Dozens of Israeli settlers moved into three building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan in the early morning on Thursday, the latest move in settler group Ateret Cohanim's years-long campaign to expand Jewish presence in that part of the city.
Ateret Cohanim activists, accompanied by large Israeli police force, moved into the buildings, which contain at least 16 apartments, at around 2 A.M.
Fifteen Jewish families already lived in Betan al-Hawa, or the Yemenite quarter. The buildings taken over on Thursday were sold by their Palestinian owners, in one of the largest purchases on East Jerusalem property by settlers in several years.
These buildings are also near the Ma’aleh Hazeitim neighborhood where about 120 Jewish families reside.
The Abu Dihab family, one of the biggest Palestinian families in Silwan, issued a statement condemning a member of the family who apparently sold one of the buildings to Ateret Cohanim.
Another local family said to have sold the other two buildings issued a statement, where it said they were sold four months ago to a Palestinian who vowed not to sell it on to Jews.
Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem city councilor from left-wing party Meretz, said in response that “the Israeli government and Jerusalem City council are being dragged by the far-right into turning issues of housing and urban development into a racist struggle. In recent years, about 100 settlers in Ras al-Amud, where 25,000 Palestinians live, have received investments of tens of millions to facilitate their entry into the neighborhood which has suffered from continuous neglect.”
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Ateret Cohanim responded: “May a new light shine on Zion. With God’s mercy we have entered three buildings between Shiloah and Ma’ale Hazeitim last night, about 25 apartments. May God build Jerusalem!”
Far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, tweeted: “A new light of Zion continues to shine… Ateret Cohanim pioneers redeemed three houses last night … more children shall play on the streets of the holy city and more voices of redemption and building the country.”
In 1899, during the period of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem, a section of buildings in Silwan was registered by the Moshe Benvenisti Trust with Jerusalem’s Sharia court as housing for poor immigrants from Yemen. The neighborhood was abandoned in 1938 on the orders of the British Mandate government druing the Arab uprising at the time, and the homes were demolished over time. A Palestinian neighborhood was built at the site, where about 700 people now live.
In the 1990s, Ateret Cohanim did a survey to expose the history of the Yemenite quarter and the Benvenisti Trust. In 2001, a Jerusalem court awarded Ateret Cohanim’s petition to renew the trust and be named as trustees, since when it has waged a legal battle to evict the neighborhood’s Palestinian residents.