Reclaiming David's city ... a home at a time
Israeli group defends abrupt evictions
Jews replace Arabs in East Jerusalem
MIDDLE EAST BUREAU
Feb. 14, 2004. 08:27 AM
JERUSALEM—Thirty hired guns on a mission nothing
less than biblical bore down on the impoverished
Arab East Jerusalem enclave of Silwan in a pre-dawn
operation last Sunday.
With stealth-like precision, they crept toward
deliverance in tiptoe silence. At 2:45 a.m., one of
the gunmen reached out to carefully squeeze shut a
yipping puppy's jaws so as not to alarm sleeping
neighbours. A second produced a cordless drill and
pointed its carbide tip into the lockset of the
Moments later, they were in. And a few minutes after
that, the Arabs were out. Twelve people in all,
members of the Ajlouni family, awakened and ousted
into darkened streets from a home no longer theirs.
Hostile words were exchanged, but not a drop of
blood was shed. The private Israeli security team
executed its mission perfectly.
In a conflict marked by daily death, events such as
last weekend's eviction drive tend not to make the
headlines. But make no mistake — Silwan, the hotly
disputed neighbourhood in the historic sloping
valley beneath the religiously revered southern
ramparts of the Old City walls, just got a little
more Jewish, a little less Palestinian.
The whys and wherefores of the paramilitary
operation speak volumes about how the hallowed soil
of Jerusalem remains far and away the most vexing
dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
To the Palestinians turfed last Sunday, the
nighttime expulsions bore all the hallmarks of what
they see as a nefarious campaign to quietly make
Jerusalem Jewish beyond any hope of reclamation.
Every home lost, they say, is but one unnecessarily
provocative step farther away from the peaceful
co-existence envisioned under the collapsed Oslo
To the Israelis behind the raid — the not-for-profit
foundation known as Elad — nothing could be further
from the truth. Sunday's reclamation was not an act
of illegal settlement, but rather a glorious and
legally binding act of Jewish redemption aimed at
the extraordinarily precious archeological site that
lies beneath these white stone homes.
For this, they say, is not Silwan, but Ir David —
the true City of David — and as such, nothing less
than the spiritual centre of the world.
Peel away 3,000 years and it is here, at Mount
Moriyah, outside the south walls of today's Old
City, that King David first came, establishing
Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish
people. It is here that he wrote the Psalms. It is
here that the original Jewish nation, perhaps no
more than 4,000 people, built the foundations of the
First Temple era.
The first excavations of the site began more than
130 years ago, yielding discoveries that in 1910
prompted Baron Edmund de Rothschild to purchase much
of the area for Jewish settlement.
But those original Ottoman-era land claims now
compete with the deeds of Arab homes built mostly
after 1948, when the neighbourhood came under
Jordanian rule after the war that followed Israel's
declaration of independence.
East Jerusalem's return to Israeli possession
following the Six Day War of 1967 set the stage for
a new round of excavations — and gradual Jewish
resettlement — that continues today under the
auspices of Elad's parent organization, the City of
Last Sunday's operation added another 16 apartments
to the group's inventory in Silwan, bringing to 42
the number of Jewish domiciles sprinkled throughout
the overwhelmingly Arab neighbourhood. Most of the
homes are heavily defended compounds, replete with
armed guards to forestall friction.
City of David Foundation spokesperson Doron Spielman
said the organization purchased all 16 apartments
over the course of two years of low-key negotiations
with individual owners.
"The transactions were fair and square, and in each
case we paid well over market value," said Spielman.
"Obviously, we wouldn't make a move without having
clear title to the dwellings."
The displaced Ajlounis, living temporarily with
their extended family in other apartments adjacent
to those claimed in Sunday's raid, challenge this
Waving a Jordanian-era deed, family patriarch
Mohammed Jabber Ajlouni said he built the home in
1955, eventually expanding the complex to comprise
six flats. Upon retirement, he bequeathed four of
the apartments to his sons — under the legal proviso
none can be sold so long as he is alive.
One son, Subhi, now lives in the United States. A
second son, Hassan, died Jan. 28 in an apparent
hit-and-run accident on the highway to Jericho. It
is their apartments, the Ajlounis say, that were
seized Sunday morning.
The family adamantly denies any sale took place.
They have retained a lawyer to fight their case as
they await the return of Subhi to help with the
battle. As for the late Hassan, they acknowledge he
was "a drinker" — an uncomfortable admission for
religious Muslims. Grudgingly, they say it may be
possible he was "tricked" into signing something.
"But even if Hassan signed something, he had no
authority to sell — it would also require my
signature," said his father, Mohammed.
"And if these settlers are the true owners, let me
ask you this: Why do they come in the middle of the
night, like bats, terrorizing our children? Why not
follow the law?"
The Ajlounis also accused the municipal police of
wilfully ignoring the family's calls of desperation
as events unfolded early Sunday. The local
constabulary eventually arrived after five calls,
they said. But by then, more than two hours later,
the deed was done, with the family's belongings on
the street and the apartments' new inhabitants
safely ensconced behind newly installed locks.
Jerusalem police spokesperson Schmulik Ben-Ruby
denied the family's allegations, insisting the
response was "within 10 or 15 minutes."
"We came, we talked to both sides — the Palestinians
and to the private guards running the operation,"
Ben-Ruby said. "We told them they must go to court
to decide who the real owner is."
On Tuesday, a Jerusalem judge awarded temporary
custody of the apartments to Elad, pending the
outcome of what could well be a protracted legal
battle for rightful ownership.
Confident of victory, Elad intends to hand over the
apartments in the coming weeks to families at the
top of a long list of Jewish applicants for tenancy.
The Ajlounis, the foundation says, will eventually
find themselves with good neighbours hoping to let
bygones be bygones.
`Look, this isn't Beverly Hills. This isn't
paradise. This is the Middle East and this is
reality.' Doron Spielman, City of David Foundation
In the meantime, armed Elad activists remain on the
premises to bar any attempts by the Ajlounis to take
back the flats. One of the gunmen, identifying
himself only as Udi, dismissed the entire dispute is
a false display of Palestinian protest.
"We bought the apartments for very good money under
the law. It's all kosher," Udi told the Star.
"The problem is that Arabs who want to sell must
keep quiet about it, because they are afraid of the
Palestinian Authority. They need to show everyone —
their friends, their neighbours — that it is all
happening against their will, even though it isn't
City of David spokesperson Spielman admits the
optics of the nighttime raid look bad on paper. But
the organization decided on the element of surprise
as the safest possible option, he said.
"Did we do it to be provocative? No. It was to try
to de-escalate the fact of moving in," he said.
"Look, this isn't Beverly Hills. This isn't
paradise. This is the Middle East and this is
reality. If we gave advance notice, or came in the
daytime, the entire neighbourhood would be out in
"By moving at night, we minimized the potential for
either side to get hurt. There was no violence.
Nobody got hurt. And I promise you, come back in six
months and you will find it will have blown over.
Everyone will be good neighbours. We will all get
But a walkabout of the Silwan area this week makes
one wonder whether such neighbourly notions are
anything more than superficial. One young Arab man
intercepted this reporter with the blunt question:
"Who are you? Do you like Arabs?"
Asked how he felt about the expanding Jewish
presence in Silwan, he railed: "They are going to
squeeze us out. Soon there will be 1,000 Jews here,
and then I will have no choice but to leave. They
want us gone. It's a disaster for the
A few hours later, Spielman inadvertently approached
the very same man, completely at random. The ensuing
exchange of pleasantries was meant to show me just
how well everyone gets along. This time, the
Palestinian smiled warmly, not daring to share the
fears earlier expressed.
To Jerusalem city councillor Meir Margalit, an
outspoken activist with the left-wing Meretz party,
this anecdote demonstrates a power differential he
sees repeated throughout Arab East Jerusalem.
"When the Jewish groups take a house in an Arab part
of town, they come with guns, they live with guns,
there are armed guards," said Margalit.
"They bring jeeps, they bring dogs. The houses
become military compounds. And so the Arab residents
live in fear of what might happen. They watch their
Margalit said one cannot separate the Jewish drive
to reclaim the City of David from the larger
ideology of "Judaicizing" vast swaths of East
"Look at the larger picture. Put the settlement
actions in Silwan together with the ongoing
demolition of Arab houses in East Jerusalem. Put it
together with the building of the wall through Abu
"All these features together paint a very dramatic
picture where the Israeli government, together with
the settlers, are part of a national program to make
the life of Palestinians so hard they will leave
Jerusalem. It is that simple."
Margalit acknowledges the City of David's
extraordinary archeological value.
"But the issue is who lives in the village, not
where David walked 3,000 years ago," he said.
"The country is full of places where Jewish history
is found. For that matter, you can even find such
places in Iraq. But this cannot be a reason to take
houses of people who have lived there all their
lives. This is not about buying houses. This is
Gary Speiser, 47, an avionics engineer, was among
the first Jewish residents to move into the
neighbourhood under the umbrella of Elad nearly four
years ago. He dismisses the criticism of the Israeli
left as "predictable."
"A few years ago, there was a big uproar from the
left when we moved in," said Speiser, who was born
and raised in New York, but whose grandfather was
born and raised a few hundred metres away in the Old
City's Jewish Quarter.
"But now, it's no big deal. This weekend went by
almost without a peep. No mass marches up and down
the street, no explosions of anger. Some of my
friends and relatives use words like `settler' or
`pioneer' to describe me, but that sounds like I'm a
character in (the old TV western) Bonanza.
"I think we are past that now. We are friendly with
the Arab neighbours. And I can't tell you how
special it feels to live here. It really is like
living the Bible."
Spielman fiercely rejects descriptions of Elad as a
group of right- wing provocateurs. In the Camp David
talks that predated the current intifada, he said,
both sides accepted the City of David as a heritage
site that would eventually fall under "full Jewish
"Let there be no qualms about it: we want this to be
a Jewish neighbourhood," he said.
"It is not just another Jewish site. It is the
Jewish site. And we cannot trust that if this
remains an Arab neighbourhood, Jews will always be
able to come here.
"So now is the time. We've been dreaming of coming
back for 3,000 years. This is the fulfillment of our
MITCH POTTER/TORONTO STAR
Mohammed Jabber Ajlouni holds a Jordanian-era deed
he claims proves rightful ownership of the home his
family was evicted from early last Sunday in the
Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. The Ajlounis
deny they sold the apartment to an Israeli