Silwan faces escalating home demolitions in fight against messianic settlers – Mondoweiss
“He’s the snake’s head,” Fakhri Abu Diab could hear the Israeli police officer mumble to a municipal clerk.
Moments earlier, someone was throwing hard hand blows against the metal door. Fakhry understood who it was; no one knocks with such a coarse manner except the Israeli police.
As he opened the door, half a dozen men, some in police uniform, entered the Abu Diab residence in the Bustan neighborhood in Silwan. Their unannounced visit was to deliver a demolition notice in person.
The notice, dated January 31, 2024, signed by the Jerusalem municipality “supervisor” of the division responsible for “building demolitions,” warned the addressee, Fakhri, that he had ten days to vacate his home.
A day earlier, a municipal crew accompanied by the police came by and informed him that his home would be knocked down soon. A contractor was among the men who came to examine the building slated for demolition. That’s when he sensed it was serious.
Fakhri Abu Diab, 62, has been a leading figure in a decades-old struggle to defend Silwan from the menace of well-funded Israeli settlers and the designs of the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality. Both the settlers and the City share a common purpose: changing the character of East Jerusalem by establishing a Jewish majority. His home was first issued a demolition order in 2012.
As early as 2004, officials at the Jerusalem municipality began contemplating plans for the Bustan neighborhood in Silwan, citing the area as an important cultural site for Israel, believing it to be the same site where King David established his kingdom. An archaeological national park was deemed crucial, and demolition orders were issued to the Palestinian residents there the following year.
Today, the Bustan neighborhood is home to some 1,500 Palestinians. Fakhri says that 116 are at risk of forcible displacement.
Over the years, the residents tried to reason with the Jerusalem municipality. They proposed a town plan that would see the establishment of a “King’s Garden” alongside housing for the residents in Bustan. But in 2023, the municipality finally rejected the proposal, stating that it had its own plan and demanded the residents sign off on it. Should they refuse, it would demolish their homes.
“I feel unsettled, afraid. For the first time, I feel helpless,” Fakhry told Mondoweiss wearily.
Twelve people reside in the Abu Diab compound: Fakhri and his wife, Um Muhammad, their son Muhammad, his wife, and their six children.
“When the bulldozers come, they don’t just demolish a home; they demolish my past, my future, our dreams, our lives.”
The advocate for the Bustan residents, Ziad Qawar, told Mondoweiss that the municipality’s plan would gorge 80% of the neighborhood and leave the rest for the residents. However, the extent to which the residents can utilize the remaining 20% for housing is vague.
Adv. Qawar questioned the logic and legality behind the municipality’s intent to demolish people’s homes for the sake of creating an archaeological park.
“Lots of details are unknown. We do not know who will have ownership [of the land and buildings]. We do not understand the scope of the building allowed for housing,” he said. “Who is this garden for? Is it for the general public or the settlers?”
The Bustan inhabitants gathered at City Hall, which is filled with settlers who aim to take over their homes and land in order to add another settlement to the existing colonization of Silwan.
“We asked the municipality many times to disclose the details [of the plan], but regretfully, they weren’t revealed. This project is part of a larger plan that leads to the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to build a [Jewish Third] Temple,” Qawar added.
Throughout the years, foreign diplomats and former heads of state visited Silwan to express support for its residents in the face of forcible displacement, a war crime under international law.
In 2015, Fakhri recalled meeting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who at the time was part of a delegation of The Elders, an independent group of international leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote peace, justice, human rights, and a sustainable planet.
“Israel is above the law,” Fakhri quoted Carter during that meeting. “I usually rely on an interpreter, but I remember Carter saying this phrase clearly.”
Now, he questions the effectiveness of these high-level calls, suspecting that they had made him the target of vengeful Israeli officials.
In 2023, several diplomats from Europe, Australia, Canada, Turkey, and Mexico visited Fakhry at his home and listened to the threats surrounding this particular neighborhood in Silwan.
Even American diplomats visited Silwan. Hady Amr, the Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs, and George Noll, Chief of the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem, came to Silwan in 2022 and 2023, respectively. More recently, in January 2024, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew P. Miller met Fakhri in the Bustan.
Fakhri now presumes the demolition notice he received was a message: that he cannot rely on outside help to save his home and neighborhood.
“The fact that they’re trying to penalize him personally shows you the nature of the people we’re dealing with. They are, in my view, gangsters and war criminals,” said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein.
Arieh King, the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem who heads the nearby settlement Ma’ale Zeitim at Ras al Amud, overlooking the Bustan, is one of the leading forces pushing for the expansion of the “City of David” park — by developing the Bustan as The King’s Garden biblical theme park.
The infamous Deputy mayor is notorious for being a disciple of the fascist and ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahana, who preached “transfer” or ethnic cleansing. King is backed by the far-right Finance Minister and self-described “fascist” Bezalel Smotrich, and his political bedfellow Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of Public Security, who called for demolitions to be carried out over Ramadan and urged Netanyahu not to acquiesce to international pressure.
Fakhri remains hopeful, however, that the international community will intervene to stop Israel from demolishing his home and the entire Bustan neighborhood. He believes that diplomatic pressure is finally being “invoked” against Israel, taking stock of Biden’s recent Executive Order sanctioning Israelis engaging in “harmful activities that threaten the peace, security, and stability of the West Bank.”
Those Israelis were four Jewish settlers linked to escalating violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Some speculate that Biden’s Executive Order might eventually reach pro-settler Jerusalem City officials like Arieh King, who actively seek to forcibly transfer the Palestinian population out of East Jerusalem.
“It’s time that the Jerusalem municipality understands it’s part of the problem and that Palestinians want to live normal lives, and it’s time they allowed them to,” Godfrey added.
Demolitions are occurring everywhere in occupied East Jerusalem, including Sur Baher, Jabal al-Mukabbir, and al-Essawiya.
But the area in East Jerusalem with the bleakest prospects, bar none, is Silwan, arguably bearing the full brunt of the Jewish settler movement’s hostile designs in East Jerusalem. The Bustan isn’t the only neighborhood in Silwan at risk of forcible displacement. Residents of Batn al-Hawa, the neighborhood overlooking the Bustan, are facing eviction orders after settler organizations obtained ownership claims from Israeli courts.
The Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now says settlers intend to uproot an entire community in East Jerusalem based on exercising laws that Israel affords to its Jewish citizens only. The Jerusalem municipality, according to two Israeli NGOs monitoring planning and zoning in East Jerusalem (Ir Amim and Bimkom) points to a deliberate policy that impedes the development of Palestinian neighborhoods in the City. This strategy has led Palestinians of East Jerusalem to move from the City center to the periphery, frequently jeopardizing their residency status.
Nearly half of demolitions carried out so far this year by Israeli forces were in occupied East Jerusalem. The rest occurred in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel enjoys complete control per the Oslo Accords.
According to the UN, Israel displaced 33 people and demolished 18 structures in January 2024 in the East Jerusalem area.
The year 2023 marked the highest number of demolitions in the occupied West Bank since the UN began recording these types of actions. The number of Palestinians displaced in 2023 was 2,247 people, with 1,169 structures destroyed. East Jerusalem accounted for 20 percent of the demolitions, with 733 people displaced.
Ir Amim’s 2021 “Planned Negligence” paper states that, since 1967, Israel has instituted a “consistent policy of rampant discrimination in the realms of building and planning, stemming from a policy of demographic control that seeks to constrain the Palestinian population of Jerusalem.” As a result, a third of Palestinians, some 100,000 individuals, were compelled to move out of central East Jerusalem and relocate to the “slums” of Shu’fat refugee camp and Kufur Aqab, on the wrong side of the separation wall. These two areas are densely packed urban environments that fall within the Jerusalem municipality but do not receive municipal services like urban planning and infrastructure, turning them into a marginalized no-man’s land.