The Middle East Channel

Unsafe space in East Jerusalem

A private Israeli security guard in East Jerusalem doing the graveyard shift decides to go and fill up his gas tank at 4:00 a.m on September 22. He leaves his fortified station at the home of an Israeli family that had relocated to Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood just south of Jerusalem’s Old City. He ...


A private Israeli security guard in East Jerusalem doing the graveyard shift decides to go and fill up his gas tank at 4:00 a.m on September 22. He leaves his fortified station at the home of an Israeli family that had relocated to Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood just south of Jerusalem’s Old City. He enters one of several well-equipped jeeps, used to chauffeur the family and their guests upon leaving and arriving, and heads out, driving through the narrow and winding streets. After that, the precise sequence of events of those early morning hours is disputed, but there seems to be agreement that the guard’s fatal shooting of Samer Sarhan, a 32-year-old Palestinian from Silwan, added fuel to the existing high flames of East Jerusalem.

Security guards in the area have become growingly hostile in recent months, leading to injuries, for the first time last month, a loss of life. Sarhan’s death hit shock waves across East Jerusalem but came as no surprise to those closely following the deteriorating conflict between settlers and Palestinians in Jerusalem. A report published recently by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, titled ‘Unsafe Space: The Israeli Authorities’ Failure to Protect Human Rights amid Settlements in East Jerusalem’, details how accounts of security guards being "quick on the trigger" in Silwan have been a growing phenomenon.

To provide some context of the situation on the ground, the numbers game of this story is rather alarming: East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population is estimated at 300,000. About 2,000 Jewish residents live today in the midst of several densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (excluded from this account are tens of thousands of Israelis who live in neighborhoods located east of the Green Line. These were built after 1967 for solely Jewish residential purposes and are considered a consensus among Israelis.). Some of the settlers live in large compounds of ten and more families, while others live in private family residencies. Nearly all are surrounded by fences and protected by armed sentries and surveillance cameras.

Thus, one of the stunning examples of the financial support given to Jewish settlement in Jerusalem is the investment in security. Of the Housing and Construction Ministry’s annual budget for 2010, more than 54 million NIS were diverted for paying private contractors to guard the 2,000 Jewish settlers of East Jerusalem. This translates evenly to 27,000 NIS per settler (though the figure is much higher for those living in more hostile environments and lower for those who rarely need such security measures). The fatal shooting in Silwan illustrated the problems involved when virtual militias are deployed in residential neighborhoods. Indeed, while the conduct of the police in these neighborhoods is far from perfect and routinely criticized, it is still governed by a public code and standards of accountability that are plainly lacking from the private security apparatus.

A crucial point to bear in mind is that the investment diverted to support Jewish presence in Palestinian neighborhoods is carried out on top of a backdrop of years of neglect to these areas, considerably worse-off in terms of public infrastructure in comparison to West Jerusalem and other Israeli cities in general. The severe shortage in schools, medical facilities playgrounds, etc., is acknowledged by the authorities, but a much-needed change of policy is not being implemented.

ACRI’s report "Unsafe Space" brings to light Palestinian residents’ testimonies concerning the routine physical and verbal aggression, including racial slurs, directed against them and their children by settlers and their visitors. Such complaints, it is important to note, are also sounded by Jewish residents. But while the Police and Border Patrol make a genuine effort to provide safe shelter for settlers, and to ensure that Palestinians suspected of violence are interrogated and brought to trial, the treatment of Palestinians’ complaints is entirely different. In cases when Palestinians decide to file official complaints with the police against perpetrators of violence, they are often treated with disregard and indifference, or worse — are themselves named as suspects. Complaints against Jewish residents and security guards are too often dismissed without serious investigation, even in cases when Palestinian victims have suffered severe physical injuries. Moreover, complaints made against Palestinians have often resulted in their detention, at times for several days, and restriction orders have also been issued to prohibit them from entering their own neighborhoods for weeks or more.

But the scope of the support received by settler groups is not merely confined to an unequal application of the law. Indeed, several recent visits by high-up officials to Silwan underscore the tight cooperation between settler groups and the state. In August, Attorney-General Yehuda Winstein, State Attorney Moshe Lador and Jerusalem Police Chief Aharon Franko paid a surprise and covert visit to the neighborhood. While the Justice Ministry initially denied that Winstein and Lador had met with Jewish residents and representatives, the official version was quickly altered after Palestinians released a video showing the head of the ELAD group, David Be’eri, climbing with the officials to the rooftop of a compound previously owned by a Palestinian family, now in the hands of ELAD, and speaking to them at length. That several ongoing court cases against ElAD are pending, it should hardly require pointing out that a Justice Ministry responsible for formulating the State’s legal positions should not be associating with implicated organizations.

Palestinians have pleaded time and again for a change of policy in the neighborhood, yet the high-delegation chose to come to the neighborhood and ignore them. As a letter by representatives of Wadi Hilwe, a sub-neighborhood of Silwan, noted of the incident: "Many of us fear that the actions taken by the police and the law enforcement system in Silwan stem from an attempt to assist the settlers, and are possibly even carried out with their direct involvement… [Making] it extremely difficult for us to maintain any confidence in the Israeli law enforcement system".

Sadly, this trend shows no indication of reversing. Following in the footsteps of the Attorney-General and State Prosecutor, Knesset Members and other officials have repeatedly arrived in Silwan to meet with settler representatives. Just two weeks ago, the Knesset State Comptroller Committee, discussing zoning and building in Silwan, held its meeting in Beit Yehonatan, a settler house in the center of Silwan which was built in defiance of the neighborhood building restrictions. They too did not meet a single Palestinian representative.

Yet for all of the problems that Silwan continues to face, it is far from the exception when it comes to East Jerusalem. Indeed, things are looking nearly as bleak in nearby neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City, where Palestinians are being evicted from their homes to make way for right-wing Israeli nationalists. The evictions have led to the creation of an unusually strong activism movement, now known as "Solidarity", which has been organizing weekly protests for more than a year in the neighborhood attended by Israelis, Palestinians and internationals. Yet a few days after Sarhan was shot and turbulence was felt across East Jerusalem, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that settler groups would be allowed to obtain the rights to a large plot in the western portion of the Sheikh Jarrah which had previously been unaffected. The decision means the properties’ owners, including settler representatives, will be able to initiate proceedings for the eviction of dozens of Palestinian families living on the property.

What events in Silwan (and Sheikh Jarrah) underscore is that the political battle over Jerusalem seems to have entered a new phase. Ideologically driven ultra-nationalist and settler groups are increasingly calling the shots and working to change the city’s borders and landscape. Having succeeded in garnering the support and backing of the Israeli authorities, including the Police and Jerusalem Municipality, these groups are settling growing numbers of Jewish families in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. And left without the backing of the Israeli establishment, Palestinians’ sense of safety in their own neighborhoods has rapidly deteriorated and their basic rights infringed upon on a daily basis (for an example of what this situation looks like on the ground, see yesterday’s 60 Minutes report on Israeli efforts to create an archaeological tourist attraction in the biblical ‘city of David’–right in the middle of Silwan). This is done in contravention of Israeli law, which for the most part details provisions for equal rights to citizens and permanent residents of the country.

In this neighborhood conflict, the Israeli authorities have taken sides: the young settlement guard’s salary in Silwan, the jeep, and the fortification of the family house are all paid for by the Israeli taxpayer and meant to protect Silwan’s Jewish settlers. And as some of the local Palestinians’ attitude to the new neighbors efforts to "Judaize" the neighborhood is not hospitable, to say the least, and in some cases involves violent reactions, this is considered a security necessity.

Legally, the situation in Jerusalem is different than that in the Occupied Territories, where Palestinians are subject to military ruling. Yet those familiar with the situation that has evolved in Hebron cannot but help make the comparison to East Jerusalem, and in particular with the Holy Basin around the Old City: in both places a small minority of ideologically driven Israeli Jews have taken control over space, and with the support of the authorities they maneuver the Israeli security forces to subject the majority Palestinian community to their whims. In Hebron it has led to numerous and reoccurring violations of human rights and episodic violence. Where once Palestinian commerce thrived, a ghost town today exists.  That talk of "Hebronization" is being heard more often than before in the streets of Jerusalem is enough to underscore the severity of the current situation.

Tali Nir is an attorney and director of the Human Rights in East Jerusalem Project at The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)

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