The Silwan riots and 'peace negotiations'

On September 23, Samir Shirhan, a 34-year-old Palestinian father of five, was shot dead by an Israeli private security guard paid by the Israeli government to protect illegal settlers attempting to colonise the Silwan neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

In the days following the shooting, East Jerusalem erupted in demonstrations and riots, sparking claims that a third intifada was in the making. More than 1000 East Jerusalem Palestinians participated in Shirhan’s funeral and protested his murder. In the hours following the funeral, rioting broke out, cars and buses being burned. In response, the Israeli state entered the Harem al Sharif (Temple Mount), attacking demonstrators.

The murder of Shirhan occurred as US President Barack Obama and his administration were trying once again to resuscitate the failed “peace negotiations”. Direct negotiations resumed on September 22, but stalled almost immediately, with Israel demanding that the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” and refusing to implement a freeze on illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank and occupied Jerusalem.

End of fake ‘freeze’

On September 26, Israel’s 10-month “temporary freeze” on settlement building ended. However, as a range of Israeli and international human rights groups have noted, the supposed freeze was a sham. According to a Settlement Watch report published in February by the Israeli Peace Now group, there have been repeated violations of the freeze. The report noted, “Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai admitted that 29 settlements breached the settlement freeze order”. At the time, Peace Now noted that it had recorded at least another five settlements carrying out construction work. Peace Now, as well as international human rights organisations such as the International Women’s Peace Service, which is located in the occupied territories, also noted that much of the illegal settlement activity was carried out under cover of darkness.

Since the shooting of Shirhan, Israeli police have actively taken the side of the settler guard, who claimed he had stopped at a local petrol station and was attacked by Palestinians throwing rocks. However, other Palestinians who were present when Shirhan was shot have claimed that Shirhan was simply returning home from work and the settler guard blocked his path; an argument broke out, which resulted in the security guard shooting him. According to a report on the shooting in Haaretz on September 24, Palestinian witnesses who arrived at the scene of the shooting stated that there were “no stones or other objects in the street after the shooting” and that “there was no other evidence stones had been thrown at the guard”.According to Israeli activist Daniel Dukarevich on the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity website, “From the moment that the murder took place the Jerusalem Police started a comprehensive operation to silence the matter. Large police forces surrounded the event site and prevented people from getting near. When it became known that a man was shot in Silwan, the police spokesperson stated that it was the result of a dispute between clans. This announcement was made hours after police forces were at the site and had already questioned the security guard”.

The partisan approach of the Israeli police is unsurprising given their past record of refusing to enforce Israeli court decisions for the eviction of illegal settlers in the neighbourhood, while pro-actively policing and evicting Palestinians from their homes to make way for illegal Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, another Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Police funding

In January, Israel’s leading Hebrew newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported that the link between the Israeli police and the illegal settlers is not only ideological but also economic. According to Yedioth Ahronoth’s January 22 edition, its investigation into the new Israeli police headquarters being built in East Jerusalem found that “only a small portion of the funding originates from the state. The bulk of the money comes from private organisations with a clear right wing orientation: the Bukhara Community Trust, and the Shalem Foundation — a subsidiary formed by the Jerusalem-based El’ad NGO.”

Since seizing the territory in 1967, Israel has actively sought to “Judaise” East Jerusalem illegally and to expel the Palestinian population. A range of settler organisations, backed by consecutive Israeli governments, have attempted to “Judaise” Palestinian neighbourhoods. According to Dukarevich, US $17.5 million is spent each year by the Ministry of Housing to guard the illegal settlers who have occupied Palestinian homes and neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. In Silwan, the attempt has been spearheaded by El’ad, a settler group that seeks to construct an “archaeological” park where the “City of David” once stood.

In February 2009, the Jerusalem municipality announced a plan to relocate approximately 1500 Palestinian civilians and demolish 88 houses in the Al Bustan section of Silwan in order to build a national park called “the King’s Valley”. According to the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem, which monitors Israeli colonisation in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories, the colonisation of Silwan has escalated since 1991, with more than 40 Palestinian homes being taken over by force by illegal settlers. Al Bustan became the most targeted sector of the neighbourhood because of its proximity to the western wall of the Old City.

In a September 24 editorial, Haaretz noted that the attempt by settlers to use archaeology to colonise the Silwan neighbourhood has been backed by the Israeli state: “Under the guise of archaeological excavations and ‘restoring the glory of old’, the El’ad association has managed to penetrate large areas of the village, which contains the City of David. But El’ad would not have managed to implement its plans without assistance from state bodies: the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which turned over administration of the site to El’ad, the Jerusalem Municipality, which offered help, and cooperation from the Israel Antiquities Authority”.