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Silwan, a Palestinian community torn apart by Israel's dig to find 'lost city'

Israel is creating a 'City of David' attraction in East Jerusalem - but the work is destroying homes above the excavation sites
Mohammed stands near the cracked walls in his Wadi al-Hilweh home (MEE/Lubna Masarwa)

SILWAN, East Jerusalem - Manal and Mohammed stand in the front room of their house in Silwan, pointing to the yawning cracks zig-zagging the walls. Their home has stood for decades, like many in this Palestinian district south of Jerusalem's Old City - but the cracks are something new.

They work 7am to 9pm every day. No one ever gave us warning about this digging

- Mohammed, Silwan resident

They began to appear when Israel started digging tunnels under the streets to create a new tourist attraction, and find evidence of the three-millenia-old "City of David".

It is a search many people, including some Israelis, say is based on no evidence, but has literally shaken the foundations of the people living above.

Manal and Mohammed live in the Wadi al-Hilweh area of Silwan, and say their home is simply falling apart, and recount how a chunk of wall fell on their three-year-old son's head while he was playing.

"When we go to his grandparents' house he doesn't want to come home. He calls it the 'tumbledown house'," said Manal.

Antiquities agency workers in the tunnels under Silwan (AFP)

Mohammed said the digging and drilling has been almost continuous for three years. "They work from 7am to 9pm every day. No one ever gave us warning about this digging."

Many residents of this close-knit neighbourhood point the finger directly at Israel. It has been developing tourist and archaeological sites in the area since 1995, which Palestinians say are an attempt to find evidence of Jewish history that would legitimise illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

The Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating sites in Wadi al-Hilweh, which is close to al-Aqsa mosque and the wall of the Old City. Ir David, an Israeli settler foundation, is sponsoring the excavations, linked to the new "City of David" attraction.

Its completion, including a Roman-style "avenue" built over streets that have been home to generations of Palestinians, would cement the position of the 450 illegal settlers currently living in Silwan, and doom the 10,000 Palestinian they live beside under heavy guard.

Al-Aqsa mosque, the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and roofs of Palestinian houses in Wadi Al-Hilweh as seen from "City of David" panorama point, 4 February (MEE/Mustafa Abu Sneineh)

And every resident spoken to by Middle East Eye had the same story - almost without fail, the digging starts at 7am and continues for 14 hours, almost every day, and the results have been catastrophic for their homes and their community.

Basem Siam, another resident, said the digging was akin to an earthquake hitting the area. "Window panes shatter, walls crack, floors move and sink. The digging started 10 years ago," Siam said.

He added that most families from Wadi al-Hilweh had been forced to leave their houses due to their collapsed houses.

Siam said that like many remaining in the area, he has no choice but to stay. Where would he move to, and who would take his place? 

"If I go and live in the West Bank, I would be risking my residency status in Jerusalem," he said.

If these houses collapse, the Jerusalem municipality won't give us permits to build new houses.

- Fuad Mokhtar , Silwan resident

Fuad Mokhtar, a shop owner in Wadi al-Hilweh, said glasses of water on tables shake from the strength of the digging. His house, and that of his neighbour, were "hanging in the air... It is only a matter of time before these houses collapse".

Mokhtar set up his shop after dropping out of the building industry, which forced him to travel and spend time away from his house.

"I did this because of the fear that one day I will come back from work and find settlers occupying my house - something that happened to some of my neighbours."

He added that everyone in Wadi al-Hilweh was facing pressure from the Israel authorities to leave.

"They use the stick and carrot policy. Since the City of David opened, life in Wadi al-Hilweh has become unbearable. If these houses collapse, the Jerusalem municipality won't give us permits to build new houses."

"City of David" gift shop (MEE\Mustafa Abu Sneineh)

Stalling in courts

Soon after digging started in Wadi al-Hilweh, a group of neighbours hired a lawyer and went to court against the Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Ir David Foundation.

Khaled al-Zier's home was destroyed by Israel three times for "building without a permit", and he was compelled to move with his family into one of the nearby caves. Israeli police arrested him multiple times for being vocal about the crisis faced by Wadi al-Hilweh.

Zier said the lawyer was working on a case against the digging but believed Israeli authorities were delaying the final decision to allow time to finish excavations.

He said that he and his neighbours were constantly chasing lawyers and engineers.

"Some UN observers have been and reported what is happening to us, but we haven't seen any results."

Sami Arsheid, a lawyer for the Palestinian residents, told the same story: "The Israeli authorities are refusing to let a surveyor into the tunnels and underground spaces to produce a professional report to use it in court," he said.

Arsheid represents 15 families who own eight properties. 

He said that in 2017 the Jerusalem Municipality forced three families to leave on the grounds that their houses are in danger of collapsing.

"We asked the municipality to refresh the houses, but it refused. The response was they did not know the cause of the damage to houses, and house refurbishment was not their responsibility."

A spokesman for the municipality said: "Claims that these structures were harmed because of excavations or digging of any sort is patently false."

The spokesman added that one building in the area had been condemned due to water damage, unrelated to the excavations, and the residents had been evacuated for their saftey.

'Zionist nationalism'

A tour guide, an Israeli Jew who wished to remain anonymous, said he believed the "City of David" had no religious importance to the Jews.

"All of what you see here is nationalism. If you are a Zionist nationalist, this place will be important for you."

Tourists visiting "City of David" won't see any Palestinians, said the guide, who is also an archaeologist.

"Most of the tour is underground, and its aim is to give the tourist a sense of the Jewish pilgrimage from Birkat al-Hamra or 'Shiloah Pool' in the south of Wadi al-Hilweh, where the worshipper will purify himself before he ascends to the Western Wall."

The entrance to the tunnel that runs underground Wadi al-Hilweh houses, 4 February (MEE/Mustafa Abu Sneineh)

Tours go underground through the ancient water channels of Silwan, and into 400m of what was once a Roman sewerage network.

Above this tunnel, the Israeli antiquities authority is planning out a road mimicking the Roman avenue, connecting the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem to Birket al-Hamra in the south of Wadi al-Hilweh. It is this road that will undermine the Palestinian houses of Wadi al-Hilweh.

Once in the tunnels, the scene is of a building site: scaffolding, buckets and bags for emptying soil; the thuds of heavy machinery and the rasp of electronic saws.

Inside the tunnel that runs underground Wadi al-Hilweh houses, 4 February (MEE/Mustafa Abu Sneineh)

"To complete the excavation, the area was closed off to Palestinian residents, and later became a ticketed tourist site," said the Israeli guide.

It costs 44 Shekels ($13) for half a tour that ascends from Birket al-Hamra to the Western Wall through the tunnel. 

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli archaeological NGO, said in a report that these tunnels "create an underground Jewish-Israeli city and turn... settlers into its natural inhabitants and the Palestinian residents... into a temporary presence".

The guide said the excavation have not found one single artefact from King David era, which dates back 3,000 years.

What has been found are artefacts from various extinct empires, mainly Arab and Muslim, which have controlled Jerusalem over the centuries.

Artefacts have also been found from the period of the Second Temple, which dates back to the first century BCE, an important period of history for Jews.

But beyond that, nothing.

Regardless, Israelis continue their relentless search for their lost city, while the city of Palestinians above is slowly consigned to the history books.

A cracked wall in one of Wadi al-Hilweh houses (MEE/Lubna Masarwa)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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