Jerusalem's Palestinian Neighborhoods Can't Be Erased From the Map – or History

Backed by Netanyahu, Israeli settlers are plundering Palestinian neighborhoods under cover of the law, raising up community against community, Jews against Palestinians and Palestinians against Jews.

Yehudit Oppenheimer
Yudith Oppenheimer
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A Palestinian woman walks outside her home in the neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, Oct. 20, 2014.
A Palestinian woman walks outside her home in the neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, Oct. 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Yehudit Oppenheimer
Yudith Oppenheimer

The spoils of Silwan were there to be taken long ago, in ancient times. In Silwan/City of David, King David was strolling on the roof of his house when he saw Bathsheba bathing on a nearby roof. The rest is known. The prophet Nathan rebuked him with the beautiful parable of the poor man’s ewe, in which a rich man slaughtered a poor man’s sole sheep rather than one from his vast flock to serve a traveler. King David, the poet of psalms, did not argue that all was legal but rather hastened to say, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel, 12:13).

Temple Mount, seen from Silwan.Credit: Ir Amim Association

The leaders of the State of Israel do not speak in the language of psalms. When settler organizations enter Palestinian homes in Silwan in the dark of night—homes apparently purchased through labyrinthine transactions involving straw men and shadow companies, with anything but good faith—the prime minister of Israel responds with narrow legalistic arguments instead of showing true moral and political leadership.

After the Bathsheba affair, the house of David had not one peaceful day. As the prophet Nathan foresaw, what David had done in the dark, his sons did in broad daylight. They rose against each other and against their father and used the different troops of Israel to attack one another. Their deeds had one thing in common: Coveting that which was not theirs, including their father’s throne, his concubines and chariots and even their own sister.

As in the past, so today, the curse of the parable’s poor man hovers over the city, where plundering under the cover of the law has become routine in Silwan, on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in Sheikh Jarrah, in Palestinian neighborhoods coopted by national parks and Israeli settlements; raising up community against community: Jews against Palestinians and Palestinians against Jews. The city is burning but today there is no prophet in the city to cry out against the wrongdoing.

At the foot of Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, at the entrance to Silwan—one of the junctions of turbulence during the last several weeks and throughout the conflict—the Elad settler organization, with the support of the authorities, plans to build a sprawling visitors’ center to which only one obstacle in the planning process remains: a hearing by the appeals committee of the National Planning Council. This vainglorious tribute to the settler enterprise would be erected in the very center of Silwan, opposite the entrance to the City of David National Park and just a few meters away from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and the Old City walls.

The nocturnal real estate dealers would once again shift into hospitable tourist guides in daylight, reproducing their success with the City of David National Park, privatized into the hands of Elad by the state about fifteen years ago. Once again, more and more land is being appropriated under the auspices of the authorities, planning principles prohibiting construction close to the Old City walls and in national parks are being bent, rare archeological finds may soon be buried under a multi-story concrete building. And everything appears to be strictly legal.

Only skeptics wonder what use there is for exhibition rooms and visitor halls, the size of which overshadow the archaeological finds themselves. And here is the heart of the matter: Archaeology is an unpredictable business; as much as we may dig and classify, reveal and suppress, we will never be able to totally erase the vestiges of foreign civilizations from the past and evidence of the present Palestinian Silwan, with its thousands of houses and tens of thousands of inhabitants. Only through an enormous visitors’ center casting its shadow over the ancient walls and treasures of the city, and especially over its many faceted and multi-narrative history, will it be possible to fully control the viewer’s gaze and to create, with all the pyrotechnics, the “real” City of David—undisturbed from the days of Nathan to Netanyahu—with no trace of the poor man’s ewe.

Short of a miracle, the Kedem Compound will soon become another link in the ancient chain of appropriations and dispossessions; and in the struggle over each and every roof and stone we will all drown in hatred and violence. This is a story that has played out more than once in the blood-drenched history of this city—a city in which there have lived other kings who threw truth-telling prophets into the pit.

What irony that those who control the City of David claim to have discovered the pit where Jeremiah was interned. If Jeremiah were to prophesize the city’s fate today—“For thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Cut down her trees; cast up a siege mound against Jerusalem. This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her,” (Jeremiah 6:6)—they would be the first ones to throw him over the pit’s edge.

Yudith Oppenheimer is Executive Director of Ir Amim, a non-profit organization working to make Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.

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