JERUSALEM: The Abu Snineh family woke up at their home in east Jerusalem one morning to find Jewish settlers had moved into the building and Israeli flags were on the roof.
Their Silwan neighbourhood in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Old City has become a flashpoint in the struggle between ideologically driven Israelis moving in and longtime Palestinian residents.
“There are still areas where Jews want to go back,” said Daniel Luria, whose Ateret Cohanim activist organisation facilitates the purchase of homes by Jews from Israel and abroad.
“That was our dream, not to live on the outskirts of Tel Aviv or Haifa. It’s to be close to the Temple Mount, where the kings and the prophets walked.”
The status of Jerusalem is one of the main issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their long-sought future state, while Israel claims an undivided Jerusalem as its own.
Israel annexed mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War — a move never recognised by the international community. Before then only a few hundred Jews lived there.
Now there are 195,000 among a total population of 450,000.
In Silwan, a working class district on a steep hillside where clashes regularly erupt, several hundred Jews live among 55,000 Palestinians.
New Jewish arrivals move in at night to avoid tensions.
The Abu Sninehs’ building is the sixth that has been taken over in Silwan. They are all near one another, forming a small enclave under tight surveillance and with newly paved streets.
It stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding Palestinian areas, where public services are essentially non-existent.
“Those settlers don’t want to live with us,” said Fakhri Abu Diab, part of a voluntary committee in Silwan elected by residents. “They want to live in our places.”
Abu Diab said the latest arrivals showed up at 2:00 am. Five minutes later, the Israeli flags had already been placed on the roof.
About 10 security cameras have been mounted on the walls and balconies, and more were being installed.
Their plan was to occupy the premises until five Jewish families move in and while a dormitory for Jewish students is set up, said Luria.
He called Silwan the “crown jewel,” located close to the Jewish quarter of the Old City, the Western Wall and the hilltop Al-Aqsa mosque complex, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.
Silwan is also home to the City of David archaeological site, where tradition holds that the biblical King David established his capital.
The settlers moving into Silwan have no doubt about what they see as Jews’ historical connection to the area. Luria said he will not give up his “homeland”.
“There is no shortage of Arab countries where they can go,” he said, referring to Palestinians in the area.
In order to acquire such buildings, settlers can use a law that places under Israeli state custody property left behind by their owners when they fled during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
Palestinian activists say the settlers have also used Palestinian front men or front companies to buy the land.
‘How it started’
Israeli courts decided that the property where the Abu Snineh family lives belonged to its former owners — Yemenite Jews who lived there in 1880.
Jawad Abu Snineh, a day labourer who has rented there for seven years, has until the end of the year to find a new home for his family, which includes nine children.
The new residents cut the water to their home when they arrived and later the satellite dish, Abu Snineh said, as his son climbed down after retrieving it.
Armed security officers are posted to the buildings where the settlers live, and both sides accuse the other of preventing peaceful co-existence.
“This is how it started in Hebron,” said Abu Diab, referring to the West Bank powder-keg city where 500 settlers live behind walls, barbed wire and checkpoints.
Munzer al-Rajabi, who lives in front of one of the buildings in Silwan, has covered his balcony to avoid the cameras.
Luria says there are constant attacks and speaks of a “logistical nightmare” when it comes to security. But there is a more important principal at stake, he said, which he refers to as God’s roadmap.