Major Development: In Overnight Operation, Settlers Take Over Multiple Buildings in Silwan

Overnight/early morning today (September 30), settlers affiliated with the Elad settlement movement took over a number of buildings that until now were in the possession of Palestinians in the area of Silwan known to Palestinians as Wadi Hilweh, which the settlers prefer to call the City of David. Basic details of the events are as follows:

What happened

  • The takeover involved 7 buildings, comprising approximately 22 residential units (resulting in some misreporting that 22 actual buildings were taken over).
  • Four of the buildings in Baydoun Street; two in the area of Bustan; and one near the Aderet complex.
  • This is the largest single settler takeover since the settlers first moved into Silwan in October 1991 (at that time taking over 11 units).
  • Defenders of the settlers and of Israeli settlement policy in Jerusalem, both within and outside the Israeli government, are already suggesting that this massive settler takeover is a politically innocent, free-market, private initiative – carried out by a U.S.-based front company acting on behalf of the settlers. This suggestion is false in all but the narrowest possible terms.
  • Here is a map of the area, prior to last night’s takeovers. For a map showing the location of the new takeovers, see Peace Now’s report, here.
  • For a report on the takeover from Arutz Sheva (the settlers’ media outlet) see here. Further reporting (with reactions from Palestinian and Israel politicians, here.)

How it went down

  • The takeover of these properties did not apparently entail forceful evictions of the kind that have been seen previously in Silwan and other areas.
  • The settlers did NOT apparently coordinate the takeover of the properties with the Israeli Police. Had they done so, the Police quite possibly could have refused to allow the operation to take place, given the current violence in East Jerusalem, and the clear and present danger to public safety.
  • The settlers didn’t coordinate with the Police for the simple reason that they didn’t need to.
  • The government of Israel (i.e., the Israeli taxpayer) bankrolls private security firms who are exclusively dedicated (ostensibly) to securing the East Jerusalem settlers, at an annual cost of more than $20 million.  In the absence of any genuine public scrutiny, these security details do the bidding of the settlers, and some have the trappings of a private militia.
  • It is because of this government-funded, quasi-official security that the settlers did not need police protection this morning: for all intents and purposes, they have “their own” police.
  • Now that the settlers and their security have taken over the buildings, Israeli Police are backing up the settler move – as of this morning, a large detail of the police special forces (Yassam) are posted in Silwan, in anticipation of an escalation in the levels of violence.

What it means for the settlement enterprise in Silwan

  • As noted above, this is the largest single settler takeover since the settlers first moved into Silwan in October 1991 (at that time taking over 11 units).
  • Since that time, there have been a number of separate settler complexes built (like Ras el Amud, and the yet-to-be-occupied Beit Orot and Shepherds Hotel), and individual houses picked up on a piecemeal basis, but nothing even vaguely approaching the numbers of building seized last night.
  • This takeover will allow the settlers to increase their population in Silwan, and their property holdings, by approximately 35%.
  • For the sake of comparison: in 1991, there were around 1,400 settlers residing in the heart of East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods like Silwan and the Muslim Quarter; today there are around 2,500.  That means that over 23 years, the settlers achieved only modest gains in expanding their population, based on “house-to-house” combat. This morning’s events, in contrast, represent a “victory” for the settlers of a magnitude that is unprecedented.

Government of Israel Responsibility

  • It is likely that Netanyahu did not have advance knowledge of this morning’s takeovers.
  • Nonetheless, as we have written in other contexts, Netanyahu cannot so easily evade responsibility, because as Prime Minister, the responsibility for actions like this falls squarely on his shoulders. If Netanyahu was indeed unaware of these plans, than he is guilty of gross negligent in attending to his responsibilities as head of government. Indeed, something like can only have happened because Netanyahu has long adopted a policy of giving spoilers in his own government and among the settlers free hand to carry out their mischief while, ostensibly, he insists that his own hands are clean. Indeed, over the years there have been so many occasions where Netanyahu has been surprised by settlement announcements or developments on the ground – the excuse, “I just work here” lacks all credibility.
  • Defenders of the settlers and of Israeli settlement policy in Jerusalem, both within and outside the Israeli government, are already suggesting that this massive settler takeover is a politically innocent, free-market, private initiative. This suggestion is false in all but the narrowest possible terms.
  • In the past and still today, the ideological DNA that informs the actions and policies of governmental bodies in Silwan – the police, the Antiquities Authority, the Israel Lands Authority, etc. – is grounded in the settlers’ agenda.  Indeed, in recent testimony before the Jerusalem District Court, Cabinet Secretary Medelbliit described the Elad settlers as a governmental body (“mamlachti”).
  • Moreover, many governmental powers – from security to archeology and national parks – have been formally outsourced to the settlers. The distinction between “private” and “governmental” has little significance in Silwan.
  • The settlement enterprise in Silwan derives, historically, from a covert and largely illegal campaign to take over properties from Palestinian residents and to turn them over en bloc to the Elad settlers. The gross illegalities and irregularities were verified by an impartial, governmental board of inquiry in 1992, the Klugman Committee. (See: The Klugman Report – The Report of the Committee for the Examination of Buildings in East Jerusalem (September 10, 1992)”, The Palestine Yearbook of International Law Vol. 9, 1996/1997, pp. 417-435).
  • While the policies uncovered by the Commission are no longer officially in play, the settler presence in Silwan could neither proceed nor be maintained without the massive support of, and collusion with the government of Israel, starting with the office of the Prime Minister. This is true even in the case of today’s takeovers, which are at least in large part “private acquisitions.”

Political implications

  • The timing of the takeovers could hardly be worse. The Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem have in recent weeks been gripped by violent disturbances nightly, and nowhere more so than in Silwan.
  • While the violence in East Jerusalem is hardly felt by most Israeli Jerusalemites, the every-day realities in the settlement enclaves of East Jerusalem have been radically transformed since early July. Overnight, they have been “Hebronized” with the settler homes and complexes being turned into armed camps. Incendiary devices and stone-throwing are routine, and access to these areas sometimes secured by convoys.
  • The specific timing is even more ominous:   As happens once only every 33 years, this coming Friday the somber Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur coincides with the festive Muslim holiday of Id al Adha.  The potential for inter-communal friction would be great even under the most routine circumstances. With the recent disturbances in East Jerusalem, and with a large settler takeover unfolding literally in the shadow of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the potential for escalation is high indeed.
  • Coming on the heels of Netanyahu’s speech yesterday at the UN, the takeover in Silwan will also fuel Palestinian demands for international protection and intervention, and potentially raise the stakes with respect to potential resort to legal actions.
  • In a statement released this morning, PLO Executive Committee Member Saeb Erekat noted: “What happened this morning is the reaffirmation of what was said by Mr. Netanyahu at the UN. By denying the occupation and providing settlers a ‘divine right’ to continue their daily attacks against Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu simply endorsed the acts of those extremists who have never been as much supported by an Israeli government as now. This is a government by the settlers and for settlers. It serves the objective of altering the character of Jerusalem through isolating, containing and confining Palestinian existence, allowing for more Israeli land-grab and attempts at changing the identity and demography of Palestine and particularly of Occupied East Jerusalem.”

Broader Context

  • First, there is a debate raging inside Israel – among Israeli officials and politicians – over the current crisis in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem Mayor Barkat has been urging everyone NOT to report the violence, as it tarnishes Jerusalem’s image. He has gone so far as to castigate managers of Jerusalem’s Light Rail of for exaggerating events and Israeli Police have reportedly requested that the Light Rail not report incidents.   Similarly, both the settlers and the private security details do not systematically report violent incidents, for fear of deterring new settler families from moving in or scaring tourists away. Ironically, the Ministry of Construction IS reporting the violence, since they want to assure increased budgets for the security details.
  • Second, since the outbreak of the last Israel-Hamas war, there have been no new tenders published for settlement construction in East Jerusalem, nor have any new statutory plans been deposited for public review. The reason is clear: at least for the time being, Netanyahu fears the international response were he to resume settlements – so much so that he is deflecting pressure from his coalition partners to open up the settlement floodgates.
  • At the same time, turning a blind eye to settler actions like the one that took place this morning – actions of extraordinary magnitude and with far-reaching political and security implications – make clear that the current partial settlement freeze does not appear to apply to settlement activities in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.