A variety of neighborhood activists, Muslim leaders in Jerusalem, and even figures from the Palestinian Authority (PA) held a press conference Wednesday, saying that Israel was trying to minimize the Arab presence in this city claimed by both Palestinians and Jews as their capital. They say such a move amounts to ethnic cleansing.
"They have made a decision to clear out 88 houses, and with about three families living in each of these houses, we're looking at the eviction of about 1,500 people. But people in Silwan are clinging to their land and will not leave, despite the eviction orders," says Adnan Husseini, who is PA President Mahmoud Abbas's adviser on Jerusalem Affairs.
Israel's Jerusalem municipality, which has been mulling over this plan for four years, says that the homes were built without permits in an area not designated for residential use.
Though it remains unclear how quickly the municipality plans to proceed, the fact that their housing inspectors – escorted by border police – entered Silwan Sunday, surveying houses and photographing them, was enough evidence for locals that Israel is serious.
The new struggle over Silwan – and in particular a part of it called al-Bustan, or the Garden – comes at time so many other aspects of the conflict are in flux. Israel has yet to form a government following Feb. 10 elections, but a right-wing one, led by Likud leader Benajmin Netanyhau, is expected soon. Internal Palestinian politics are still in disarray, but Fatah and Hamas started reconciliation talks in Cairo Wednesday and Israel and Hamas are still far from a cease-fire deal.
It is as part of this backdrop, says analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi, that Israel's move in Jerusalem is seen by Palestinians. "After Gaza, they realize they have the power to do whatever they want, and we won't be able to stop it, except for making statements and complaints," says Mr. Abdul Hadi, the head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA.)
Silwan is considered an especially sensitive area because it lies just outside the Old City and is the Arab neighborhood closest to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. It has already been a contested site, as Israeli ultranationalist groups have moved Jewish settlers into the area in recent years.
Whether or not to raze what is now a residential area and turn it into a tourist site may be one of the first big political tests for Nir Barkat, who was elected mayor last November.
Mr. Barkat issued a statement Tuesday saying that no "new plans" were under way. Indeed, plans to clear out the houses to make way for an archaeological park were raised four years ago, but amid international criticism the last Jerusalem mayor shelved the plans and invited the residents to come up with their own plan for the future of the neighborhood. It was rejected last week by a city committee.
"Illegal construction is illegal construction, no matter where it is," Barkat said in the statement released by his office, declining to take direct calls from the media.
Barkat called the neighborhood Emek HaMelech, Hebrew for "Valley of the King." There is already an Israeli-run City of David site in Silwan, which houses both an archaeological center and settlers. The Jewish settlers say they are living on the land that was King David's Jerusalem of 3,000 years ago.
"The area of Emek HaMelech is one of the most important areas with regards to the history of Jerusalem, with holy sites important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Because of its significant important to more than 3 billion people of faith around the world, it is also a tourist destination."
The issue began to surface again two weeks ago, when Yakir Segev, head of East Jerusalem affairs for the Jerusalem municipality, called a meeting of the owners of the Silwan houses in question. About 100 people came, says resident Fakhri Abu Diab, one among them. They were told they had a choice: Either you agree to leave in return for a house elsewhere, or face eviction by force.
"People got very upset by what they heard," says Mr. Abu Diab. "Our house has been our house since my grandfather's day, and my children were born there. You cannot replace that."
Khalil Tufakji, the leading cartographer of Palestinian Jerusalemite neighborhoods, says the planned move is part of an overall Israel concern to stop a losing demographic battle in Jerusalem. "Nir Barkat said in his election campaign for mayor, and said now, that the conflict for Jerusalem will be a demographic one."
Mr. Segev, of the Jerusalem municipality, says the issue was being blown out of proportion for political purposes, and that there was no unified plan to demolish the homes in the immediate future.
The demolition orders had indeed been issued by the municipality, he says, but each case would go to court and would be decided individually. "Destroying these 88 houses is not going to tilt the geographic balance," Segev says. "The Jordanians and even the Turks before them marked this place as a green area. It's not like the Israelis came and said so."