IT’s too much!
Weekly Friday demonstrations have been held since last autumn, focussing on the serial eviction of Palestinian refugee families from UNRWA-built homes (28 are targetted) who are replaced by Israeli settlers who say their aim is to restore a pre-1948 Jewish presence in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, north of the Old City. This effort to displace Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah is taking place around a tomb said to be of Simon the Just (Shimon Hatzadik), High Priest in the Second Jewish Temple, that has became a focus of Orthodox Jewish pilgrimage in the past decade, and the plan is to clear away the Palestinian homes and build a housing complex for 200 Jewish families.
This Friday, however, the weekly demonstration will be re-focussed on the situation in Silwan — completely on the other [southern] side of the Old City of East Jerusalem — where 88 houses have been under threat of demolition for the past couple of years, mostly for having been built without proper permits, and where a seven-story building (also built without proper permits, in an area where two stories are the current maximum permitted, with a future possibility of four) draped in an Israeli flag banner, towers over the Palestinian neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish religious families under organized private and publicly-funded security protection.
Photo of demonstrators gathering in Silwan on Friday under the crenelated walls of the Old City and the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque – from Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan
At the beginning of the week, the Jerusalem municipal planning committee refused to hear a counter-proposal from Palestinian residents, and went ahead to approve a plan pushed by the Mayor, Nir Barkat, to demolish 22 of the 88 Palestinian homes and construct a “King’s Garden” [Gan Hamelech] tourism center in the Al-Bustan [garden or park] area of Silwan. It caused an uproar.
U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley said it “undermines trust”. The State Department also said that “The United States has made clear that it disagrees with some Israeli practices in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in areas such as housing, including evictions and demolitions”.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on a visit to the U.S., criticized the “timing” and said the Jerusalem committee showed a “lack of common sense”.
A Jerusalem municipal spokesperson then accused Barak of speaking without “checking the facts first”.
The city said that the 66 other homes slated for destruction would be approved retroactively, and that it would help residents of the 22 homes due for demolition to move to other areas of Silwan [but it was not clear whether this promised assistance would be provided before or after the demolitions — and precedents suggest the possibility that the assistance may never materialize at all].
The plan still has to advance to a Regional Planning Commission that is run by the Israeli Ministry of Interior [and there are apparently two more stages in the municipal planning committee it must pass through first].
The Meretz representatives on the municipal council defied a warning from the Mayor not to submit a vote of no-confidence, but went ahead anyway — and were subsequently ejected by the Mayor from the municipal coalition.
Photo of ‘Pepe’ Alalu, Meretz city council member who was forced out of the municipal coalition, participating in Friday’s demonstration in Silwan – posted on Facebook by Yael Petretti
Photo of Palestinian woman said to be member of one of Sheikh Jarrah evicted families participating in Friday’s demonstration in Silwan – posted on Facebook by Yael Petretti
The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported after the demonstration that “Settlers from the Elad settlement projects in Silwan responded by throwing stones at the peaceful demonstrators … The demonstration was also attended by observers from the U.S. Consulate of East Jerusalem”. This report can be read in full here.
Palestinian boys in Silwan watching Friday’s demonstration – photo by Amit Zinman via Didi Remez on Facebook
Israeli settlers in Silwan watching Friday’s demonstration – photo by Amit Zinman via Didi Remez on Facebook
Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected an appeal from the settler organization Ateret Cohanim against sealing the seven-story settler building [Beit Yehonatan, apparently named for Jonathan Pollard] which was ordered evacuated nine month ago. The Mayor of Jerusalem has not enforced the evacuation order (saying he feared it might lead to clashes), despite a strong stand taken by the Jerusalem legal adviser, Yossi Havilio.
Israeli activists say they are waiting to see if the Municipality will now carry out the court decision regarding Beit Yonathan, and they want the counter-proposal of the Palestinian residents to be given real consideration.
But, the Israeli activists have generally been less outspoken on repressive Israeli police measures against Palestinians in Silwan (and in other areas as well).
UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon’s office said that “The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the decision by the Jerusalem municipality to advance planning for house demolitions and further settlement activity in the area of Silwan”, and noted that the plan was “contrary to international law” and “unhelpful” to efforts to restart peace negotiations, according to a report by the BBC on Thursday. This can be read in full here.
Not long afterwards, Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat responded, firing off a letter to UNSG BAN [sent around to journalists by email], in which he reproached the UN, asked for money and support, and invited the UNSG for a visit.
In the letter, Barkat wrote: “I, as the Mayor of Jerusalem, am committed to improving the quality of life of all residents of Jerusalem and decided from the moment I took office not to just talk about the plight of the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Rather, I decided to invest my time and the city’s resources into bringing proper planning, modern infrastructure, and new businesses to Arab neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem. I am renovating schools and community centers and bringing technology to classrooms throughout the entire city. I am creating jobs and improving the quality of life for all residents of the city. It was with great dismay that I read your response to the Municipality of Jerusalem’s re-zoning plans for the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and the King’s Garden, areas that were never planned for residential use and lie just hundreds of meters from the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock. Indeed, the re-zoning that we have put forward improves the quality of life of thousands of Arab residents of Jerusalem by providing them for the first time with proper sewage, drainage, electricity, roads, telephone lines, Internet, and other infrastructure. Further, my plan gives the Municipality the ability to legalize hundreds of Arab homes built without permits, some of them on public lands with complete disregard to public safety codes, endangering the lives of the residents, and making Municipal services difficult to provide, while at the same time allowing for a thousand new apartments to be built legally in the neighborhood for the Arab residents. Our new plans ensure the inhabitants of the area have the ability to live legally. The new plans include a three thousand square meter community center that the Municipality designed in partnership with the residents of Silwan that, with funding from the UN, could have an enormous impact on the residents of Silwan. The Municipality has spent the past year preparing these plans because they are the right thing to do. I am committed to improving the quality of life of all residents of Jerusalem – whether they voted for me, against me, or not at all. Your response revealed a clear lack of understanding by the UN of our initiatives. Your office failed to ask pointed questions about the re-zoning, to request to see the plans, or even seek a basic understanding of my goals for the residents of Jerusalem. It is much easier to talk and criticize, than it is to learn, invest, or act. Unfortunately, the UN has never asked the Municipality of Jerusalem what it could be doing to improve the quality of life of the residents of Jerusalem. It would be my honor to host you in Jerusalem or meet with you in your offices in New York so I can share with you our plans for opening up the city for the world to enjoy and improving the quality of life of all the residents, as well as the plans for the Silwan and King’s Garden neighborhoods. If the UN was committed to promoting social progress and better standards of life, it could begin to translate that commitment into positive actions right here in Jerusalem in partnership with the Municipality of Jerusalem. Warm Regards from Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem”.