Israel to Open Jewish Heritage Center in Palestinian Neighborhood in East Jerusalem

Israel to spend more than $1 million on the center in Silwan, devoted to Yemenite immigrants in the 19th century

The old synagogue in Silwan where a Palestinian family resided once it was empty and from where they were evacuated in 2015. Israel plans to open the new center in the synagogue. File photo, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel is set to open a Jewish heritage center in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem. A ceremony will be held at the site under the watch of heavy security this Wednesday to mark the project's launch.

For the past two decades, the pro-settler organization Elad has worked to Judaize the neighborhood by purchasing homes from Arabs and litigating against them, sometimes with assistance from the Israeli government.

>> Haaretz Editorial: Silwan, a model for oppression

The new center, which will be constructed at a cost of 4.5 million shekels ($1.23 million) is to be housed in an old synagogue near the Beit Yehonathan settlement in what is known as the "Yemenite village" - a neighborhood established in Silwan by Yemenite immigrants at the end of the 19th century and abandoned before the establishment of Israel following violence in the British Mandate period, specifically the events of 1929 and the Arab Revolt of 1936.

A Palestinian family was evicted from the building in which the center will open in 2015 after it was determined in legal proceedings that they were squatting in a sacred property that had belonged to a religious Yemenite Jewish body decades before.

Settlers entered the building after the eviction of the Abu Naab family. There were rumors at the time in the neighborhood that the Palestinian residents voluntarily evacuated the house in exchange for monetary compensation.

The State plans to invest millions of shekels in order to turn the place into a heritage center of the "Tamar Aliyah," the immigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1881. The Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs will invest 3 million shekels and the Ministry of Culture and Sport will invest 1.5 million shekels.

The Silwan neighborhood has become a symbol for the Palestinian struggle in East Jerusalem. In December 2017, more than 100 residents petitioned the Supreme Court in an attempt to prevent Ateret Cohanim from evicting them from their homes. Their petition attacks the Custodian General of the Ministry of Justice, who 17 years before transferred a plot of about five dunams, in which hundreds of Palestinians live, to the control of the settler organization's members without informing the Palestinian residents.

Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the state’s administrator general’s office in June to explain its decision to transfer land in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan, inhabited by some 700 Palestinians, to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization.

The court’s order came in response to a petition submitted by more than 100 residents of the East Jerusalem locale, who claim that the decision to transfer the property, 17 years ago, was illegal. Since then settlers have moved in and many Palestinian residents have been evicted.

The case involves 5.5 dunams (1.4 acres) of land in the Silwan neighborhood where some hundreds of Palestinians are still living. The deed was issued to the Benvenisti Trust, established about 120 years ago to provide homes to Jews immigrating to Palestine from Yemen. But the trust has, for the last 17 years, been controlled by Ateret Cohanim, a rightist nonprofit group that encourages Jews to move to predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The main issue in the petition concerns whether the original, Ottoman-era trust covered the administration of the land in question or the buildings erected on it, all but one of which was demolished in the 1940s. The petitioners seeking to halt the eviction claim that the original trust and the recent transfer of the title deed pertained to the buildings, but not to the land itself, based on Ottoman law. The Palestinians claim that the trust’s authority should be voided and the evacuation halted because the trust covered structures that no longer exist – not the land.