From just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the simple stone and cinder-block homes of Silwan cascade southwards into a valley known as the Holy Basin.
The Palestinian residents are used to living in the shadow of history and religion, given dramatic physical form as the great silver dome of the al Aqsa mosque and the looming presence of the Mount of Olives. But of late, history has become a curse for most of Silwan’s residents.
“We have cameras everywhere watching us night and day,” said Jawad Siyam, 39. “Armed Israeli guards wander through our alleys. Our open areas, the places where I played as a child, have become no-go zones.”
The reason is the growing number of settlers who have moved into Silwan since the early 1990s claiming a biblical right to the land. At least 50 Jewish families, comprising 250 people, have taken over Palestinian homes dotted across Silwan and turned them into secure compounds over which Israeli flags flutter.
Similar takeovers are occurring out of sight in other Palestinian areas of occupied East Jerusalem. The settler organisations, backed by private donors from abroad, hope to make a peace agreement impossible and so ensure East Jerusalem never becomes the capital of a Palestinian state.
But only in Silwan have the settlers defied the law so publicly, openly recruiting an array of official Israeli bodies, from the Antiquities Authority to the Jerusalem municipality.
Silwan’s takeover is being masterminded by a shadowy organisation known as Elad, which unusually has been preferred over the Nature and Parks Authority to run an important archaeological site in the village centre.
With funding provided by secretive backers in Russia and the United States, Elad has transformed Silwan into the “City of David”. Even the signposts in the area are oblivious to the existence of the Palestinian village and its tens of thousands of residents.
The heart of the City of David is an archaeological park that is being relentlessly extended into ever more corners of Silwan.
“The settlers began by taking over homes around the site,” said Mr Siyam, whose grandmother’s home was one of the first to be seized in 1994 after her death. “Then they were given the main excavation site, and built new homes in the park. And now they are finding new sites, fencing off more land and digging under our houses.”
Many homes in Mr Siyam’s neighbourhood have developed cracks in the walls, he said, after excavations began last year to unearth a drainage channel believed to be from the period of King Herod. Residents fear their foundations have been damaged.
The dig was intended to run 600 metres underground to the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, but was halted by the courts in February after it emerged that the archaeologists were digging without licences. Nonetheless, Elad has recently begun work on other tunnels.
The organisation’s main focus is the City of David site itself, over which it was given control in 1998 in a dubious deal with the Parks Authority and Jerusalem municipality.
Elad has poured money into excavating the area and subcontracted Israel’s main archaeological body, the Antiquities Authority, to oversee the uncovering of what appears to be the original location of Jerusalem.
“This is an important site, but Elad has a very clear agenda,” said Yonathan Mizrachi, a former archaeologist for the Antiquities Authority. “They want to use archaeology, even bogus archaeology, to provide cover for their political agenda of pushing Silwan’s Palestinians out.
“What is so disturbing is that they seem to be setting the agenda of the Antiquities Authority, too.”
Mr Mizrachi and two other archaeologists have been leading alternative tours of the City of David since January in a bid to challenge Elad’s claims that it has unearthed the 3,000-year-old palace of King David, thereby making Silwan the capital of an ancient Israelite kingdom.
But the dissident archaeologists face a Herculean task. Last year, 350,000 tourists were led around the site by Elad guides. The intermittent alternative tours are lucky to muster a dozen visitors.
“If Elad can convince people that this was once the home of King David, then it will be easier for them to justify their takeover of Silwan and the removal of the Palestinian population,” Mr Mizrachi said.
The archaeologist in charge of the City of David excavations, Eilat Mazar, has ostensibly uncovered such evidence in the form of ancient stone walls she said belong to King David’s palace.
But Rafi Greenberg, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, who was among those excavating the site in the late 1970s, called the work being done under Elad’s supervision “bad science”.
Once his concerns were widely and publicly shared by archaeologists in Israel. In the mid-1990s Elad faced a legal battle over its damaging of ancient relics. In 1997 the Antiquities Authority cautioned against handing the park over to Elad. And in 1998 archeologists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem petitioned the Supreme Court over Elad’s mismanagement of the City of David site.
However, as Elad’s control of Silwan has tightened, and the City of David’s popularity has grown, the voices of dissent have fallen quiet. The budget-constrained Antiquities Authority needs Elad’s funding, and Israeli archaeologists, dependent on the Authority for work, dare not criticise its involvement with Elad openly.
When news emerged in June that, in what the Antiquities Authority later admitted was “a serious mishap”, dozens of skeletons from the early Islamic period unearthed in Silwan close to the al Aqsa mosque had been discarded without inspection, no archaeologist would speak on the record.
Instead, it has been left mainly to international scholars, including renowned historians and archaeologists, to launch a petition demanding that the site be removed from Elad’s control.
Mr Mizrachi said despite the City of David site being one of the most studied in Israel, no physical evidence shows that King David ever used the buildings. Little more can be deduced than that the remains date to the Canaanite period 3,000 years ago. “Even if we did find a Hebrew inscription saying ‘Welcome to King David’s palace’, that would not justify Elad’s political aims. The residents of Silwan and their ancestors have been living here for hundreds of years and their rights cannot be ignored. Every time a Christian site is found in Israel should the Vatican be given the land and Israelis evicted from their homes?”
Such arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
According to a series of reports in the local media, the government, state archeologists, the Jerusalem municipality and the police have all colluded with Elad and another settler organisation, Ateret Cohanim, in extending the settlers’ control of Silwan.
A series of court judgments going back more than a decade have found the settlers falsified documents to seize land and property from Palestinian families and that they built in contravention of local planning laws. The judgments have been ignored and the evictions gone unenforced by the police and the municipality. The Israeli government is also continuing to fund the security guards who keep watch over the illegal homes.
Last month, Yossi Havillo, Jerusalem’s legal adviser, pointed out that the municipality’s refusal to enforce a long-standing eviction order against eight families in a settlement known as Beit Yehonatan was likely to “arouse concern of discrimination and of the municipality’s implementation of demolition orders against Arabs, but not against Jews”.
He was referring in part to a decision in 2005, under pressure from Elad, to order the demolition of 88 Palestinian homes in the Bustan neighbourhood, just below Elad’s archaeological site. Uri Sheetrit, the city engineer, justified the demolitions on the grounds that the valley is liable to flooding. The orders were temporarily suspended under international pressure.
In contrast, the municipality is still assisting in the expansion of Silwan’s settlements. In May, it began approving a plan submitted by Elad for a new housing complex, synagogue, kindergarten, library and underground parking for 100 cars.
Councillors also backed the confiscation of land from nine private Palestinian owners to create a car park for the City of David. In July the courts overruled the decision.
In a familiar pattern, said Mr Siyam, the day the court ruling was issued, the police raided the homes of the Palestinians who had filed the petitions and arrested them. Similar arrests occurred earlier in the year when residents petitioned the courts to halt the excavations under their homes.
Meanwhile, Shuka Dorfman, the director of the Antiquities Authority, recently told reporters that he was against “bringing politics into archaeology”.