here and build a museum here. For the Palestinians Silwan is a stronghold that they protect without weapons or help. They believe that if they leave Silwan they’ll disappear from all of Jerusalem. That’s why the tension has been palpable here for many years. The Palestinians have nothing against King David, whom they consider a prophet. But they are against being evicted in his name.
Jawad Siam, the head of a children’s center, is 46. He and his ancestors are from Silwan.
The children’s center is not just a place for boys and girls to do art. In a way, it’s the main strategic defense point in Silwan. If a child starts going there, he or she is not wandering the streets throwing stones at Jewish soldiers, but is learning to draw, sing, make films, organize holidays and make pottery. Children learn different skills and how to work in a team. Probably that’s why there have been so many attempts to close the children’s center, as it’s harder to fight educated and organized people.
Jawad and I are walking in the rain. From this lovely street, with beautiful buildings and little rivulets running along its cobbles, opens a wonderful view on Al-Aqsa.
An Israeli woman parks her car right in front of the gates of his house. It’s forbidden, and Jawad throws up his arms in exasperation. The woman keeps talking on her phone, ignoring both Jawad and the prohibition sign.
All the Palestinian passersby, from boys to elderly men, exchange a few words or a joke with Jawad.
He tells me the stories of every person we meet and every house we pass. Both have a dramatic past.
“Silwan saw constant clashes in 2007-2012. They wanted to arrest as many men as they could, so that those men would lose their jobs and everything would fall into decline. We pay all the taxes, but what we get in return is orders to demolish our houses. It’s forbidden for us to fix anything. Many people don’t have the licenses for their houses. Since 1967, when Jerusalem was occupied, only 30 houses received them.”
Jawad himself has been arrested 42 times since 2007. At fourteen he was under house arrest for five months. After the First Intifada he spent several months in prison.
“I got off light. Other people spend years locked up, and after that got kicked out of the country.Over the last few months, they were arresting people every day,” says he.
Another Silwan resident is Muslem Ode. He is 15 and he has been arrested 15 times — including every time he spoke to a journalist. I also want to talk to him, but I’m facing a dilemma – if we talk, the teenager will go to jail. Jawad makes a call to his parents for me, but they ask to give their son a break with the interviews as he is still recovering from his previous arrest.
The children’s center keeps record of all the crimes committed against children and produced a documentary about arrests.
“The arrests are not always made by the Army. Sometimes, children are kidnapped by the settlers. We try to keep record of all such cases. They torture and rape the children. We cannot publish facts about rape in our reports, but one family insisted that we do – and this case is on the record in our archives,” says Jawad.
The fact is that there are 24/7 CCTV cameras installed throughout the quarter, so everything is captured on video. There’s no problem identifying or tracking the kidnappers. Nonetheless, that just doesn’t happen. Jawad is sure that it is so because the settlers know the Army is on their side.
“I lived in Germany – there were Nazis there, just like these settlers, they think the same and use the same methods.” Jawad spent nine years in Germany and Turkey getting an education as a social worker. His wife is Serbian, they have two children: a 9-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. Five years ago, Jawad’s wife was sent away from the country together with the children. She cannot even visit now, despite the fact that she had a valid temporary stay permit.
“They gave her three days to pack and leave. Now she is banned from visiting, and I cannot go see her because I would risk being denied re-entry because of the work that I do. So they live in Germany, and I live here,” explains Jawad, conscious that it is hard for a foreigner to even imagine what the life of Palestinians is like.
Families living apart are yet another “normal” thing for Palestinians, a reality they have to live with. It’s the toughest on the residents of Jerusalem.There are basically no cases when people would talk about it to mass media and have their names published, because they are scared to get more problems with housing and their residency permits if they do so.
Jawad gets a call from a friend. After they finish talking, he tells me his story: he is from Jerusalem; his wife is from Hebron (Al-Khalil, Palestinian National Authority). They cannot live together in Jerusalem because his wife will never get a residence permit. They can’t live in Hebron either because there are no jobs there, and on top of that if Jerusalem authorities learn about his going there, they will take away his Jerusalem house. Just recently Jawad was arrested and his car was taken away. One more problem on top of his pile.
For a Palestinian, trivial things that we do as we go about our daily routine can have life-changing consequences.
“If I give a ride to a person from the West Bank, they’ll fine me and take away my car. There are people in jails whose only “crime” was to bring their wife or a journalist from the West Bank in their car,” says Jawad.
To stay in Israel, a Palestinian originating from the West Bank needs to carry a paper that lists the sites he can visit and the hours. For instance, a permit to receive treatment in hospital does not give him the right to visit his family in a house nearby. He can’t even buy some water in a local shop.
“As I was driving a journalist out of the settlement, I was arrested,” says Jawad.
He understands why the children’s center is a thorn in the side for the whole neighborhood.
“We keep the kids busy, so that they don’t mess around in the streets. We entertain them. We organize all sorts of events and competitions, we teach them singing and dancing. We set up camps. The kids write poems and learn to draw. That’s why they want us closed down,” says Jawad. The military have raided his center more than once.
There are no Palestinian institutions in Silwan or Jerusalem. No police or local councils – though according to the UN, East Jerusalem is a Palestinian autonomy. So the children’s center is the only Palestinian organization in the neighborhood.
The only thing that Palestinians in Jerusalem can do is brace themselves for persecution.
Jawad’s data confirms that the homes belonging to 65 percent of the Palestinians in Silwan are to be destroyed.
He says that the ground floors of all the buildings had been erected before 1967. They belong to Palestinians, but the owners are not allowed to fix or expand them. According to Jawad, there are no new homes in the neighborhood except those built by the settlers.
If you do not destroy the home upon receiving the order, you’ll have to pay a fine.
“Two years ago, they sent me five orders to get my house knocked down,” says Jawad. For now, his house has not been destroyed yet. But sooner or later it will, because as a Palestinian, he cannot really challenge this decision in court.
Even after the fine has been paid, the military will still bulldoze the house.
In the area where the houses have been demolished archeologists are carrying out their digs and workers are building a historical park. You can see this through a hole in the fence. No Palestinian archeologists are allowed to join in.
In the Holy Land, archeology plays a most important role in politics, second only to the army. Israeli archeologists are looking for artifacts to prove their long-standing presence in Jerusalem, but so far to no avail.
Jawad Siam comes from Silwan, just like his 93-year-old great-grandfather. All of his family were born and raised in this place.
“But the settlers grabbed my mother’s house,” explains Jawad with an air of melancholy.
“My grandmother died in 1991. While the women were bathing her body, an Arab came in. He was carrying seven empty sheets – which is how many children she had – and asked the women to cover her body and put her fingerprints on each sheet instead of a signature. He said this would help to protect our property rights.”
“Why? Six of my grandmother’s children lived outside of Palestine. If I lost the property, I would be kicked out of the country forever. This is a provision of Israeli law. We, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, are like temporary residents. This is our permanent status. If anyone loses the status of a temporary resident, then his or her property would be confiscated and handed over to the settlers. What makes things worse is that you can lose it due to so many reasons,” he said.
Since it was their neighbor, also a Palestinian, they thought they could trust him. But he turned out to be a fraudster. He sold the shares to Israelis, and in 1994 the settlers took over the house.
“We went to court and proved very quickly that the paper was a fake. But the settlers are still there. It’s a business, with hundreds of shell companies and funds. The judge calls the owner but it turns out he’s no longer the owner and that his share was re-sold many times. So, legally, the house belongs to us but it would take decades to get it back,” he explains.
Jawad lists many laws that apply to property rights.
“You must live in your house on a permanent basis, if you stay abroad for too long, the border guards might refuse entry, even if the papers are in order, if there are no debts or payments overdue.”
It later turned out the man sold each of the papers to Israeli settlers for $30,000.
“He was never seen here again. Maybe he now has a new identity. Well, that’s certainly possible with all the money he raked in.”
Jawad says it would be best to end on a positive note. He shows me a movie made by his center’s children. It’s a vibrant story, featuring rap songs by boys and verses by girls. While we watched it, Jawad explained when each of these children was arrested. None of them threw stones at the police or wore any weapons, or took part in politics.
It’s an uphill battle for Jerusalem’s Palestinians to remain in Jerusalem. It takes courage and political action. Jawad thinks it’s the norm.
“That’s what life is like for every Palestinian in Jerusalem,” he says.