'Like Spy Agencies': Inside East Jerusalem's Jewish Settlement

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Houses illuminated with Sars of David and Islamic crescent moons in Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood on Sunday.
Houses illuminated with Sars of David and Islamic crescent moons in Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The endless conflict between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood and Jewish settlements has taken an unexpectedly visual turn in recent years. Jewish residents started placing bright blue Stars of David, visible from afar, on their roofs. The Palestinians responded by putting up green crescents.

From a distance, the bright colors may look celebratory and benign, but a closer look shows otherwise.

Two weeks ago, in the dead of night, dozens of settlers moved into two new buildings in Silwan. This is part of a broader plan to unite all the Jewish buildings in Silwan into a single neighborhood.

Guards are recruited by the organization Ateret Cohanim (both voluntary and paid) to stay in the buildings until the families move in. One of them was Eran Tzidkiyahu, a left-wing tour guide and expert on Jerusalem’s geopolitics who wanted a close-up look at Silwan’s Jewish settlements.

Tzidkiyahu found the job through an ad on WhatsApp, which read “We need a number of armed men fit for combat to take part in a meaningful role in settling the land of East Jerusalem,” it said. The daily salary was 500 shekels ($154), and each guard was required to own his own gun.

After ending his one-day guard stint, Tzidkiyahu told Haaretz that he was told that while there are dangers, "it’s generally quiet and you can and study on Zoom.”

Tzidkiyahu was told that settlers were motivated “out of ideals and a sense of mission. I said I don’t share the sense of mission, but this interests me.” He wasn’t asked for any details or even for his gun permit.

There are two Jewish settlement projects in Silwan: the Ir David Foundation (known in Hebrew as Elad) has settled the Wadi Hilweh/City of David area near the Old City walls, while Ataret Cohanim focuses on the Batan al-Hawa area, deeper inside the neighborhood.

In Batan al-Hawa, residents don’t use their own cars, but armored vans provided by the Housing Ministry. Beit Yonatan, the area’s largest Jewish building, was built 20 years ago with help from a Palestinian collaborator and currently houses 10 families.

Tzidkiyahu started work Saturday night, arriving in an armored van with two Housing Ministry guards. “For years I’ve wandered around here in my own car or in tourist minibuses with no security,” he said. “But as soon as I entered the armored vehicle, I started to feel afraid. Suddenly I saw the streets through bars, with radio chatter in the background.”

A 14-year-old girl who lives in another building was also in the van, and the two were passed “like a package from guard to guard,” Tzidkiyahu said. When they got out, they were met by two other guards who led them quickly through the alleys. It was like a military operation.

Moving settlers into the new buildings was also like a military operation. Dozens of young men were recruited via WhatsApp, and one told Tzidkiyahu that discussions were held in code. The group was called something like “Trip to the North,” and logistics were coordinated through phrases like “tomorrow the weather will be nice, it will be possible to go on the trip.”

Settlement construction in Silwan.Credit: silwanic

As soon as the settlers arrived, Palestinians were keen to discover who had collaborated with them. A Palestinian family in Silwan condemned a relative who was suspected of involvement. A West Bank resident’s home was torched after he was suspected. Palestinians also attacked the new buildings with fireworks and stones.

Tzidkiyahu said that during the briefing before work, the guards were told that everything was quiet, but should trouble arise, their job was “to stay in the building and respond if needed.”

He guarded an unfinished building named Mitzpeh Yosef, its stairwell full of exposed cables and building materials, and a wonderful view of the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem.

While there are some families in the apartments, the building is mainly made up of young people in their twenties.

“Everyone is very nice, the atmosphere is pleasant, like a youth movement or basic training,” said Tzidkiyahu, who is 40.

Most of the guards were connected to the Har Hamor Yeshiva, but there were also students from Ariel University’s Middle East studies department, he added.

Most of the volunteers viewed Silwan’s Jewish residents “as the elite of the settlement movement,” even more so than the Jews of Hebron, Tzidkiyahu said. “They live in the most difficult conditions, requiring the most self-sacrifice.”

Members of Silwan settlement movement a few weeks ago.Credit: silwanic

Conditions are indeed hard. Jewish residents don’t walk around alone; every outing must be coordinated with the guards, whose jobs include escorting residents between the different settlement complexes. Children play on the roofs or in fenced compounds. Stones and fireworks are thrown at their homes and cars almost daily.

“I met an 8-year-old boy, the same age as my son,” Tzidkiyahu said. “I asked him what it’s like to live here, if he finds it scary. He said that he doesn't worry about stones, and that he knows what to do if a Molotov cocktail is thrown. One of the other guards asked him what he’d do if he saw a terrorist. The boy answered, ‘I’d call you, but first I’d deal with him.’”

“Everything is very dirty and noisy,” Tzidkiyahu continued. “Every night, fireworks are thrown.” Between the fireworks, the guards’ chatter, and the traditional Ramadan drumming that begins before dawn, he didn’t sleep at all.

A former combat soldier, he stressed that despite his ideological conflicts, he was committed to doing his job while there.

“I’m not in favor of violence by anyone, but I can understand the Palestinians’ hostility to the settlers in Silwan,” he added. “At night, I worried about it. The day was easier.”

Tzidkiyahu is a fellow at the forum for Regional Thinking and recently finished a PhD dissertation on religious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The Silwan settlers,” he said, “are clearly deeply motivated by religion.” So when they talk with someone like him, whose frame of reference is “political equality and human rights,” this results in a “dialogue of the deaf. While you’re talking politics, they’re talking religion.”

The Ateret Cohanim settlers aren’t considered particularly violent toward Palestinians; their goal is simply “to create a Jewish expanse from the City of David to the Mount of Olives,” he added. “Nobody provokes their Arab neighbors. But there’s a feeling that this is a hostile space and you’re under constant siege."

“There’s complete ignorance about the Arab residents,” he continued, adding that the settlers “simply don’t see how the Jewish presence in Silwan - a poor, neglected neighborhood at the heart of the conflict - oppresses Palestinian residents by evicting them from their homes, dismantling the Palestinian community and crushing the Palestinians’ dreams about Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

A building constructed by the settlement movement in Silwan a few weeks ago.Credit: silwanic

Regarding a Jewish man who told him he doesn’t understand why everyone can’t live there together, Tzidkiyahu remarked, “he simply wants to live in peace and fraternity with them under a regime of Jewish superiority.”

But his experience also left him with some ideas about how the left ought to handle the challenge posed by settlers.

Organizations like Ateret Cohanim are seen as “almost mythically powerful,” he said. “They operate like intelligence agencies – determined, wealthy, backed by institutional power and seen to be successful in achieving real results.” He admitted that he was impressed by their effectiveness.

Thus to fight them, he said, the left could “learn a thing or two from them.” He said he was surprised by how easy it was to infiltrate the organization and learn about its methods, concluding that it is equally possible to determine their weaknesses and utilize them to fight the spread of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. “We just have to be brave and think a bit outside the box.”

Meanwhile, a blue Star of David has been put up on Mitzpeh Yosef’s roof.

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