Silwan: Raising The Stakes

Friday afternoon, about 500 organizers and supporters of the Sheikh Jarrah movement brought the weekly protest to Silwan, where the Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat recently announced a plan to raze a wide swath of buildings, 22 in all, to build an "archaeological park." Barkat's idea is to expand what he, his NGO partner, the right-wing Elad (recently awarded the right to administer the site), Elad's zealot settler-supporters and American funders, Israel's Tourism Ministry--all of them--call "The City of David." This site has been developing beneath the radar for several years across from the Dung Gate, where you enter to the plaza leading to the nearby Wailing Wall.

Just to be clear, there is about as much evidence that King David's palace would be excavated by this project as evidence that Queen Helena actually found the grove from which the true cross had been cut in the Valley of the Cross. But like Helena's sites--she was said to be the greatest archeologist in history, because she never looked for something she didn't find--Barkat's City of David is actually meant to excite pilgrims--you know, guests to the Shapiro bar-mitzvah who are looking for something to do on Sunday afternoon.

But even if the site had some scientific value--excavations were carried on here under British auspices during the Mandate Period--it would be terribly provocative to make 22 families homeless, as in Sheikh Jarrah, or impose a development plan on the neighborhood without agreement of its residents (who have a neighborhood committee, willing to negotiate). Silwan is the heart of the most heavily populated, impoverished and angry parts of the city, certain to be in any future Palestinian capital.

Which means that protests in this part of the city are much more explosive than in Sheikh Jarrah. In Silwan, stoning of police and settlers is commonplace, as are armed threats by settlers against residents. Youth gangs and neighborhood resistance are hard to tell apart. When we walked down the streets and neglected alleyways of Silwan, it was clear from the men on the stoops, women and children in the windows, and preening young men on the corners, that they had never seen, nor expected to see, so many Jewish Israelis coming into their neighborhood to back them--and that, for some, the mere presence of more Jews of any kind was not entirely welcome. Call it a teaching moment for all of us who were, on both sides, making ourselves vulnerable to the other's decency.

Halfway through the march, someone in the settler-occupied houses overlooking the march let off a couple of stun grenades, which made a dreadful boom, but caused no real hesitation. Then, in the middle of the square slated for demolition, we gathered for speeches, and one of the heads of the neighborhood association took the megaphone. He picked up the Hebrew chant protesters has used often in Sheikh Jarrah: "Jews and Arabs are not meant to be enemies"--a banal thought when you think about it, but deeply moving surrounded by this kind of tension.

I approached the unofficial leader of the protest, Assaf Sharon (profiled, among others here, in this excellent Haaretz article by Nir Hasson from the week-end supplement), and found him relieved, even gratified, by how many protesters had come out, given how much grittier, and potentially dangerous, was the confrontation in Silwan than in Sheikh Jarrah. He was running back and forth, scanning the hills for potential disruptions, feeling responsible, like the father of a toddler near a jungle-gym. The idea, he told me, was to let Barkat know that if he brings bulldozers, there will be hundreds sitting down this time, his eyes betraying both weary optimism and a certain apprehension. "Anyway, just look at these people coming out, and the way they are being received."