Silwan, the story behind the story

News analysis: Is East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood the new Sheikh Jarrah?
A partial view of the crowded Palestinian housing which typifies the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan March 2, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images)

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan is the latest property flashpoint in Israel. Located less than a mile from the Western Wall, outside the walls of the Old City, Silwan is sandwiched between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. Tensions have been escalating in the predominately Palestinian neighborhood over what Israel says are illegally constructed and occupied buildings.

The disputes

There are two major disputes at the center of the evictions in Silwan. The first is the question of who has the right to build in the neighborhood; and the second, like the matter of Sheikh Jarrah, is a property ownership dispute between Palestinians and Jews who used to live in the area. Dozens of structures face demolition, and nearly 20 Palestinian families are facing eviction.

Illegal construction

On June 29, Israeli officials demolished a butcher shop in Silwan, prompting violent demonstrations. Israel, which has authority over the area, says the building was constructed illegally without a permit on public land. Palestinians say the Israeli government rarely approves building permits and that they are forced to build in the area illegally (without the necessary permits) as a result.

According to reports, 18 structures have demolition orders in place, and the city has marked an additional 80 for removal. However, those orders are currently being contested in court.

In a statement on the demolition of the shop, the city said: “To remove all doubt — orders against illegal construction are enforced throughout the city on a daily basis, in both the west and east of the city.”

A former Jerusalem municipality official told The Times of Israel that Silwan residents have “rejected numerous offers by the city to accept compromises that would leave most of the homes in place.”

“Every year, we would go to the courts to update them on the negotiations with residents, and ask for an extension of the freeze [in demolitions]. At a certain point, the court decided that these were going nowhere,” the former official said.

According to multiple media reports, the Palestinians in Silwan do not deny that the structures were built without permission from the Jerusalem government. Instead, they contend that Israel does not have the authority to issue permits in East Jerusalem, and they are therefore not needed.

Property dispute

A 1970 Israeli law is at the center of the legal debate over the evictions of 19 Palestinian families in the Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan. The law gives Jewish Israelis the right to reclaim East Jerusalem properties that were once owned by Jews before 1948, as long as they show proof of ownership or expulsion by the British or Jordanians. Palestinians who lost their land do not have the same legal right to sue for property lost after the war. This same law is at the center of the property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah.

In May, the municipal court handling the Silwan case delayed its ruling, saying it would wait for the Israeli Supreme Court to issue its decision in the Sheikh Jarrah matter. There is no indication as to when the Supreme Court will release its verdict, but a decision is expected “soon.”

The Silwan Neighborhood

Silwan’s location in East Jerusalem.

The area of Silwan, known in Hebrew as Shiloach, is part of Jerusalem’s Holy Basin and is home to the City of David, an archaeological site believed to be the original settlement of Jerusalem.

During the Second Temple Period, Jewish pilgrims used the area as a gathering place due to its proximity to spring-fed pools of water. The same springs are mentioned later by Muslim writers during the Medieval period.

The village of Silwan also dates back to Biblical times. Part of it was built on top of the Silwan necropolis, an ancient Judean burial ground that’s considered the most important of the period. The neighborhood borders the Mount of Olives cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem. In fact, it was documented in the 1850s that the Jewish population of Jerusalem was paying £100 a year to the residents of Silwan to not desecrate the graves.

Historically a sparsely populated area, an official Ottoman village list from 1870 showed that Silwan only had 92 houses and a population of 240.

In 1881-82 a group of Yemenite Jews moved into the neighborhood, and by 1891, 45 new houses were built at the south end of the village.

Silwan in 1948. (Courtesy: Palmach Archive)

A 1922 census of British Mandate Palestine found Silwan had a population of 1,699 Muslims, 153 Jews and 49 Christians.

Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jewish population was expelled from Silwan since the area fell on the Jordanian side of the new border.

In 1967, following the Six Day War, East Jerusalem (including Silwan) came under Israeli control. Since then, the international community considers the area occupied by Israel which claims authority over the region.

An Israeli flag decorates the Jewish settler complex of Beit Yonatan on March 2, 2010, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images)

Reliable population statistics in Silwan are hard to come by, but an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Palestinians live in the neighborhood today, and anywhere from 500 to nearly 3,000 Jews are also residents.

The Jewish population in Silwan has slowly been increasing since 1991. Some property was purchased directly (however, many of these purchases are disputed because the Palestinian sellers say they did not know that they were selling to Jews, a crime punishable by death by the Palestinian Authority). Other property was purchased through Israel’s Absentee Law or through approved construction projects.

Modern Jewish settlement in Silwan is controversial, and deadly violence has broken out in the past over construction projects and settlements.

In 2014, Jewish residents purchased 25 homes in seven buildings, the largest Jewish purchase in the area since 1986. The deal appeared to have been brokered by Palestinian middlemen with an American agency. All but one of the properties sold were vacant, leading to a legal dispute. The overall sale was condemned both by the United States and the European Union, each calling the settlement activity a provocation by Israel.

In 2017, a law imposed stiffer penalties for illegal development in East Jerusalem and reduced the legal options for violators.

Around the same time, Jerusalem officials announced that they were planning to develop a large tourist park called King’s Garden in the Al-Bustan section of Silwan on public land. Under the plans, residents living in illegally constructed homes would be relocated to new apartment buildings built around the park. Officials abandoned the plan earlier this year, saying it lacked local and political support.

East Jerusalem

East Jerusalem’s Arab population has grown from an estimated 44,000 in 1967 to 327,700 in 2016. Only a few hundred Jews were left in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods in 1967 due to their expulsion in 1948. In 2016, the Jewish population of East Jerusalem was listed as 214,600.

In 1967 and 1981, Israel offered Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem the right to apply for citizenship. However, the vast majority of the people declined. Today East Jerusalem residents fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli government. They have “resident status” but not full citizenship (95% of East Jerusalem’s residents do not have citizenship status). There are paths to full citizenship, but critics say that Israel makes it extremely difficult to achieve. Israel says the process is improving, citing increasing numbers of applicants and approvals (seven out of 1,081 requests were approved in 2016, compared to 353 out of 1,012 in 2018).

Silwan residents, like all East Jerusalem residents, pay Israeli taxes and receive social security benefits and state healthcare among other things. In 1980, Israel annexed East Jerusalem placing the area under the law, jurisdiction and administration of the state.

Rising tension

Tensions in East Jerusalem were already high following May’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, which was sparked (in part) by the threatened evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Following the demolition of the butcher shop, extremist groups issued statements warning of new violence. 

“The continuation of this extremist racism, creating repeated crises for our people, will create ‘explosive storms,’” Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum said.

Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based terror group, also issued a new string of threats.

“The resistance is watching the Zionist escalation in Jerusalem, as it threatens the rules of engagement. It could lead the situation to explode and the region to burst aflame,” the Al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, said in a statement.

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