The Silwan/City of David Conflict: Archeology, Tourism, Paramilitaries

We visited the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan the day after the Ir Amim tour, but I haven’t gotten around to writing about it until now.

Silwan is an Arab neighborhood built during the period of Jordanian control of East Jerusalem. It is directly South of the old city – looking north you can see the Southern wall of the temple mount and the dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Like other Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem it is dirty, smelly, without proper sewage or water services, and full of unmaintained roads. However, unlike some other Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, it has another side to it – another name, and another feeling. This is because Silwan is purportedly built on the ancient site of the City of David – the oldest settlement in Jerusalem, originally built by Canaanites. As such, Silwan has two names – Silwan, and City of David. The two names refer to the same area – when you are in Silwan, you are in the City of David and vice versa. Settlers in the neighborhood (of which there is a significant and armed presence, I’ll talk about this later) call their neighborhood City of David, whereas Palestinians call it Silwan. However, the built reality is such that it is often quite clear whether you are in “Silwan” or “City of David”, despite them being the same place. This is because the City of David is a Jewish site, and is therefore clean, well marked, not smelly, and full of historical markers and interpretive signs. When you take the archeological tour of “City of David”, you walk halfway across Silwan, but don’t feel you are in Silwan, because you don’t feel you are in an Arab neighborhood. As soon as you leave the archeological site area, however, you are immediately thrust into the feeling of the Arab village of Silwan.

Silwan is a conflict zone within a conflict zone – it’s a place where archeology, tourist policy, Palestinian activists, armed zionist settlers, the IDF and the Israeli courts are all locked in a struggle over whether Silwan will remain a Palestinian neighborhood, or slowly but surely be converted into an Israeli neighborhood. Settlers occupy houses through various means, but perhaps the most extreme is simply entering houses of Palestinians while they are at work and not letting them re-enter. They produce fake documents claiming title to the house, and it can take a decade in the courts for the Palestinians to get their house back – both because the courts are hesitant to rule against the settlers, and also because the police and the army are unwilling to use the kind of force against resistant settlers that is commonly used everyday against resistant Palestinians.

It’s important to recognize that the settlers in Silwan (and in other contentious areas) are armed – every settler house has a hut on the roof where an armed guard stands watch either some of the time or all the time. We were close enough to several settler houses to see the roof guards and their weapons. These settlers are organized into armed militias which carry out offensive operations against Palestinians that resist the advance of settlements in the area through peaceful, non-violent means. There are many instances of Palestinians being shot by settler militias and there being virtually no investigation at all – files being closed mere hours after being opened. Perhaps the most egregious instance we heard about was a time when a Palestinian family had their house occupied by settlers while they were out, even though they had left their child at home. The father arrived home to find settler militia occupying the house and holding a gun to his child’s head. They then shot the father in the leg. When he was lying down, they shot him in the other leg. This shooting, like most others, was not properly investigated and did not lead to a crackdown on settler militias.

According to our Archeological tour guide, the presence of the settlers in Silwan is deeply related to the archeological work attempting to uncover the City of David. The settlers don’t live in Silwan, remember – they live in City of David. But City of David is an archeological site – so they live in the past. This is literally the case where settlers live on or next to the archeological sites. It would be wrong to call the area a “mixed’ neighborhood, or an area where Jews and Arabs “co-exist”. It would be more accurate to call it two places fighting over a single space – each community living within its own “place”, and coming up against the other in resistance to it because the other prevents each community’s “place” (Silwan or City of David) from being co-extensive with the physical space in which the neighborhoods exist. The archeological work is a direct practical and ideological/political method of colonizing the space in which Silwan exists and making become of City of David. This is done in a very practical and obvious way when territory is bought or seized to do archeological digs (which sometimes extend a hundred feet underground, trying to find remains of the original “City of David”). This is done in a tourist-public relations way when these digs become archeological sites to which tour buses visit on “City of David” tours, and they are told by their tour guides that they are in City of David, while the neighborhood of Silwan is ignored. And, it is done in a political method by the creation of a string of national parks which will eventually surround the old city – hundreds of thousands of tourists per year visiting Jewish sites will make it politically unacceptable to cede this territory to a Palestinian state, and the extreme right wing view would be that the “transfer” of East Jerusalem’s Arab Population to a future Palestinian state would allow for the full Jewification of the City of David.

Being in places like this makes me wonder why people can be so attached to a place. But at the same time – the answers are obvious: because of historical narrative and nationalist ideology, or simply because they live there or have lived there and develop an attachment to it as their own neighborhood. In this sense, Silwan perhaps offers an oppertunity to understand the difference between the Palestinian claim to villages depopulated in the Nakba, and the Jewish claim to areas of Palestine because of their historical significance to early Judaism. The clear difference is whereas one achieves its emotional connection to the land through lived experience, or the lived experience which can be passed down from parents to children, the other relies on historical narratives and the adoption of a nationalist ideology. A Palestinian does not need to believe in Palestinian nationalism in order to feel a connection to the village in which his parents were born, anymore than I need British Nationalism to feel a connection to Yorkshire. Moreover, a Palestinian does not need his or her nationalism to be grounded in a complex historical narrative which reaches back hundreds or thousands of years to understand him or herself as part of a resistance against the Zionist occupation of their parents homes.

The folly of basing political claims on religious history is obvious – so many different groups have historical and religious ties to this land that to claim historical/religious ties are the basis for ownership would grant title of this land to dozens of different groups. The reality is this land needs to be shared – sometimes by dividing it up, and in some cases perhaps by creating cross-community administrations that recognize the significance of the same place to multiple communities. But the fact is that today the whole land is dominated by Zionist political and military power – so the dominant tendency is not towards mutual respect and sharing but towards the destruction and de-signification non-Jewish sites and narratives.

While different communities can claim to have a historical tie to the land, I think it’s necessary to recognize a difference between historical ties grounded in historical and religious narrative, and historical ties grounded in parents experience and re-enforced by decades of refugee status, structural injustice, and at times out right massacres of civilian populations.

Edit: See my Photos

Edit: An interview with Jawad Siyam, the director of the Silwan community centre who gave us a tour of his neighborhood.





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