As Jerusalem erupts in violence yet again, what makes Jewish settlers move into one of the most troublesome neighbourhoods in the conflict?
The battle takes place house to house and door to door.
In the middle of the night, Israeli settlers steal into dark, rubbish-strewn alleyways, and silently turn the keys in the rusty locks of local houses. The homes have been purchased using funds from abroad, with the help of Israeli organisations, foreign straw companies, and third-party brokers, or seized from the Palestinians using legal action authorised by the state.
Once inside, the settlers, armed with guns, and surrounded by security guards in riot gear, barricade themselves within, reinforcing the doors with steel and immediately putting up barbed wire and iron bars in the windows. Pistols hoisted at the hip and wearing helmets, they cautiously peer out of the windows on to the dark alleyways below.
I have no intention of telling Jews they can’t buy apartments in East Jerusalem – Benjamin Netanyahu
On the night of September 30, 25 flats were commandeered in such a way, enabling up to 200 settlers to set up home in Silwan – the largest influx in two decades. The event helped trigger riots in East Jerusalem and in the Old City, where Palestinian protesters and rioters clashed with Israeli police on the tinderbox site of Temple Mount, known to Arabs as Haram al-Sharif.
Weeks later, more settlers took up residence in other flats in the area. Israel has just approved a plan to construct 500 further housing units in a Jewish neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.
“I have no intention of telling Jews they can’t buy apartments in East Jerusalem,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to widespread international protests. “This is private property and an individual right. There cannot be discrimination – not against Jews and not against Arabs.”
While the principle is clear, the reality in Israel is not so black and white.
Not a single new Arab neighbourhood has been built in East Jerusalem since the Israeli takeover in 1967, in contrast to the thriving Jewish neighbourhoods in the area.
The purchase of houses in East Jerusalem by Israelis is not random acquisition by independent individuals, but part of a concerted effort by ideologically motivated organisations that finance the buying of Arab-owned properties and then rent them out exclusively to Jewish residents. The stated goal of these organisations is to make East Jerusalem Jewish, and in doing so prevent the division of the city in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
In many cases, the Israeli government directly or indirectly assists in the acquisition of the houses, and Israeli taxpayers foot the ever-growing bills to pay for armed security forces to guard the settlers.
The ‘Lion King’ of the Settler Jungle
Aryeh King, whose first name translates as ‘Lion’ from Hebrew, works from a building which used to house the Zoology department of the Hebrew University. Mr King views his job in a manner as unequivocal as his name: “I’m here in order to protect the future of the city.”
Although his office is intended for his activities as a Jerusalem councillor, our early morning interview is continuously interrupted by phone calls concerning what Mr King terms his “life mission” as head of the Israel Land Fund: enabling more Jews to live in Arab properties in East Jerusalem and beyond.
Mr King has been working on this vision for over two decades. Nearly 20 years ago he settled in the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood, Ras al-Amud in East Jerusalem. Despite having Palestinians as his neighbours, in January this year he launched a campaign distributing flyers to the local residents, urging them to “move and live elsewhere”.
“You have many large countries that you can live in,” the flyer stated. “Understand that we returned to Israel to fulfil what is written in the Torah”.
Aryeh King: ‘It’s written in the Torah that Jews cannot sell property to non-Jews. It’s very simple.’
Mr King’s organisation, Israel Land Fund, is according to its website, a non-profit organisation with a mission “to enable all Jews” – even those who are not Israeli citizens – “to own a part of Israel. It strives to ensure that Jewish land is once again reclaimed and in Jewish hands.”
When we are interrupted once again by a phone call, there’s a chance to hear him in action. A man speaking in an American accent is asking whether Mr King had a chance to follow up on his request to find a plot of land upon which a rare kind of tree may be planted.
“You see, this case involves both ideology and investment,” explains Mr King afterwards, straightening himself up in his chair. The customer wants to “buy land from an Arab” and plant trees of a kind that don’t yet exist in Israel. In doing so, “he kills two birds with one stone”, he explains.
“This guy told us what kind of land he wants, what size. So I put him in touch with a guy from Israel who is an expert in finding the best area to buy land for this kind of tree. Then we will look for land for him from a non-Jew.”
The plot is located through the land registry. “It’s open to the public, we do a search, and once we find the right place and the right size, then we approach the owners – every time, it’s a different way.”
Other activities include persuading Jewish house owners in other parts of Jerusalem not to sell to Arabs.
“Everything is done in a legal way”, Mr King emphasises. “If i know a Jew wants to sell to an Arab, I will try to convince that Jew not to, first because it’s against the Jewish law. There’s a very clear order from God, written in the Torah, that Jews cannot sell property to non-Jews. It’s very simple.
“Secondly, I will try to find him somebody who will pay him the same amount. You want 10 shekels, you get 10 shekels, but instead of coming from Mousa, it will come from Moshe.”
Israeli excavators order the demolition of Palestinian sheds in the shadow of the al-Aqsa mosque
When asked about how his Palestinian neighbours feel about his activities, Mr King is quick to say that they “respect” what he is doing – and that the main opponents of his activities are, in fact, fellow Israeli Jews.
“Look, the Arabs know exactly what I am doing. My goal, my agenda, where I am coming from and where I want to get to. But they respect that I’m telling it to them straight. I live amongst them. I live in the neighbourhoods where they live. Everything that they are suffering, I’m suffering,” he says.
Mr King gives an example where residents have successfully petitioned him to repave a road which has not been serviced since the time of Jordanian rule.
“They don’t need to call someone in the city hall here where it will take them one day to explain where the neighbourhood is, and the street is, another day to convince the guy to come there – because it’s a dangerous area, and even then, no one knows if it will happen,” he explains.
“They [the Arabs] see my work for Israel Land Fund as a kind of safety belt for them. Because they know if Jews will move to this neighbourhood, it will stay under Israeli sovereignty, and this is what they want,” he claims.
Mr King’s claims are peppered with Biblical references, as he explains the “first and second temple periods” as a model for co-existence for the city.
Political and religious sensitivities along with millennia-old changes and transitions that have happened since are deemed irrelevant. He advocates the necessity of constructing the holy “third temple” for Judaism. This would take place on the Temple Mount – the most religiously important and politically volatile site in the Middle East.
Mr King insists that most of the time, it is Arabs who approach him wanting to sell their properties.
His phone rings again. The voice speaks Hebrew with a distinct Arabic accent. The caller and Mr King are negotiating a property sale, and discuss enlisting the help of a local mukhtar, or mayor. Mr King promises his interlocutor “something very lucrative”. Once the conversation ends, Mr King explains that this was one of his neighbours. “You see? He wants to work as a broker for me,” he says.
Organisations such as Israel Land Fund, Elad and Atayeret Cohanim are all active in purchasing properties in East Jerusalem. When buying houses, the organisations are also dependent on Arab brokers to facilitate the legal sales. Together, they divide up the areas of East Jerusalem, with each organisation responsible for its own patch.
According to Mr King, the money for the purchase of the apartments is coming in from all over the world. “I don’t know a place where there’s no money coming in – it’s coming in from the EU, the United States, Africa, everywhere,” he says.
In the recent cases in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, the properties were purchased through anonymous straw companies, some of which are based in the US.
Welcome to Silwan: ‘Who would live here?’
Don’t go to Silwan after dark, visitors are warned. But that’s no deterrent to the dozens of children of Silwan’s Al Bustan neighbourhood, most of whom look no older than 10, who run around in the under-lit alleyways glittering with shards of glass. In a parking lot, a group of boys has set up a small bonfire, dipping tree branches into the flames just a few metres away from the cars stationed there.
When a firework explodes nearby, only the emaciated stray cats flinch and scuttle away. The locals are used to frequent clashes with the Israeli security guards and the police. Evidence of crude urban warfare – burnt-out broken bottles, rocks and boulders – populate the pavements.
An atmosphere of poverty, despair and radical fury festers in Silwan and other parts of East Jerusalem where no less than 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), this is the area’s worst rate of poverty ever.
The area has long been neglected and investment in key infrastructure is virtually non-existent. There is a chronic shortage of classrooms; only 46 per cent of students study in municipal schools and 40 per cent drop out upon reaching 12th grade.
Compared to 173 municipal pre-kindergartens in West Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem there are only 10. In contrast to the thriving Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, here building permits are very difficult to obtain and demolitions of illegally built structures for the ever growing population are commonplace.
The al-Bustan neighbourhood of Silwan
“It’s a refugee camp,” says Jawad Siam, a Palestinian resident and director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre. “But even refugee camps are better, because at least there is UNRWA giving help – but here is nothing,” he says, referring to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which operates in other parts of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. “Why would you ever want to move here?” he keeps asking, incredulous.
Yet organisations such as Elad and Ateret Cohanim dedicate extensive resources in order to obtain an apartment or a house here, often using straw companies and hired middle men. The dilapidated dwellings, with their uneven walls, corroded infrastructure, infrequent water supplies and generator-powered electricity which periodically cut out, are reportedly sold for more than $1 million.
He is not coming to be my neighbour – he is coming to kick me, and to kick me out of the house.
The Muhesen family apartment stands out from the other buildings nearby. Bordered by a soft-edged wall freshly renovated and decorated with patterned flowers, the Muhesens’ first-floor flat is painted a warm pink. Mohammed and Tahirih Muhesen moved here with their four small children just over a year ago.
But overnight in October, the residents in the neighbouring apartments of the house disappeared without a word, only to be replaced hours later by Israeli settlers, who have paperwork to prove that the whole building, apart from the first floor flat, now belongs to them.
“Shamsalden Al Qawasmeh bought the house in July,” explains Mr Siam, referring to a former Silwan resident. “He renovated the flats and then one night went missing.”
“We suspected there may be something else going on, but it was too late,” he says, shaking his head. “Now he’s in hiding. Some say he’s fled to Egypt, but I think he’s still in the country.”
To say there are problems between the Israeli and the Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem would be a gross understatement.
When Mohammed Muhesen knocks on the door of his new neighbour’s house, it is swung open cautiously to reveal a man whose entire head is hidden inside a riot helmet. Already acquainted with the sight of new residents in full riot gear, Mr Muhesen begins complaining furiously about the electricity generator located in the neighbour’s flat which is responsible for supplying all the flats in the building – including Mr Muhesen’s – and which has been switched on and off throughout the course of the day.
The home of the Muhesen family in East Jerusalem
“All day long, they’ve been switching off the power to my house!” he says, referring to the settlers.
The neighbour denies this, but Mr Muhesen is adamant, and says it was done as a pressure tactic to make him sell the remaining flat.
“Yesterday, a group of them approached me on the street, and surrounded me, saying ‘We want to buy your house’.
“I said ‘No, I refuse’, but they kept persisting. They kept asking for my phone number – I refused to give it to them.”
As Mr Siam discusses the situation with the Muhesen family, he is interrupted by a phone call.
“Now one of our neighbours wants to sell her house,” he explains after he hangs up. The woman in question says that life is unbearable ever since Israeli settlers moved into the house next to hers several nights ago.
Mr Siam draws on his cigarette heavily when asked the relations between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
“First of all, he is not coming to be my neighbour – he is coming to kick me, and to kick me out of the house.”
“The more that the settlers come, the more the children are arrested in the area. I don’t want my children to see every day armed guards, security and to know that they are not able to move inside my own neighbourhood due to security reasons.”
“Also, the risk that me or anyone will be shot and killed is bigger. Those armed guards who guard the settlers, they killed two Palestinians in the past few years, and also I want have my area, my town without settlers, without occupation. It’s not safe.”
In recent months, clashes in Silwan have intensified to such an extent that there are violent confrontations involving stone throwing, fire bombs and molotov cocktails every single night. Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested, many of them under the age of 18. NGOs note that the age of the minors involved in violent acts in Silwan such as stone throwing is getting younger and younger.
The violence has begun to spill over into some of the most politically and religiously-sensitive parts of Jerusalem, notably on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif compound. Palestinians accused Israelis of committing “an act of war” when the sacred Al Aqsa mosque on the compound was temporarily closed for several hours – a move that has not happened for over a decade, since the days of the Second Intifada.
In Silwan, a scandal rocked the community when it emerged that the brother of one of the activists of the Wadi Hilweh Centre was involved in selling an apartment to Israeli settlers.
“Before, we mistrusted strangers, today I mistrust him,” Mr Siam says, pointing to his co-worker. “He doesn’t trust me, I mistrust my brother, and so on.
“They succeeded to destroy a part of our life – now we mistrust everyone,” says Mr Siam.
Referring to Mr Netanyahu’s comments about Jews having the right to buy property in East Jerusalem, Mr Siam is adamant. “I say, welcome, they can buy it, but not as an association, not as an organisation.
“Imagine if I came to London, and an English guy established an association saying ‘This neighbourhood, I’ll make it only for white people.’ Imagine, would it be possible to get such an organisation a permission to operate? Here, in ‘democratic’ Israel, it’s operating.”
What the property buyers say
• Elad/Ir David: “The Ir David Foundation is committed to continuing King David’s legacy as well as revealing and connecting people to Ancient Jerusalem’s glorious past through four key initiatives: archaeological excavation, tourism development, educational programming and residential revitalisation.”
Our aim is to Judaize East Jerusalem. The City of David is the most ancient core of Jerusalem, and we want it to become a Jewish neighbourhood – Yigal Kaufman, a former spokesman for Elad, as quoted in the New York Times in 1998.
• Ateret Cohanim: an organisation which also includes a yeshiva (Jewish religious college) in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem:
During this complex period in which we are living, when there is a feeling of crisis both spiritual and existential, we must strengthen our hold on Jerusalem, our Holy City.
House by house, lot by lot, the Israel Land Fund is ensuring the land of Israel stays in the hands of the Jewish people forever.