SILWAN, East Jerusalem — Elias Karaki awoke at 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning to a loud banging noise coming from the house next door, formerly owned by his son Nabil.
“I saw settlers go into the house, and asked one of them what he was doing. He said, ‘This is my house,'” Karaki recalled. “We argued with them and my son scuffled with the police, but it was all in vain. My son still has furniture inside.”
Three months earlier, Nabil had sold the house to an Arab Israeli named Farid Hajj Yahya, whom he met outside the Islamic Endowments office on the Temple Mount. Hajj Yahya — who was distributing food to worshipers breaking their fast on Ramadan — claimed to be working with the Islamic Movement in Israel, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah.
Hajj Yahya apparently sold the house to the City of David Foundation, better known by its Hebrew acronym Elad, which has been purchasing houses in the Arab neighborhood and inhabiting them with Jewish families since its establishment 25 years ago. Before the new purchases, some 500 Jews were living in Silwan.
“They don’t want to leave any Arabs in Silwan, or in all of Jerusalem, for that matter,” Karaki said.
But Doron Spielman, Vice President of Elad, said the vision of his organization was the exact opposite.
“From its inception, our organization has always understood that the success of the City of David is tied to the success of both Arabs and Jews,” he told The Times of Israel. Elad currently employs “dozens of Arabs,” and local residents have benefited from the roads and street lighting introduced to the neighborhood.
“I’m very proud to say that in general, the relations between Jews and Arabs in Silwan are friendly, neighborly relations,” he added. “People say hello, people say Salam Aleikum.”
Spielman added that local Palestinian residents may be scared to publicly admit cordial relations with Jews for fear of reprisal, but those exist, despite “exceptions to the rule.”
In addition to acquiring houses for Jews in the neighborhood — located just meters south of the Temple Mount — Elad manages the archaeological dig in the City of David National Park, on the site believed to be the original nucleus of Jerusalem constructed by King David some 3,000 years ago.
Karaki’s story is not unique. It repeated itself with minor variations all across Silwan that night, when 25 apartments were occupied by Jews in seven residential buildings. One local resident overheard Israeli security guards saying that dozens of additional Arab houses purchased secretly in Silwan will be inhabited after the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur on Saturday.
The windows of the recently-sold Karaki home were covered with wire netting to prevent Molotov cocktails or stones from being thrown inside by angry Palestinians. In the dusty courtyard outside, a security guard in plain clothes armed with a handgun was smoking a cigarette and chatting with five or six bored-looking special forces policemen carrying assault rifles.
Young Israeli men entered the home with large backpacks, clearly prepared for a long stay. They refused to speak to The Times of Israel, their supervisor saying only: “Look, we’re just pawns here.”
As dozens of packaged sandwiches were being unloaded from an Israeli van and delivered to the newly inhabited homes, a bearded newcomer was being told he could leave the compound whenever he wanted to buy Coke or cigarettes in the local grocery stores. “But you must leave in pairs; don’t dare go out alone.”
The youngsters were responding to advertisements published recently by Elad on social media — and exposed by Haaretz daily on Wednesday — offering 500 shekels a day ($137) to armed combat unit veterans willing to inhabit the houses for a minimum of 10 days, until the Jewish families arrive.
Spielman of Elad said the heightened security was there to serve Arabs as well as Jews.
“For Arabs, it’s one of the safest places in the area. Security is also there to keep crime away.”
The expanding Jewish presence in Silwan — as well as the Israeli intention to build thousands of new homes for Jews and Arabs in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in southern Jerusalem — was harshly criticized by the US State Department and the White House following a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama on Wednesday. The European Union joined the American condemnation on Friday.
Netanyahu brushed off the criticism, saying it would be unjust to bar “individual Jews who bought an apartment in Arab neighborhoods,” while Arabs were allowed to freely inhabit the Jewish west.
But as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett admitted in a video uploaded by his office to YouTube on Tuesday, far from an initiative of individuals, Elad’s drive is a collaborative effort of historic proportions, a bid to return the City of David to Jewish hands.
“Around 25 years ago, a wonderful group decided that the City of David must be returned to Jewish hands. Slowly, very patiently, they purchased houses at full price and started inhabiting them with Jewish families,” Bennett said in the video filmed that night in Silwan. “Over a few years, transactions were carried out quietly, and in one night they inhabited many dozens of homes and almost doubled the number of Jewish families here in the City of David.” Bennett added that the City of David now has “an Israeli majority,” which means that “it will remain forever under Israeli control.
“This is a historic event which we’re very happy about,” he concluded.
Yehudit Oppenheimer, executive director of Israeli NGO Ir Amim, which “seeks to make Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for Israelis and Palestinians,” said that whether or not the Silwan transactions were legal, the government has a responsibility to discourage them in order to prevent escalating friction between the city’s national groups.
“It’s not that the settlers are dragging the government by the nose. The government collaborates with them in implementing policy,” she told The Times of Israel.
Even without preventing the purchase of private homes, Oppenheimer said, the government could stop funding private security for the Jewish compounds from the budget of the Housing Ministry, estimated at hundreds of millions of shekels a year, and could equitably enforce building violations in a neighborhood where virtually all houses are constructed without permits.
“Some of the properties inhabited by the settlers were given to them by the state’s Administrator General, which they lease for next to nothing,” she noted. “All the development plans in the area refer only to projects of settler groups. What more evidence do you need?”
To that argument, Spielman retorted that “Jews are absolutely allowed to buy property in that area of Jerusalem. It’s our legally guaranteed right by the State of Israel.”
The story of Silwan’s demographic change is less one of fraudulent sales than of an underprivileged, conflicted Palestinian community selling off its property to the highest bidder, even if his identity is questionable.
“I blame the PA, Mahmoud Abbas,” said Muhammad Shehadeh, 23, whose neighbor sold his house to Elad some eight years ago. The house, now boasting a large Israeli flag, is equipped with three surveillance cameras and a bulletproof guard room on the roof. “Abbas is in America selling us out here in Jerusalem, saying Ramallah is Palestine.”
“We’re angry, but what can we do? No one helps us,” he added.
To understand how convoluted the circumstances of the Silwan transactions typically are, consider the case of the Sarhan family. Three years ago, Nasser Sarhan sold an apartment in his four-story family house to a man from Ramallah, Wa’el Abu-Sbeih. But a feud broke out early last year, and Sarhan shot at Abu-Sbeih; now he is serving a three-year prison sentence in Israel. Early Tuesday morning, when Israeli security guards entered the second-floor apartment with a key, Sarhan’s son Anas realized that Abu-Sbeih had sold the house to Jews, in order to spite his father.
“They decided to sell the house to anyone but us,” Anas Sarhan told The Times of Israel, standing outside the apartment’s front door, burnt down by local Palestinian children after the Israelis entered, but promptly replaced with a temporary metal one.
Anas and his brother filed a complaint against their father with the PA’s Preventive Security Services in Ramallah, claiming he had no right to sell the apartment to anyone outside the family in the first place.
“[My father] says he sold the apartment to someone from the north, not to the Jews. See? Everyone throws responsibility onto the next guy. It’s one big scam involving all of them.”
Ahmad Qara’in, a local activist, predicted a bleak future for Silwan if Jews continued “taking over” Palestinian apartments.
“Over the past two days, the neighborhood has become a military compound,” he said. “These people didn’t come here to make peace with us. They have a goal: Within 10-20 years, they want to empty the area of Arabs and turn it into a Jewish area.”
Qara’in said the Palestinian house vendors were “mentally ill,” but admitted that in fact they were tantalized by the exorbitant sums offered to them by Arab agents of Elad and similar Jewish foundations such as Ateret Kohanim, active in Silwan.
“It’s an area where a square meter isn’t worth a shekel. If someone comes and offers you a million, you must suspect something’s fishy.”
Palestinians who sell their homes to Jews later regret it, because their conscience bothers them and since the sale itself is “un-Islamic,” continued Qara’in. Meanwhile, the Jewish residents of Silwan live in perpetual fear as a result of their dishonest conduct in acquiring the homes.
“Their life isn’t worth living. Who can live with a security guard next to them 24 hours a day? If he goes to work, he needs a guard. If he takes his kids to school, he needs a guard. If he wants to go shopping, he needs a guard. They claim to live in freedom, but they’re living in a prison because they know the land isn’t theirs. The land speaks Arabic.”
Spielman, clearly, sees things differently.
“The City of David is the oldest archaeological site of ancient Jerusalem. It’s the place where the bible was written. For someone to be able to wake up in the morning and walk on the same pathways that the kings and prophets once walked on — and that are being excavated in the modern day — it gives meaning to the return of the Jewish people to the State of Israel.”