Settlers Move Into 25 East Jerusalem Homes, Marking Biggest Influx in Decades

Despite recent setbacks, right-wing group Elad is expanding Jewish presence in Palestinian Silwan quarter; locals say Palestinian sellers 'betrayed' their families.

Daniel Bar-On

In a strategic move by the Elad nonprofit organization, dozens of young Jewish settlers entered some 25 apartments in seven buildings in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan on Monday night. This was the largest influx of settlers into buildings in that part of the city in 20 years.

The settlers’ entry was accompanied by police officers and privately hired security guards. Most of the buildings were empty, and thus there were no confrontations with Palestinian residents after the settlers arrived there.

In one building, however, there were residents who resisted and the Jews retreated. In another case, a confrontation broke out between a young Palestinian and the new tenants, and police separated them.

The newcomers have locked themselves in the buildings and they are being guarded by the police.

As in similar incidents in the past, the right-wing Elad organization is hiding behind a company registered abroad — in this case, Kandel Finance. Attorney Avi Segal, who represents the firm in Israel, would not provide any details about it or about the process involved in purchasing the property.

Residents of Silwan mentioned several local Palestinians, mostly members of a family that owns the structures, as having “betrayed” their relatives in exchange for large sums of money. The residents also note that even though significant building violations have been committed in some of the homes, the municipality had refused to intervene.

In any event, this is an unprecedented success for Elad, which has managed over the past two decades to change Silwan beyond recognition, transforming it from a Palestinian locale into a mixed neighborhood with a highly successful Israeli tourism center at its heart (the City of David National Park, which Elad runs).

As the nature of the area has changed, violence against its Jewish inhabitants has increased, and security has had to be augmented. Some 100 Jewish families live in Silwan now. Palestinian residents estimate that about 200 new settlers will ultimately be living in the 25 apartments acquired this week, which will beef up the Jewish presence there significantly.

Elad has, however, suffered two legal defeats recently. In the first instance, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court annulled an agreement according to which the organization would have been permitted to manage the archaeological park adjacent to the Western Wall. In the second, the National Planning Council’s appeals board quashed Elad’s large-scale development scheme for the Peace Forest near Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood.

In both cases, Elad received unprecedented support from government officials and agencies, including the housing and education ministries and the Jerusalem municipality.

In the case of the archaeological park, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit had, however, voiced opposition, since they felt that Elad's management of the site would impinge on an agreement being forged among pluralistic Jewish movements concerning creation of a new prayer space nearby, at the Wall. In the other case, politicians and left-wing activists opposed the nonprofit's plans for construction on legal grounds.

Now Elad has once again proved its financial and legal capabilities.

A Palestinian official who is knowledgable about the local real-estate market estimates that the price of each of the buildings acquired by Kandel Finance is between $1 million and $2 million.

In the past, Elad chalked up property-acquisition successes by citing the Absentee Property Law, which allowed removal of Palestinian residents from their homes in situations in which the absentee owner was living in an enemy country. But recently, the legal system has placed obstacles in the way, and the organization has been forced to invest more and more resources in buying homes legally from their owners.

Palestinians claim that the nonprofit succeeds in such transactions because it exploits the weakest members of the property owners' families, who agree to sign sales contracts in exchange for large amounts of money.

“Elad has a database about all of Silwan, every family and every building: who lives there, what his story is and who the weakest link is,” says an official closely involved in the issue. “That’s how it finds the cracks through which it can penetrate.”

Apparently, “straw men” are often involved in the purchases; they buy the apartments and transfer them to the settlers.

“I’m disappointed that these Palestinians think of money without even thinking about what this does to their families,” says Jawad Siam, a long-time political activist in Silwan. “Elad has an agenda of transfer. They want to remove us and create a ‘City of David’ here. What happened this week is a political message to Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas].”

The takeover of buildings earlier this week in Silwan occurred at the end of the most violent summer East Jerusalem has known in decades. Settlers living in that part of the city, who have been suffering from attacks of stone-throwing, firecrackers and firebombs almost every evening, complain that the police are ineffective in dealing with the Palestinian youths involved.

For their part, police officials have expressed optimism in recent days regarding an impending end to the wave of violence. Over the next few days, it will become clear whether the influx of new Jewish residents in Silwan will thwart progress toward a calmer atmosphere.

With respect to the latest developments, Elad officials referred questions to Segal, who commented thus, in the name of Kandel: “The Kandel Finance company is a business firm that deals in real estate and investments. The company chose to invest in homes in Jerusalem that were purchased properly and legally.”