Friday, October 31, 2014

City of David - The Untold Story

Hamas and Fatah extremists are exasperated by a little-known island of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence • Jewish and Arab toddlers race each other in the streets, their parents engage in mutual support • Our weapon is peace, say City of David residents.

Photo Credit: Uri Lenz
Nadav Shragai..
Israel Hayom..
31 October '14..

"It's all a game," Hamas supporters said to me this week -- with a mixture of dismissal and a anger -- not far from the home of Abed al-Rahman Shaludi, the terrorist who rammed a car into a commuter-filled light rail station in Jerusalem last week. The Shaludi family lives deep in the heart of the village of Silwan.

Some of the Hamas supporters were wearing balaclavas. Some of them agreed to speak with me from behind the window of their home or their car, which was rolled down only slightly, because they knew I was a journalist. Nonetheless, instances of good neighborliness and coexistence between Jews and Arabs, which are becoming more and more frequent in the City of David (at the foot of the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem) in defiance of the wishes and machinations of the Hamas backers, prompted shouts of epithets and insults.

For years, the media narrative that has been disseminated about the City of David, speaks of a nationalist conflict, terrorist atrocities that were hatched here, stone-throwings, fire-bombings, fireworks, and, of course, the recent vehicular terrorist attack. But there is another narrative that has not been sufficiently highlighted.

Far from the media spotlight, in the area that lies between the Pool of Siloam and Dung Gate, just meters away from the entrance to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, at the foothills of Mount Zion slanting down in the direction of the City of David, there is an emerging civic fabric of coexistence, cooperation, and normalcy.

Nobody there bothers to conceal the state of religious and nationalist conflict. It's fact of life. Still, contrary to all predictions and media-fueled assumptions, the coexistence of the two communities' has diluted the conflict. It has even brought to the conflict a humanizing level, whereby both Jews and Arabs learn to recognize one another as people.

How else could one interpret the recent toddler race -- in which Jews and Arabs both participated -- near the Oz complex? What other conclusion could one reach when seeing an invitation to a wedding, written in Arabic letters, that hangs on the refrigerator in the home of one of the Jewish families in the City of David? How else could one call the joint construction of sukkah huts by both Jews and Arabs on the eve of Sukkot?

How does one explain the cooperation -- also not seen in public -- between Jews and Arabs on everyday matters like negotiating the municipal bureaucracy to ensure water supply or the paving of walkways? How does one explain the Jews buying produce at Arab-owned shops and vice versa, the expressions of Arab joy at the sight of a newlywed Jewish bride, and the mutual bereavement visits and condolences during times of mourning? What about the expressions of Jewish anger over the municipality's chronic neglect of services and infrastructure for "our Arab neighbors"?

The Jews who came to live in the City of David arrived there fueled by ideology. Their intent was to reconnect to tradition and "to the place where it all started." They were also there to "prevent the partition of Jerusalem."

They say these things openly, but another element has been created as well. While there has been an escalation in tensions on the security front, there has also been more dialogue, more quiet points of agreement, and a joint effort to fight off the threats and violence being committed by Fatah, Hamas, and the Islamic Movement, all of whom are competing with one another.

There are close to 70 Jewish families living in City of David. The first families arrived in 1989. Three weeks ago, the purchase of six complexes was finalized. Now there are 25 apartments currently in the midst of being inhabited. Elad, which is also known as Ir David Foundation, is behind the purchases and the drive to populate the area with more Jews. The company formally executing the transaction, however, is Kendall Finance.

The first people to sell their homes usually sold them to straw companies, or Arab-Israelis, and they sold it to other people until finally the homes ended up in Jewish hands. That is how it works here.

When this strategic settlement plan is completed, and all 25 apartments are inhabited, Jews will number a third of the population on this historic hill (which is not the Yemenite village that is on another ridge altogether).

These are the straight facts that are being used by each side in the nationalist debate over Jerusalem. There are people who learned to argue this debate but also to live together, sometimes closer together than other Jews in different parts of the country. The Jews here speak about this openly, without identifying their neighbors. The Arabs, meanwhile, agree to talk only on condition of anonymity. It is easy to understand why.

Bassam was once an employee in the archaeological excavation team that was subsidized by the Ir David Foundation in the City of David. The project, which was undertaken in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority as well as other academic bodies, yielded countless discoveries, many of them quite historic.

"One day," he says, "some people knocked on my door. In Silwan, everybody knows everyone else. They told me that a new edict has been handed down forbidding us to work for the Jews. The next day, somebody slashed my tires. The hint was quite unsubtle. Within a few weeks, all 70 workers in the excavation team quit. We knew we would get hurt if we didn't obey."

"The State of Israel has neglected us for years, and it is still neglecting us," Bassam said. "The Jewish residents have brought here more job opportunities, development, and progress. On a personal level, I hope everyone has neighbors like these, but if you print my name, my wife will be a widow tomorrow and my children will be orphans. There have been people here killed because they were suspected of collaborating [with Jews]."

Y., a Silwan resident from one of the local clans, has nothing but praise for his Jewish neighbors.

"On a personal level, we are friends," he said. "I've driven Jewish women who were about to give birth to the hospital on Shabbat, and they helped me sort out matters with the National Insurance Institute and the water company, and they also helped me find a good doctor for my children. If they would ask me, I would never expect people to come live here. There are people from Hamas and the Islamic Movement in our village, and [Jews moving here] drives them batty. They will never agree to this, but life is stronger even than they are."

How do Jews persuade Arabs to sell their homes in the City of David? I ask Y.

"I'll tell you one thing," Y. says, making a facial expressing that connotes discomfort. "You can't force anyone to sell their home, and violence is not something that is on the Jews' agenda here. I can argue with them until tomorrow, but they are people. It's not like in Hebron."

"The Jewish woman from hell"

Many terror cells originated in Silwan and carried out attacks against Jews throughout Jerusalem and the rest of the State of Israel. There are also a number of Silwan residents who have cooperated with the Israeli authorities, acting as informants. Now, there are 600 Jewish residents "who wield the weapon of peace," according to one of the leaders of the settlement movement here.

Another Silwan resident, Rabbi Daoel (Doly) Basuk, a father of six children and a lifelong educator, has for years served as the chairman of the settlement committee of the City David. For the first time, he speaks publicly about the profile and makeup of the residents here.

"You won't have guys who are adherents of Kahane," he said. "Our attitude toward the Arabs here is 'respect him and suspect him,' with a very special emphasis on the former. There is no one here in our community who hates Arabs, and as someone who for 16 years has headed the settlement committee here, I can say to you that this is not a coincidence. People who are bothered by the presence of Arab neighbors will not live here."

Even the professional backgrounds of some of the residents here amplify that sentiment. There are three doctors, three engineers, two architects, two businessmen, two economists, four jurists, three senior IDF officers, two school principals, a physicist, four nurses, four social workers, four university lecturers, a journalist, six rabbis, and five tour guides living in the City of David.

Binyamin Tropper, a guide from the Kfar Etzion Field School who was one of the volunteers on the team that discovered the bodies of the three kidnapped teenagers three months ago, is also one of the residents of the City of David. Tropper, the son of Danny Tropper, the founder of Gesher, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting dialogue within the Jewish community, is married to Shoshi, who teaches history and Jewish thought at the secular Boyer School as well as karate in a martial arts center. They've been living in the City of David for eight years, at first moving into the Oz complex. Now they live in "Zechariah."

The Troppers learned to speak Arabic after moving into the neighborhood. The language helps them communicate with the locals.

"A few days ago, after we moved into 'Zechariah,' the women neighbors began a get-to-know conversation with me," said Shoshi Tropper. "They then ended the conversation after a young Arab man yelled at them: 'Why are you talking to this Jewish woman? She is from hell.'"

Tropper says that the Arab residents of the City of David-Silwan are not violent.

"What brings the violence out of them is the activities of the Jewish 'peace' movements," she says. "That may not be their intention, but on a number of occasions when they come 'war' breaks out."

Binyamin and Shoshi wander around the alleyways of Silwan and the City of David without any security escort. A number of other Jewish residents do the same, but not everybody. They go shopping in the market, attend festive events and parties thrown by the neighbors, offer their condolences to those in mourning.

They have come into contact with their Arab neighbors so often that they have experienced absurd things, like one of their neighbors giving their son a unique present -- a shofar made of a cow's horn (which is not kosher according to Jewish law). Another neighbor asked them to help him obtain a firearms license so that he could protect himself.

The Troppers have met on more than one occasion with their political and ideological opponents, like Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher for Ir Amim, an NGO that works to promote the partition of the capital. Binyamin met Tatarsky in the framework of cooperative activity between Palestinians and the Kfar Etzion Field School to protest the erection of the security barrier in the area of al-Walaja, a Palestinian village south of Jerusalem. After the event, Tatarsky came over to their house, where they talked. Tatarsky refused our request to share his impressions of these conversations. The Troppers were happy to engage him.

"There is no provocation"

The Halamish family, led by Rabbi Chen Halamish and his wife, Efrat, is one of the original families to settle in the City of David. On numerous occasions, they also engage groups from all sectors of the population in the same kind of conversation that the Troppers invite. The Halamishes first came to the City of David 23 years ago with their infant daughter, Reishit, who was just 1.5 years old. Today, as a family with many children, they live in a historic home which was built by a distinguished Jerusalem family in 1873. Their apartment is near an excavation site that was revealed to hold a number of findings from the Second Temple period as well as evidence of a Jewish presence that extends to centuries ago.

The Halamishes are educators by trade. Efrat is an educational consultant and adviser as well as a hostess for groups that mix business with ideology. Rabbi Chen is the head of a kollel (a Jewish seminary for married men and women). While in most parts of the City of David are relatively quiet, not so near their home, which has been the frequent target of firebombs and stones. One of the neighbors, Amos Cohen, was injured here a few weeks ago by a Molotov cocktail that hit him square in the face.

The Halamish family, like most families that live here, is convinced that the archaeological venture underway in the City of David has lasted as long as it has and made the progress it has made thanks to the Jews who have moved into the area. They are also filled with a sense of missionary fervor.

"Once, one of the battalion commanders who visited us in our home told me that in the City of David, there's something that is resowing the seeds and creating a bridge between our generation of doers and the last time we were here thousands of years ago," Rabbi Chen Halamish says. "It's powerful and magnetic. Many people -- leaders, judges, IDF commanders -- are either covertly or overtly connected to this place and they come back for frequent visits here because this is the source of our existence. Here we get first-hand proof that the Bible wasn't just a collection of fairy tales. History peers out from every crevice and every dig and tunnel. This is our formative story. It happened. We were here before."

From the backyard of her home, Efrat Halamish points toward the other side of Silwan, the area near the Yemenite village, whose residents were evicted in the 1930s. Now, Jews are returning.

"It has been 80 years since that trauma, and thousands of Palestinians have taken up residence there, but this really didn't make us happy," she says. "It's no accident that in 1882, without any technological connection between them, the Jews of Yemen rose up, came to the Pool of Siloam as did the pioneers from Ukraine who founded Bilu. That is the spirit of the nation which ties into this place, which is the foundation and cornerstone of our existence here in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel."

Reishit, who was just over a year old when she and her parents moved to the City of David 23 years ago, is today a nurse at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. She is married to Moshe, a law student, with whom she has two children. Until a few days ago, the family moved to an apartment in the same area. Reishit also remembers a childhood that was devoid of hostility and tension. Instead, it was a life of normalcy and coexistence.

"My impression, which is based on a familiarity with the residents, is that most of the Arab families here are happy that we are here," she said. "There is dialogue. There's communication. There's a helping of one another. As a nurse, I treat Jews and Arabs. On numerous occasions, I've gotten the chance to help residents of the village who came to the hospital. There's no provocation here."

"When in Arab in Jerusalem lives in a Jewish neighborhood, that's democracy, but when a Jew returns to a place like the City of David, where there are Muslims living, that's a provocation?" she said. "Things here are done legally, with consent of the families that sold us the apartments."

Yehuda Mali is the founding director of the City of David.

"Provocation?" he asks. "I meet often with people who support us and say that in exchange for peace they are willing to make a historic compromise, even in Jerusalem, but when it comes to the historic heart of Jerusalem, which is the City of David, the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount, the Jewish Quarter, and the Western Wall, there is wide agreement that under any scenario these places remain in our hands."

"The recent wave of violence began before Jews entered the new apartments," he said. "There's no basis whatsoever to the claim that this is somehow connected."

The consensus view that Mali speaks of is no figment of his imagination. The Jewish settlement in the City of David, which is headed by David Bari, and the archaeological venture that has been ongoing for a few years now and has been subsidized heavily by the Ir David Foundation, are backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

The relationship between the foundation and the police is also excellent. Basuk and Mali say the Jews in the City of David are "super-statesmanlike." The recent move-in by Jews into the area was entirely coordinated and approved by the police.

The Ir David Foundation Council also includes figures who are known for their avowed centrist and leftist views. The chairman of the council is author Elie Wiesel, who recently said that on his visits to Jerusalem on Tisha B'av, he visits Yad Vashem in the morning and the City of David in the afternoon. It is a symbolic route that for Wiesel symbolizes resurrection and rebirth.

With the entry of six Jewish families into apartments this past Sukkot, the council issued a statement praising the families for strengthening the Jewish presence in the area and bolstering "a Zionist enterprise that is more interested in deeds." The notice was signed by Wiesel, the former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, former police chief Shlomo Aharonishki, the former Hadassah Hospital chief Shlomo Mor-Yosef, and two retired judges -- Zvi Tal and Ya'akov Bazak. Singer and actor Yehoram Gaon and two former directors-general of the Jerusalem municipality and the Prime Minister's Office also signed the letter.

Another prominent supporter and friend is Elazar Stern, a lawmaker from Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party.

"You can write that I support a Palestinian state," he said. "But in any future agreement, the City of David, unlike other areas that for whatever reason are called Jerusalem, will be a place that Jews will be able to live in forever. When I was in the IDF, I worked to bring thousands of soldiers there. I placed mezuzot on doorways in homes of families who lived there. I know many of the people there. It's not provocation. It's Zionism."

A controversial visit

Even elements of the radical Left, which is ideologically opposed to Jewish settlement in the City of David, have at times met and maintained either informal or professional contacts with its inhabitants. The story of Yehotal Shapira, a member of Bimkom, an organization that is deeply entrenched on the left wing of the political spectrum and which acts to improve the lot of the Arabs of east Jerusalem, further clarifies the point.

Shapira, who came to the home of Chen and Efrat Halamish in a professional capacity (she was working on a doctorate under the supervision of Professor Rachel Kalush of the Technion Institute), was researching architecture of homes that were being built and designed by right-wing NGO and settlers in conflict zones. Very quickly, there was a greater professional and ideological give-and-take as well as a higher level of intimacy and mutual admiration that began to take shape.

"My friends thought I was insane," Shapira said. "They thought I was going to get myself killed. The Halamishes were also somewhat suspicious. After all, they knew my views. But a dialogue was started. They are very impressive people, very respectful. I spent most of the time talking with Efrat, who is raising eight children in such a complex environment."

"I came there with preconceived notions of a demonic people," she said. "I had a lot of prejudices. My closest friends, whom I told that I was going there, reacted very negatively, but meeting [the people in the City of David] challenged me and challenged the way that we, the Left, look at Jewish settlement in the land of Israel."

"I think that it's important to continue this dialogue," she said. "Not only for us, but also for them. This familiarity with one another is vital, and it will bring all of us to a better place. I'm originally from Tel Aviv, and I found that they are much more like Tel Avivans than people in Tel Aviv know. The meeting with them certainly challenged stigmas and prejudices that I had, even though it did not change my opinions."

Yehuda Mali also says that war breaks out in the area only after peace organizations show up to the City of David. The Jews in the neighborhood and some of the Arabs there agree. "Let us handle things on our own," says Bassam.

Another Arab neighbor who refused to give his name recalls stories told to him by his father, who lived in the Old City during the days before Israel's independence. It was an unstable period, although then, too, there was good neighborly relations and coexistence.

Efrat Bezek, who recently moved with her husband Bezalel and their five children into the City of David, also has fond memories.

"The neighbors are a part of the landscape with which we have managed quite well," she said. "Sometimes relations are closer, and sometimes it's just a simple 'Hello' on the street."

"It's a tremendous privilege to live so close to the divine spirit, next to the Temple Mount," she said. "Generations have dreamed of earning such a privilege, and my children are born into this reality. From my vantage point, this is the realization of a prophecy, the prophecy of Zechariah, who spoke of the streets of the city as being filled with children playing."

"Provocation?" she asks. "Nobody here has done anything bad to provoke anybody."

Binyamin Tropper also talks about Jewish roots and how settlement has become a political tool.

"Obviously we are opposed to the partition of Jerusalem as outlined in the Clinton proposals," he said. "We are not embarrassed to admit this. If our living here will contribute to preventing this partition, or at least preventing the City of David from being relinquished as part of some plan, then we did what we had to do."

The Jews of the City of David are careful not to harm policemen or to criticize them, but they say that the police feel they have no support and that their hands are tied. Tropper says that during Aharon Franco's tenure as police chief in Jerusalem, there was heavy rioting by Arabs in the nearby area of Ben-Hinnom Valley.

"Stones were being thrown almost every day," he said.

Franco's successor, Niso Shaham, restored quiet within two weeks. Now, Shaham, who was forced to resign after he was accused of sexual assault, is gone, and the troubles have started again.

"If they made it quiet here once before, it's a sign that it's possible," Tropper says.

The present-day reality in the City of David is also impacted by other factors. There is the tension surrounding Temple Mount; the renewed settlement drive in the Yemenite village nearby, an initiative which the people of the City of David support; the obstacles being raised by left-wing groups and the Islamic Movement which are delaying the municipality's plans to rebuild the Gan Hamelech area, which include the razing of illegal structures and the development of the region into a tourist attraction and a commercial and residential sector for the Arab population; and the inferno that is gripping Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, unlike during the Second Intifada, tourists and visitors come to the City of David, an area that has become a mixed Jewish-Arab residential region, in droves. Both ethnic groups have managed to find the formula for coexistence even in the shadow of religious and nationalist strife.


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