Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

16. Welcome to Silwan

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Once again Jawad Siyam is under house arrest in Silwan, a crowded Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

On a steep slope that descends from the walled Old City to the floor of Wadi Al-Hilweh – Kidron Valley to the Israelis – the village is under escalating siege by the powerful settlers’ organization Elad, backed by the governments of Jerusalem and Israel.  In addition to the usual tactics for displacing Palestinians, Elad has introduced a new twist here, a massive archeological dig under the village to occupy it from below.

For several years Jawad Siyam has been a leader in the villagers’ non-violent movement to retain their homes and their shrinking land.  Continuously harassed by municipal police and the Shabak (Israeli secret police), he was placed under house arrest for three months earlier this year, accused of assaulting a Palestinian neighbour.  Since an Israeli judge ordered Jawad released for lack of evidence, the police have re-arrested him twice (most recently this week) on the same charge.

I met Jawad Siyam last autumn during an alternative archeological tour of Silwan, led by Israeli archeologist Yonathan Mizrachi.  Yonathan and other archeologists dispute Elad’s methods and findings in Silwan, and especially its motives.  (See chapter 8, ‘Facts under the ground,’ in Our Way to Fight.)

Part way through the tour, Yonathan ushered us into the protest tent — a circle of plastic chairs under a canvas canopy in a dusty vacant lot.  There he introduced us to Jawad Siyam.

“Welcome to Silwan,” said Jawad, in a quiet assertion of hospitality and homeland.  “By the way,” he warned with a trace of smile, “you are on camera here.  They want to know who comes to the tent.  We are watched all the time, they have cameras everywhere. Elad has a huge camera over the village, which sees everything.  We call it the Guantanamo camera.”

Jawad Siyam has lived here since he was born in 1968, in what was then a rural village. His family grew vegetables for market, raised chickens and sheep, and harvested olives and lemons from their trees.

“Also we used to sell little things to tourists,” says Jawad.  “This is how I paid for my education, but they don’t allow that anymore.  We can’t even sell our own vegetables in the shops here.  It’s a very bad situation economically for us.”  Before the Israeli occupation, Silwan was one of the wealthiest villages in the area.  Now it has become one of the poorest neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

Nothing Palestinian is secure here, neither below ground or above.  Elad plans to turn the lot where we are sitting into a parking lot, for the convenience of tourists that flock to their archeological theme park, the City of David.  “We said why a parking lot when we don’t have schools, sport clubs, or a community centre?  The owner of this land said he would give me license to build three floors here, a school or whatever, and he would keep the first floor for parking.  The municipal authorities refused permission.  So we went to court.  We won – for now.  But then the police came to harass people.  Every day they arrest someone.  But when the settlers take our olives and we call the police, nothing happens.”

Jawad Siyam continues to organize for the survival of his village, inch by inch, past and present, above and below the surface.  With co-workers he overcame innumerable obstacles to create a small community centre.  It offers classes in art, music, English and Hebrew, a library, a summer day camp, and simply a place to meet and talk in relative safety.  Jawad also co-founded the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, a vital source of up-to-date information from the village.

For this he is under arrest, again.

In the protest tent I watched Jawad and Yonathan seated side-by-side, explaining to us how their worlds connect, above and below the surface of Silwan.  I saw a Palestinian and an Israeli who have become allies, friends.  Under different circumstances, this is how things could work here.

But Jawad’s parting comment reminded me how very different circumstances would have to be, here in Silwan and throughout this land.  He said, “The problem for us in Silwan is that someone is coming here not to be my neighbour, but to replace me.”

(For updates on Jawad’s current status and the siege of Silwan, visit the Wadi-Hilweh Information Centre.)

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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