(JTA) — Jewish and Arab residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan disagree on whether the neighborhood is historically Jewish or Arab. They disagree about whether Israeli Jews should be living there. They even disagree on what to call one of the main streets in the neighborhood, a predominantly Arab area just outside the walls of the Old City.
The approximately 50,000 Arab-Israeli residents of Silwan call it Wadi Hilweh Street, after one of the neighborhood’s districts. The 700 or so Jewish residents call it Maalot Ir David Street, or “Ascent to the City of David Street,” after the adjacent archaeological site containing remains of King David’s Jerusalem.
The dispute over the street name is emblematic of tensions that have existed here since Jews first began acquiring property in the neighborhood more than 20 years ago. But they rose significantly last week after about 200 Jews moved into 25 apartments in Silwan in the middle of the night.
To some Silwan Arabs, the new arrivals are infiltrators who disturb the peace with private security guards and aim to deprive Silwan of its Arab-Israeli character. The Jewish residents see the the neighborhood as a historically Jewish area and see no reason why Jews should be restricted from living there.
“We’re talking about an area that has tremendous significance to billions of people all over the world,” said Zeev Orenstein, the director of international affairs for Elad, the Israeli NGO responsible for much of Silwan’s Jewish population growth. “It’s a place of identity, of meaning, of faith. For that reason, I would expect people to say it’s natural, in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, that if a person wants to live in this area and has the means to legally purchase a property, that’s something that should be respected.”
Elad runs the City of David archaeological park, which exhibits the remains of King David’s palace, as well as an underground tunnel once used to transport water. These attractions draw about a half-million visitors a year to Silwan.
Since 1991, the organization has purchased or built residential units for hundreds of Jews in Silwan. Elad is also hoping to build a multi-story visitors center on the site of a parking lot purchased a decade ago from Arab-Israelis. After the purchase, archaeologists discovered millennia-old archaeological remains there.
Orenstein said Jews and Arabs mostly coexist peacefully in Silwan. Hebrew and Arabic conversation can be heard from the windows of adjacent apartments in a quiet section of the neighborhood that intersects with the archaeological park.
But signs of tension aren’t hard to find. Streets are dotted with security cameras and a private security company, paid for by Israel’s Housing Ministry, conducts patrols. An Israeli-owned parking lot owned by is shut off behind a metal barricade. One Jewish resident told JTA that the City of David’s management instructed residents not to speak to the press.
“I feel like a stranger here,” said Ahmed Karain, a convenience-store owner whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations. “What do we have? What services do we get? The city abandons us.”
The Jewish population growth in Silwan is part of a larger Jewish expansion in eastern Jerusalem. Last week, a project to build more than 2,000 housing units in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood was sharply condemned by the United States and the European Union, both of which described the move as harmful to peace prospects.
“They’re looking to enhance Israeli control of this area,” said Yehudit Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for Arab Jerusalemites. “They are using archaeology for this. Through their activities they want to change the character of Silwan and to prevent a diplomatic solution regarding Jerusalem.”
Orenstein said Elad was not involved in the purchase of the most recent 25 apartments, which were bought by a company called Kendall Finance. Elad only advised Kendall on how best to move tenants into the apartments, Orenstein said, and suggested that residents move in the middle of the night because the move could provoke altercations with local Arab-Israelis.
Arab residents have contested the legality of some of the sales, and a 2009 report by Ir Amim, citing court documents, alleged that Elad acquired property in Silwan that was declared absentee property based on false depositions. Orenstein said Elad “works with the full accordance of the law.”
“We look forward to the day where you can move into the apartment you purchased in the middle of the day,” Orenstein said. “Right now, unfortunately, there are extremists who seek to make an issue of Arabs and Jews living together.”