East Jerusalem Remains 'Arab' Despite Jewish Settlers, Experts Say

The number of Jews in Silwan is not large enough to influence any future agreement, experts say.

Michal Fattal

Despite the takeover of 25 apartments in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan by Jewish settlers’ on Monday night and the festive declarations that followed, a look at the area’s demographics shows that the settlers are far from constituting a majority in the neighborhood.

Monday’s move, orchestrated by the Elad nonprofit organization, was the largest influx of settlers into buildings in that part of the city in 20 years. Minister Naftali Bennett, who visited the new settlement on Tuesday, called the event “historic” and declared in a video on his Facebook page that “in the City of David, which used to be called Silwan, there is now a Jewish majority. This means the City of David will always remain part of Israel and this is a historic event.”

Bennett called on “everyone to visit the City of David in the coming holidays.”

However, figures show that Jews make up only 3.5 percent of Silwan’s residents. Even in the City of David, a neighborhood in the center of Silwan village that is called Wadi Hilweh by the Palestinians, only 18 percent of the residents - including the 25 new families – are Jews.

In contrast to Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, it is difficult to outline the Palestinian neighborhoods’ borders. The traditional boundaries between families, orchards and mukhtars’ compounds have blurred in the crowded construction and Silwan has merged with Abu Tor, Jabel Mukhbar and Ras al Amud. But no matter how the borders are drawn, Silwan’s Palestinian residents number 20,000 to 50,000, while the Jewish ones do not exceed 700.

The settlers are concentrated in two locations in the village. The largest – some 100 families totaling about 500 people – is in the City of David, south of the Temple Mount. The families that occupied new apartments in this compound on Monday night will increase the Jewish population by about 600. The second concentration of Jews in Silwan consists of 11 families living in Beit Yehonatan and Beit Dvash, two isolated settlements.

Elad and Bennett are focusing their attention on the City of David for a number of reasons. It is an historic archaeological site, believed to be the ancient core of settlement in Jerusalem dating back to the Bronze Age. It is also adjacent to the Temple Mount and close to the Western Wall. Elad has been settling Jews here over the past 25 years in a bid to turn the area into a Jewish neighborhood. Its declared purpose is to ensure that the neighborhood is included in the Israeli side when Jerusalem is divided.

But an examination of the City of David on its own shows that the Jews are far from being the majority. According to the 2008 yearbook of the Central Bureau of Statistics, 4,450 residents are registered in Ein Hilweh, whose borders are congruent with the City of David. The area called Wadi Hilweh was erased from the yearbook after 2008, but presumably the number of Palestinian residents in it is not much lower.

A detailed survey of the non-profit organization Bimkom cites the number of Palestinian residents in Ein Hilweh as 3,500. Attorney Danny Zeidman, an East Jerusalem expert, says the number of Palestinian residents in the neighborhood is 3,500-4,000, compared to some 600 Jews.

The settlers boast that they dominate most of the City of David territory. Even if one includes state- or JNF-held public plots in the Jewish-owned areas, Palestinians still own most of the territory, especially if we count areas run by the waqf and Greek-Orthodox Church, says Zeidman.

“In 1991, when I started dealing with the issue, there were 1,400 Jewish settlers in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem,” says Zeidman. “Now, 23 years and tens of millions of dollars from public funds later, they have increased their number to 2,550. Is this such a great achievement?”

Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, a member of the Geneva Initiative and the Council for Peace and Security, is examining the demographic change in East Jerusalem neighborhoods from before they were annexed to Israel in 1967.

“If we look at the past 20 years, the overall Israeli population has not exceeded 3,000 in a Palestinian population of 120,000. This cannot have a demographic effect,” says Arieli.

In any future arrangement with the Palestinians, the City of David is supposed to have a special status as part of the capital’s historic basin, so the Jewish neighborhood in it makes no difference to the future border line, he says.

“Any way you look at it, the settlers’ effort in Jerusalem has failed. It’s accomplished nothing but friction and escalation,” he says.