Neighbors in Jerusalem grow close only in hatred

December 19, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, every newcomer is furnishing his house in much the same way. An Israeli flag goes on the roof. Walkie-talkies go into the living room. Israeli soldiers establish a small camp in sight of the front door.

"It's beautiful," said Tehiya Azao, one of the two dozen Jewish settlers who have moved into Silwan since October, the beginning of a forced experiment in coexistence with Silwan's 15,000 Palestinians. "It's better than we expected. We have everything we need."

For Jewish settlers, Silwan is beginning to look like home. For Palestinians, the area is beginning to look like a lost cause. As for the experiment in living as neighbors, the outcome is that each side heartily despises the other. Prejudices that used to be kept quiet are now readily proclaimed.

"If I live here, and my neighbor is a settler, nothing is going to go right," said Mohammed Sumarian, who was awakened one morning last week by the sound of settlers tossing out furniture ++ and food from a shed he believes to be his own.

The shed and an adjoining yard were separated from Mr. Sumarian's house by several coils of barbed concertina wire and a half-dozen soldiers. They were amusing themselves yesterday with a bow and arrow while Mr. Sumarian drank a cup of coffee and watched.

He expects little help from Israeli courts, where several challenges are pending against the settlers. "A Jew is a Jew," he said with matter-of-fact disdain: "The settler is a Jew. The soldier is a Jew. The judge is a Jew."

The settlers display about the same level of intolerance. "Arabs have to know that Israel controls the law," said Shimron Zered, who comes daily from his religious school to act as a guard and general helper in the new community. "Anybody can live here, but you have to know who is in charge."

Events in Silwan have served as a sort of running commentary on the formal peace talks between Israel and a delegation of Palestinians.

Their negotiations ended yesterday in Washington with the parties bogged down in disputes over procedures, and apparently without any agreement on exactly where or when their sessions will resume.

When the first settlers arrived, leaders of Israel's extreme right heralded them as a tool for preventing negotiations from ever beginning. The hope of the right was that Palestinians would demand that the settlers leave as a condition for holding talks and that the condition would never be met.

The peace negotiations began a few weeks later in Madrid. After a break, they reconvened in Washington. And then more settlers arrived, taking over another five houses last week and contesting the ownership of a sixth.

Palestinian leaders interpreted that action as a provocation intended to bring a violent response. Leaders pleaded with Silwan residents to remain calm, in order to preserve the authority of Palestinians favoring negotiations.

Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's mayor, has sympathized with the Palestinians. "We are driving the Arabs here crazy and forcing them to hate us," he told an Israeli interviewer. "I am in despair."

By ordinary measures, Silwan would seem an unattractive place for anyone. It looks to be 50 years behind the rest of the East Jerusalem, the Arab half of the city captured by Israel in 1967 and later annexed. It has more donkeys and chickens than cars, more unpaved lanes than streets.

Silwan has a precarious hold along the sides of a steep hill beneath the walled Old City and within sight of the Judean Desert. Houses are generally small and dilapidated.

For about a thousand years, until early this century, the residents of the Old City used Silwan as a garbage dump. Its only wealth is history, and history is the cause of its current problems. It has too much importance to too many people.

Silwan includes the site of the city built by David, the Old Testament king of Israel. It also has a spring-fed pool where the New Testament says that Jesus restored a blind man's sight. And visible from almost anywhere in the neighborhood is the black dome of Al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

For nationalistic Israelis with a religious bent, the area is properly called the City of David, not Silwan. "If you understand this is the City of David, you understand why we go to the trouble of being here," said Mr. Zered, monitoring a bank of phones in one of the houses taken over by the settlers. "This is King David's land."

No one seems to believe that the settlers will leave. An Israeli court has ruled that some of the houses were properly purchased by a private company called El Ad, a name which in Hebrew is the abbreviation for "City of David."

Yigal Kannan, a spokesman for El Ad, says that the company is already negotiating for the purchase of at least a dozen more houses.

"I don't know if the Arabs like us very much, but this is reality," said Mr. Kannan.

:. "Whether they like us or not, we're here."

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