Palestinians Paint Murals in Jerusalem, Looking Israeli Occupation in the Eye

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The Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, December 2019.
The Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, December 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

“Here there is graffiti of a bird, a very beautiful bird,” the young guide from the Ateret Cohanim Jewish settler organization explained to a group of Israeli visitors. During the Sukkot holiday in October, they strolled through the narrow streets of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, followed by heavy Border Police security. The guide explained that the bird is “one of the symbols of Palestinian liberation, of freedom” and said “I’d say it’s beautiful in the way that Hitler’s paintings are beautiful.”

The tour run by Ateret Cohanim, which works to evict local Palestinians from their homes, is designed to showcase the growing Jewish settlement there. One of the visitors asked the guide about the big beautiful mural being not far from the Jews’ homes, “It’s a symbol that, even if it looks very, very aesthetic, we know what it says. Now let’s go into the ancient synagogue where there’s a place to sit and have a drink,” the guide replied. 

Right-wing activists tour Silwan.

The mural that caught the visitor’s eye is one of 15 colorful murals that have come to cover walls in Silwan in last months. The bird depicted there is a goldfinch, which as the guide rightly noted, has become one of the symbols of the Silwan protest against the occupation and Jewish settlers.

A Palestinian woman in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The goldfinch appears in many of the paintings, which are part of a political street art project by the Jewish-American artist Susan Green, in collaboration with Palestinian residents. The project is called “I Witness Silwan” and is just getting started. The plan calls for dozens more murals to be added in the coming months, to ultimately cover 150 walls in the village and drastically alter its appearance. Green is also designing an app that will enable users to view the murals and learn about them and about the neighborhood.

A girl playing next to a mural in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
A mural in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Green has been active in the West Bank and Gaza since 1998, when she lived in a refugee camp for three months. “Public art in Silwan is a radical and dangerous act,” she explains in the manifesto she wrote for the project. “It highlights the existence of people whose existence Israel denies.” 

The locals also can’t say for sure why the finch was chosen as a symbol. Some mention the Nature and Parks Authority ban on catching the finch for breeding purposes as a songbird, a popular custom among Palestinians. Others believe it symbolizes freedom and liberty, while some say its colors resemble those of the Palestinian flag, which is forbidden to be displayed in East Jerusalem.

The first finch mural was painted in a particularly sensitive location – in Wadi Hilwa Street, not far from the nearby Ir David visitor center. The painting also includes calligraphy that says, “My homeland is not a suitcase and I am no traveler,” a quote from the work of famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The Jerusalem municipality sought to remove the mural on grounds of incitement, but once the origin of the poem was explained, it was left intact. “The settlers want us to be tourists here,” says Jawad Siam, a social activist in Silwan and director of the Madaa Creative Center, which is a partner in the mural project.

Palestinian women walking past a mural in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Many of the painted walls are in the eastern section of the neighborhood and face west, as if intended for the Israeli visitors and tourists who look over the village from Ir David. Many of the murals consist of huge pairs of eyes staring out at visitors coming to Silwan from the west side. “In the end, I want Silwan to be looking out in every direction,” Green says.

The eyes looking out from the walls are not just any eyes – They belong to different figures who symbolize the Palestinian struggle and are meant to convey a message of protest and hope to the local villagers. Among them are the eyes of Ahmed Musa, a Palestinian from the West Bank whose image was captured by Palestinian-American photographer John Halaka; of Odai, a 14-year-old from the village whose arrest was witnessed by Green; of Rachel Corrie, the American activist who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Rafah in 2003; and of John Berger, the British poet and art critic who was also an advocate of Palestinian rights.

A mural in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
A mural in Silwan, December 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The murals also drew inspiration from other figures that inspire the Palestinian struggle. One features the eyes of the Austrian-Jewish psychologist Sigmund Freud. Green, a psychologist herself, attributed the surprising choice to Freud’s last book, “Moses and Monotheism," in which he describes the Egyptian origin of Judaism through the character of Prince Moses. “Everything the settlers are doing in Silwan, they’re doing in the name of Judaism,” Green explains. “Freud shows how it’s possible to talk about religion and monotheism in a different way, and it helps.” 

Not far from the mural of Freud is another with the eyes of Alejandro (Alex) Nieto, a young American who was shot to death by police in San Francisco in 2016 for no clear reason. Another features the eyes of Bai Bibyaon, leader of the indigenous protest in the Philippines.

“I wanted people to look at us. We’re here and no one talks about us, no one knows about us,” says Siam. “There’s only the idea that Palestinians are terrorists, but we want to say that we are here, we love our land and our home. The staring eyes say to people we see them and they should see us too.”