The slow death of Silwan

In part three of the series, Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa describes how settlers are taking over a neighborhood in East Jerusalem

Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa in Silwan with an Israeli activist and a local Palestinian representative.
Vargas Llosa in Silwan with an Israeli activist and a local Palestinian representative.Oren Ziv / Activestills

Unlike other neighborhoods of Jerusalem that are as clean as a Swiss city, the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, near the Al-Aqsa mosque, is strewn with rubbish. This is no coincidence, I suspect. It’s part of a long-term plan to get rid of the 30,000 Palestinians who live here in the east of the city and replace them with Israelis.

The settlers began infiltrating the neighborhood 11 years ago, starting with the area of Batan Al-Hawa. What seemed then to be an almost anecdotal arrival of ultra-religious families moving into random houses, has since revealed itself to be part of a strategy.

Among the Israeli left there is still an idealism and a love of freedom that has disappeared from left-wing politics in a large part of the world

The settlers who have made their homes in Silwan belong to two religious movements: Elad and Ateret Cohanim. There are only 550 of them living in 75 apartments. But this is just the start. The day after my visit to Silwan, Israeli authorities announced the construction of a new building in the area to house new Ateret Cohanim settlers.

If you want to know where the settlements are located, all you have to do is look up. Israeli flags blow in the gentle morning breeze, indicating their siege-like positions, similar to those in the mountains of Hebron, encircling the neighborhood and isolating pockets of Palestinians in a kind of prison.

There is a number of ways Israeli families can get their hands on a home in Silwan; they can claim to have old documents indicating previous Jewish ownership; they can buy the house through Arabic front-men; they can threaten the current occupants until they leave; they can report the house as being built without the proper license and let the authorities decide if it should be pulled down; in some extreme cases, they simply move into the house when the occupants are out. Once in, the Israeli government gets the police or the army to protect them because of the danger of living among so many Palestinians.

This dribble of settlers will become a stream, then a lake, and finally a sea. The religious settlers who have put down their roots here are in no hurry. They have eternity on their side. This is how Israeli enclaves have expanded in the West Bank, turning it into Swiss cheese, and this is how they will take over East Jerusalem.

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It all looks official like everything else in Israel; after all, this is a very civilized country. In Batan Al-Hawa, there are 55 Palestinian families threatened with eviction, because they lack the deeds to their properties. There are also 85 homes with demolition orders because they were built without the proper permits.

When I ask Zuheir Rajabi, a staunch Palestinian defender of the neighborhood, if he believes the judges on these cases to be impartial, he looks at me as though I'm even stupider than my question. “Do you think we have any alternative?” he replies.

He is an earnest man who has been in jail several times. He has three sons aged seven, nine and 13 who have all been arrested at one time or another. He also has a six-year-old daughter, Darín, who clings to his legs. His house is surrounded by two settlements and he has received various offers for his house for much more than it is worth. But he says he will never sell; he will die in the neighborhood. His neighbors’ threats do not scare him.

I ask if the settlers in Silwan have children. He tells me that yes, they have many children, but they rarely go out and if they do, they are escorted by the police, soldiers or the private guards who protect the settlements. I consider the terrible lives of these children shut inside their homes, and I think too about the lives of their parents and grandparents who believe that by committing such injustices they are carrying out a divine plan that will get them into heaven.

Obviously, religious fanaticism is not peculiar to a Jewish minority. There are also the Palestinian religious fanatics of Hamas, and the jihadists who blow themselves up on buses or in restaurants and who target Kibbutz with missiles or attack soldiers and peaceful passersby, without understanding that these crimes only serve to widen the gulf that separates the two communities.

The religious settlers who have put down their roots here are in no hurry. They have eternity on their side

Suddenly, during our walk around Silwan, Zuheir Rajabi points out a building several stories high. The whole structure has been taken over by settlers except for one lone apartment occupied by a Palestinian family of seven. Up to now they have resisted the pressure to move despite having their water and electricity cut off; despite having to knock on the door of the settlers every time they go out; despite being bombarded with trash every time they open their windows.

While we chat, we are surrounded by small children. I ask if any of them have been arrested at any time. One of them, with a bold and naughty look in his eye, tells me, “I have – four times.” Each of those four times he was held for only a day and a night. They accused him of throwing stones at soldiers and he denied it and denied it until they believed him, so he escaped trial. His name is Samer Sirhan and his father was shot by a settler who left him bleeding in the street. As nobody came to his rescue, he remained there for the rest of the night. By dawn, he had bled to death.

I’m telling these sad stories because I believe they give a fair idea of Israel’s biggest problem: the problem of the settlements, a growing occupation of Palestinian territory that has turned Israel into a bullying colonial power and which has damaged an image that was once positive and even exemplary.

There are still many things to admire about Israel. Due to tremendous hard work, it has turned itself into a first-world country with a very high standard of living. And due to intelligent, progressive policies, they have practically got rid of poverty in Israeli society.

One of its biggest achievements is having integrated thousands and thousands of Jewish people from very different cultures, speaking different languages, into a society where they live side by side, unified by the Hebrew language but otherwise with their differences intact. You don’t have to look further than the million Russians who have moved here in the last few years to see that this is true.

From the moment I first set foot in Israel in the middle of the 1970s, I felt a great affection for this country. I think it's the only place in the world where I still feel like a leftist, because among the Israeli left there is still an idealism and a love of freedom that has disappeared from left-wing politics in a large part of the world.

So it causes me great pain to see local public opinion becoming increasingly intolerant and reactionary – which is the reason that the country has the most nationalistic and religious government in its entire history, with increasingly less democratic policies. To complain about them and to criticize them is not only my moral duty, it is an act of love.

Jerusalem, June 2016

English version by Heather Galloway.

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