Fatma Tanis / NPR
JERUSALEM – The bulldozer and more than a dozen Israeli police cars arrived unexpectedly around 8:30 am on June 29 to demolish Nidal al-Rajabi’s butcher’s shop in al-Bustan. Residents flocked to the streets of this Palestinian neighborhood in the Silwan neighborhood, south of the Old City of East Jerusalem, as soon as news spread that the intrusive Israeli team had arrived.
“They want to demolish 17 houses in the al-Bustan neighborhood,” says Fakhri Abu Diab, who worries about a long-dreaded plan to destroy and replace Palestinian homes with a new tourist spot – a lush garden on the theme of the Bible – now in progress.
Abu Diab, head of al-Bustan’s residency committee, claims Israeli police gassed his house with tear gas and knocked him over in clashes between security forces and protesters who threw stones that day -the.
“I came just to take pictures,” he says. “The police hurt me, five or six grabbed me.”
He had rushed into the street following the first reports that the bulldozer had arrived to demolish the butcher’s shop, which had been built without a permit.
No one in al-Bustan denies having built without a permit, but they say they have no choice because the Jerusalem municipality regularly denies them building permits.
The families of al-Bustan have lived in anguish of displacement for more than a decade. The project to replace their houses with a park began in 2005. Then came the demolition orders from the municipality.
“Currently, there are 78 pending demolition orders,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and a frequent critic of government policies. “Sixty were suspended by the court until August.” A total of 130 Palestinian households are affected.
“They don’t want us,” says Abu Diab, referring to the Israeli settler groups who support the Old Testament-inspired park, which is to be built on part of al-Bustan’s land. “They want to make a garden for the Jews.”
The park, known as the King’s Garden, is considered part of King Solomon’s ancient gardens. It was first proposed in 2005 by Uri Lupolianski, then mayor of Jerusalem, and was revived five years later by another mayor, Nir Barket. But every time the park has been proposed, court challenges have delayed demolition orders to remove Palestinian homes.
There was also pressure from Europe and the United States – including this Haaretz newspaper described as “a high-profile dispute with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over [Barket’s] intention to demolish the houses ”in 2010, settled only after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in to postpone the demolitions.
But Palestinian residents of al-Bustan saw last month’s butcher’s demolition as a sign that the park’s plan had been revived and that their homes could be next. They feared that the long battle for East Jerusalem would enter a new phase.
“God gave us this land”
Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and claims “undivided Jerusalem” as its capital. Most countries consider East Jerusalem to be illegally occupied by Israel. The Palestinians are looking for part of the city for the capital of their hopeful independent state.
“God gave us this land, and who are we to give it to someone else? says Aryeh King, leader of the settler movement and deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He lives in Ma’ale HaZeitim, a guarded settlement in a Palestinian neighborhood near al-Bustan, which he can see from his balcony.
” The law is the law. Any illegal building must be demolished in Jerusalem, ”he said. “Yes, Bustan is going to be demolished for a park.”
King is eager to see the plans move forward. He wants more Israeli settlers to settle here. Settler groups claim to have the right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, as they did in ancient times and before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Settlers use archeology to make land claims
On a slope above al-Bustan, there is a popular tourist attraction called the City of David National Park, named after the biblical monarch who ruled about 3,000 years ago. One million visitors came in 2019, according to one of the site’s licensed tourist guides. Loud Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren invade the site during school trips.
Visitors walk through a chiseled limestone tunnel built over 3 millennia ago, leading to the Gihon underground spring that supplied water to ancient Jerusalem. Christians believe that Jesus healed a blind man here in the waters of the pool of Siloam.
The Ir David Foundation, also known by its Hebrew acronym ELAD, is a group of settlers who support the management of the tourist site and archaeological excavations in the City of David grounds – and encourage the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. .
Fatma Tanis / NPR
“The most important archaeological sites in the country are controlled by the settlers from Silwan,” says Seidemann, the lawyer for Jerusalem. He refers to ELAD’s support for tunneling under the City of David site and, he says, to eight active archaeological digs.
Seidemann is particularly critical of the Jardin du Roi project.
“Is it legal for the government of Israel to use all of its authority to take property away from an unlawful population, to hand it over to biblically motivated settlers in order to endow the Old City with a renewed biblical kingdom?” He asks rhetorically. “This is what is happening in the City of David – this is what is happening in Bustan.”
“Confrontations” and uncertainties
From her rooftop in al-Bustan, I’tidal Abu Diab – Fakhri Abu Diab’s sister-in-law – can see Israeli flags planted on the guarded compounds of settlers who have expanded their presence near her neighborhood.
“There are always confrontations in a negative way,” she says of her Jewish-Israeli neighbors.
She has lived here since 1985, when she came as a wife. Now a dozen family members all live together. She has lived in limbo since 2005, when the park plan was first announced.
His family received one of the last demolition notices. Israeli bulldozers could arrive at any time.
Is she afraid of losing her house?
Her soft, round face creases and her eyes swell.
“It’s a very painful thing for me to imagine,” she said.
She swears to live in the rubble if the bulldozers arrive.
“I’m always nervous around kids. It totally changed me. I didn’t gain peace of mind for a second,” she said, her words dripping with tears.