Volatility in Silwan: Mini-Intifada Continues, Cave-Ins, and New Settler Plans

With international attention focused on Syria and Iran, and with Israeli attention focused on Iran, Gaza, the economy, and a range of other issues, the mini-Intifida in Silwan has once again been forgotten, as has the volatile situation caused by rampant tunneling and its inevitable impact on the terrain.

For regular updates on the mini-Intifada that has been going on in Silwan for more than year, we recommend that you check the website of the Silwan (Wadi Hilweh) Information Center.  Recent news focuses on, among other things, ongoing Israeli efforts to convict Silwan local organizer Jawad Siyyam on what appear to be clearly trumped up assault charges; settlers allegedly opening fire on Palestinian students; more children arrested in a dawn raid (others arrested here) and some having their detentions extended; and the arrest of a schoolteacher (inside school grounds) for allegedly protecting children who were throwing stones.

In addition, at the beginning of March there was another cave-in of ground in Silwan, adjacent to an area where settlers are carrying out extensive tunneling.  For a full report on this cave-in, with photos, see this report from Hagit Ofran.

This recent cave-on follows a similar cave-in that took place on December 26th, 2011.  In that case there was a serious collapse of tons of earth in the settler-run Silwan tunnel, just to the north of the Siloam Pool on the Wadi Hilweh ridge (a video documenting the collapse can be viewed here). The site was packed that day with settler-run tours, mostly religious school children, and it was only by chance that there were no casualties.  That same evening the Municipal building inspectors came to Silwan, condemned the local mosque and kindergarten (immediately adjacent to the collapse) and shut them down.  Since then, demolition orders have reportedly been served to a number of Palestinian homes and shops in Silwan.  But the other parts of the tunnel not directly affected by the collapse remain open to settler-led tours. Tensions in the area are running very high, to say the least.  For further reading, see this report from Hagit Ofran.

For more than three years we have been predicting that as a result of the rampant, unrestrained, and virtually unregulated tunneling on the part of the settler organizations, a catastrophic collapse in Silwan or the Muslim Quarter of the Old City – with fatalities – is only a matter of time. This latest event only underscores the danger, and the fact that there were no fatalities is clearly a matter of luck.  Barring changes that increase oversight and safety measures related to tunneling, another collapse is inevitable, and given the combination of religious zealotry, sacred sites, displacement, archeology, national symbols involved – and all in the shadow of Al Aqsa and the Temple Mount – there is the very real prospect that such a collapse, whether or not casualties were involved, would not remain a minor local event.

While Elad and its supporters insist that Elad’s tunneling is not responsible for this or any of the prior collapses – they blame illegal Palestinian construction – this argument does not withstand scrutiny.  It is clear to anyone familiar with the area where underground digging is taking place, which is being conducted by the settlers, not the Palestinians, is undermining directly related to the recent collapses.

This latest collapse should be viewed as a warning – a minor cardiac incident that, if taken seriously, can allow everyone to avoid a more catastrophic heart attack in the future.  This means using this incident, and the danger it foreshadows, to put a halt to all tunneling and non-routine excavations in, around and under the Old City and Silwan, pending a comprehensive, impartial and professionally driven engineering survey. It is the very least that can and should be done to prevent potential disaster.

Regrettably, given the political nature of the tunneling, the broad political influence of the groups involved, and the strong political support they enjoy, it seems very unlikely that such lessons will be drawn from this incident.  Rather, it appears likely – as we are already seeing in the immediate aftermath of the collapse – that this event will become yet another pretext for the displacement of Palestinians from Silwan, this time based on the argument that their homes and shops must be condemned or demolished for reasons of public safety.

And to show just how unbowed and unworried the settlers are by this latest event, on December 27, one day after the collapse, Elad announced plans to build a new settler-run tourist center adjacent to the area of the collapse – a plan that it was immediately acknowledged would likely draw sharp criticism from the international community and the Palestinians.  And as noted above, to show that settler supporters in the Municipality were not going to let the collapse impede the settlers’ agenda in Silwan, on December 28th the Municipality voted to approve the new tourist center (as well as addition settlement construction in East Jerusalem).