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Sunday, June 12, 2005


Another Link in the Chain

Last week Israelis celebrated the 38th anniversary of the conquest of East Jerusalem. Palestinians saw their future in the past.

"That," says former Jerusalem City Councillor Meir Margalit, "is your classic Jewish settlement in Silwan." He is nodding towards a house nuzzled on a hill that slopes down from Jerusalem's Old City walls. It has an extension, a watchtower and a fence. There is a settler-only promenade snaking between Palestinian homes that, collectively, house 45,000 people. Graham Usher reports from Silwan.

Settlers have bought, inveigled or forcibly taken over some 40 Palestinian houses in Silwan "with more in the pipeline," says Margalit. The conquest is plotted by the settler organisation El Ad, which believes Silwan is the Biblical City of David. But it has been powered and protected by government money and resources. The result is spread out on the village hills: "secure Jewish ghettos in the heart of an insecure Arab community," says Margalit.

Margalit's Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, www.icahd.org, is taking a group of diplomats and journalists through Silwan. The purpose is not to chart the strategy and topography of settlement -- though it "helps to know them if you want to understand the destination", he smiles.

The destination is Al-Bustan or "garden": a Palestinian neighbourhood in the pit of the Silwan valley, covering 64 dunams, crested by a mosque, decked by conifer trees and home to 1,000 Palestinians.

Last November Israel's Jerusalem municipality issued demolition orders against their 88 homes. The land is a zoned public open space, "a declared archeological site," and the houses were built "illegally", says Uri Shitreet, Jerusalem City engineer. If implemented, the cleansing of Al-Bustan would mark the single largest destruction of Palestinian homes since the Old City's Al-Magharbeh and Al- Sharaf areas were razed following Israel's conquest in 1967.

Margalit does not deny that the houses were built illegally -- they would have to be, he says, since this is the only way Palestinians can build. "The issue is not whether the Palestinians had permission to build their homes. The issue is that the municipality denies them permission as a deliberate policy, even when, as in Al-Bustan, the Palestinians own the land. The entire phenomenon of 'illegal' Palestinian building is due to a municipal policy that restricts where Palestinians can live in East Jerusalem".

Neither does he deny that the land is rich in historical value. "But the issue is who lives in the village today, not where David walked 3,000 years ago. The country is full of places where Jewish history can be found. So is Iraq. But this cannot be a reason to take houses of people who have lived there all their lives. It's not about history. It's political".

Geopolitical. From the Garden, Margalit maps with his finger the horizon that surrounds us. To the east, resting on a hill, the Palestinian village of Ras Al- Amud and the burgeoning settlement Maale ha-Zayit, protruding like a growth beside it. Beyond that, Abu Dis, and another protrusion, Kidmat Zion. Beyond that the Jerusalem wall skirting and slashing wadi and hill in a winding concrete curtain. Beyond that -- shimmering in the haze -- the vast settlement metropolis of Maale Adumim, extending westwards and closing the last urban space, the last living space, Palestinians have in Jerusalem.

"The plan is to create a contiguous chain of settlements between the Old City and Maale Adumim," says Margalit. "Turning the Al-Bustan into the City of David is one more link in the chain. In doing so -- and this is the point -- you break Palestinian territorial contiguity between their villages and between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. You close the Old City and the holy basin in a ring of Jewish settlements. This prevents East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state and that prevents all possibility of a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict".

In Al-Bustan, Silwan residents have pitched a protest tent. Children hoist placards with the number of each house to be demolished. The Palestinian Authority's new representative for Jerusalem, Hind Al- Khoury, is on hand to host the dignitaries. Immaculately dressed, fluent in English, she is the epitome of Abu Mazen's new nationalism -- by diplomacy and in moderation.

"Have you coordinated your presence with the Israeli government?" barks a journalist from The Jerusalem Post.

"No," she smiles, "I'm here illegally, though that was never seen as a problem before the present Israeli government. We believe the fate of Jerusalem should be left until the final status negotiations," she tells the diplomats. "Until then the status quo should be preserved. We have agreed to abide by this. Unfortunately, the other side has not."

Outside the tent -- on the porch of his home -- is Mohamed Tabri Badan. His family has owned the land he stands on since 1920 and the house was built, he says, in 1961. Twenty-five kin live with him at home, including four brothers, all of whom were born in the house. It is slated for erasure. He draws sustenance from the Palestinian tradition of sumud or steadfastness. "I'm going to hold onto my land," he says. "I've prepared my wife and children to live here in a tent. I am prepared to live in this tent."

The tour ends, and the journalists and diplomats disperse. I climb back up the slope. Before me is the Old City walls and El Ad's silver City of David Visitors' Centre. Beside me are open sewers and the debris of a house destroyed three years ago. Two Palestinian teenagers sit on what passes for a pavement, drinking coke. They have no time for protest tents and not much more for steadfastness. But they are not going to leave.

"We'll die here," says one. "When the bulldozers come, the bodies will start flying".

Caption: An Israeli Border Police protects a bulldozer from Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against the construction of Israel's separation wall at the West Bank village of Al-Ramadin

C a p t i o n 2: An Israeli Border Police protects a bulldozer from Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against the construction of Israel's separation wall at the West Bank village of Al-Ramadin

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