On August 26, 2010, a violent clash broke out between Jewish and Arab residents of Silwan, a predominantly Muslim village outside the southern end of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The name derives from the biblical "Shiloah" and its subsequently Graecized "Siloam."
On the face of it, the sparring that erupted over a gate built illegally by Arab residents may seem like a miniature version of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over who controls the Holy Land. But reducing the struggle to a mere real estate dispute misses a critical point in understanding the persistence of the larger conflict. For the battle of Silwan is a microcosm of a larger fight, one in which one side, the Palestinian, seeks to erase the existence of the other—not merely through traditional armed conflict but also by rewriting history.
Erasing the Past
The tactic of denying a Jewish past to sites and holy places in the Land of Israel is of relatively recent vintage in the Arab-Israeli conflict but one that has increased dramatically in the past few years.
Jerusalem's Temple Mount, where both the First and Second Temples stood for some eight hundred years in total, now holds the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the underground Solomon's Stables mosque. Both in 1925 and again in 1950, Palestine's Supreme Muslim Council unequivocally recognized the Jewish connection to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary; i.e., Temple Mount), describing it as a holy site for Jews in its self-published A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif:
By the mid 1950s, this admission had been expunged, and by 2001, the chief Muslim cleric of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Jerusalem mufti Ikrima Sabri, was able to state,
The Western Wall, until recently the only visible remnant of the Temple complex and the place at which Jews have prayed for millennia, has been similarly transformed. Muslims have renamed it the Wall of al-Buraq after the tethering place of the horse on which the prophet Muhammad is reputed to have taken his night flight to Jerusalem. Palestinians continue to deny a Jewish connection despite the likelihood that the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-66) reaffirmed Jewish rights to worship at the wall, or that three centuries later, the Muslim ruler Ibrahim Pasha (son of Egypt's viceroy Muhammad Ali) issued a decree regarding the site that allowed Jews "to pay visits to it as of old."
Even the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem has come under assault. For centuries a pilgrimage site, especially for barren Jewish women, it is mentioned by the twelfth century Arab historian al-Idrisi and became a site of veneration for Muslims as well, known as "Kubat Rahil." In 1615, Jews were given exclusive rights to the tomb by their Muslim ruler, and again, in 1830, the Ottomans recognized the legal rights of the Jews to the site. Sir Moses Montefiore was permitted to purchase the site in 1841, at which time he restored the tomb and added a small prayer hall for Muslims. Since 1996, however, Palestinians have taken to calling it the "Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque" claiming it as the burial place of Muhammad's first servant although there are centuries-old sites in Damascus and Jordan that have long-made that claim. In 2010, the heavily politicized organization, UNESCO, joined the Muslim deniers and demanded that Israel remove the grave from its National Heritage List and cede control of it to the Palestinians.
The ultimate goal of the Palestinians and their allies is to advance the idea that Jerusalem in general, and neighborhoods like Silwan in particular, have no Jewish ties. Archeological remnants found in Jerusalem are thus presented as either Canaanite or Muslim. As argued by Nazami Amin al-Ju'beh, chair of Bir Zeit University's history department,
Arab spokespersons from across the political spectrum and from many different fields work enthusiastically to negate every archeological claim that recognizes a link to the Jewish people from the First or Second Temple periods. This sentiment is echoed across the Palestinian spectrum, including popular outlets on television and in newspapers. For example, Yunes Amr, president of al-Quds Open University, pointed out the inaccuracy of the widespread view that the Palestinians originated with a group of people who emigrated from the Greek Isles and settled in Palestine, claiming instead that the Palestinians are Arab Canaanites indigenous to this land.
On another occasion, he stated
Yasser Arafat argued at the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 that the Jewish temple was not on the Temple Mount, claiming that the Qur'an proved that the temple was not even in Palestine.
This method of erasing the Jews from Jerusalem is very popular in Palestinian academia, with PA officials, and religious leaders—and has infected an entire generation of Muslims, both inside and outside the state of Israel.
Silwan and the City of David
Despite these strident falsifications, there is no doubt that the Jewish people were established in Palestine long before the land bore that name. In fact, the town of Silwan is, to some degree, the epicenter of that long history, perhaps explaining the ferocity of the current uproar.
Many people incorrectly assume that what is today termed the "Old City" of Jerusalem is identical to the city taken by King David from the Jebusites (a Canaanite tribe) sometime in the eleventh century B.C.E. and subsequently turned into the capital of the united Israelite kingdom. Actually, there is abundant and growing evidence that the "City of David" was outside the present walls of Jerusalem, built on a rocky promontory that is now part of the village of Silwan. Excavations by European archeologists in the nineteenth century, and accelerating since the Israeli recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, have revealed ancient and massive structures that were the original Jerusalem. Recent finds of seals and bullae (pieces of clay stamped with seal impressions) with Hebrew text, including at least two with the names of royal officials mentioned in the book of Jeremiah, have led archeologist Eilat Mazar to argue that parts of the site were the palaces of the Davidic and Judean kings.
Both the City of David and the previous Jebusite stronghold had been watered by the nearby spring of Gihon, still a reliable source of water for the area. Even in ancient times, a channel had been cut to a man-made pool in order to store water during periods of drought; this was the "Shelah (sent) Pool to the King's Garden" mentioned in Nehemiah, 3, 15. In response to the threat of siege by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, an older, open-air aqueduct was plugged and a tunnel carved through the bedrock from the spring to the pool by King Hezekiah (c. 715-686 B.C.E.). A Hebrew inscription testifying to this ancient engineering marvel was discovered in the late nineteenth century and is now housed in the Istanbul Museum. The central area of the modern town of Silwan appears to have been built atop the nearby necropolis of Judea's elite as attested to by roughly fifty tombs found in the area.
After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the return of the Judean exiles, the city grew significantly but the renamed Siloam and its environs were still integrally connected to it. Massive steps leading up to the Second Temple from the Shiloah (Siloam, Silwan), the powerful spring outside the city walls, have been excavated. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, mentions Siloam frequently, making a connection between the might of the spring and the destruction of the Second Temple. According to him, before the coming of Titus, the waters of the Shiloah and the rest of the springs close to the city decreased. But, at the time of Titus, the spring provided enough water to quench the thirst of the enemies of the Jews. The same phenomenon occurred before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, and Josephus used it in his attempt to convince the residents of Jerusalem to surrender.
The story of Jesus and the blind man made the Pool of Siloam a pilgrimage site in the Byzantine period, and the Gihon spring was at some point renamed the "Fountain of the Virgin." The Church of Siloam as well as the City of David/Wadi Hilweh section were inside Jerusalem's walls during the Byzantine period. Meanwhile, hermits and monks took over the tombs outside the walls and lived there, adding an additional layer of significance to the site for Christians. Remains of a church dating to the fifth century C.E. were uncovered at the City of David excavations by modern archeologists. A map from 1917 still shows a church close to the pool, a structure that was likely converted into the so-called Mosque of the Spring that was the subject of the fight mentioned earlier.
In 638 C.E., Muslim armies under Umar ibn al-Khattab captured Jerusalem. While no significant remains dating to the early Islamic period have been discovered in the City of David excavations, the area appears to have become a Muslim township. Though present-day locals spin tales of the village having been established as "Khan Silowna" by this conquering caliph, the earliest reference by a Muslim author seems to be from Muhammad al-Muqaddasi's Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma'rifat al-Aqalim (The Best Ways to Know Geographical Places). Muqaddasi (945-1000 C.E.), a Jerusalemite, wrote:
Othman (or Uthman) ibn Affan (579-656 C.E.) succeeded Umar as the third of the "rightly-guided caliphs," a term bestowed by Sunni Muslims on the immediate successors to Muhammad indicating a veneration of their actions and statements, which has tremendous significance to the modern-day conflict as does the legend recorded by Muqaddasi.
Silwan's fortunes seesawed over time. The Muslim biographer and geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi, wrote in 1225 that "in his day there was a considerable suburb of the city at Sulwan and gardens," but less than a century later, the author of the Marasid, a geographical dictionary written around 1300 C.E., stated that "the gardens had all disappeared, that the water of Sulwan was no longer sweet, and that the buildings were all in ruin."
Closer to modern times, Israeli geographer Menashe Harel relates that in the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by Jerusalem's Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of nearby graves on the Mount of Olives. This fraught relationship between the two communities took a new turn late in the century with the arrival of Yemenite Jews into the town. Inspired by a messianic desire to return to the land of their forefathers, between 1881 and 1882, a group of penniless Yemenite Jews came to Jerusalem. The long-time Jewish inhabitants of the city initially rejected their coreligionists but eventually built homes for them in the Silwan area, creating a neighborhood that became known as Kfar Hashiloah (Shiloah Village) and the "Yemenite Village."
During the pogroms of 1921 and 1929, these homes were attacked by Arab neighbors, and in 1939, at the end of the three-year Great Revolt against the British mandatory authorities, the Yemenite Jews of Silwan were evacuated, their homes soon occupied without compensation by the neighboring villagers. Thus, both the area of the City of David and the neighboring town of Silwan had no Jewish residents until 1967.
The King's Garden
The City of David and the bulk of the village of Silwan are built on two opposing slopes of the Judean hills through which runs the Kidron Valley, named after the stream or wadi that flows through it to the Dead Sea; the Gihon spring essentially derives its water from the same source. As a result, this valley has since antiquity been more lush and better able to sustain agriculture than the limestone hills of the region. Known as "the King's Garden" in the Bible, it is said to be the source of inspiration for verses in Ecclesiastes ("I made me gardens and parks, and I planted in them trees of all kinds of fruit.") and the Song of Songs, both traditionally ascribed to David's heir, King Solomon.
Regardless of who originally cultivated the area (and it is likely that the pre-Israelite Jebusites also took advantage of its verdure), under Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and Israeli control, the area was effectively left green. Since Israel reunited the eastern and western halves of the city, and as Jerusalem has grown in population, Muslim residents have moved illegally into "the King's Garden" and practically erased its lush character.
On March 2, 2010, the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), a joint government-municipal corporation under the authority of the Minister of Finance, the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, and the city's mayor, presented a plan to rehabilitate the King's Garden and provide needed infrastructure and other amenities to central Silwan. According to the JDA's promotional brochure,
The pamphlet continues:
The Silwan project would extend the boundaries of the City of David National Park, and according to the project's plans, twenty-two out of eighty-eight illegally built houses are slated for destruction. Compensation would be given to the evicted families plus additional aid to help them legally rebuild their homes elsewhere in Silwan. The rest of the existing houses in the area would be approved retroactively and legal proceedings against them dropped.
Thus, a park catering to both residents and tourists would be built, providing an economic stimulus for the entire neighborhood. Additionally, according to the planners,
This planned project has stirred up Islamic and Palestinian organizations working in Jerusalem, along with other groups that have come out against this move by the Israeli authorities. The mayor's office sought to reach compromises with area residents including offering those Arabs whose houses are to be demolished first crack at operating tourist-related business in the park. Despite this, under pressure from the Obama administration and at the urging of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat soon announced that he would delay the plan's implementation.
The complaints against the project, however, include not only legitimate grievances about the destruction of (illegally built) homes and the removal of the residents to another area. Coupled with these criticisms are objections against the biblical and historical narrative that stands at the foundation of the plan as well as a religious imperative with no room for compromise.
"Most Important Place in al-Quds"
Notwithstanding Mayor Barkat's temporary suspension, Palestinian opponents continued their fight against the plan. Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Foundation for Development—a nonprofit organization partnering with leaders from the Israeli Arab Islamic Movement such as Sheikh Raed Salah and al-Bustan Neighborhood Committee—distributed an alternate community-based plan a month later in which not a single home would be evacuated or destroyed.
While acknowledging that the houses in the King's Garden/al-Bustan neighborhood were built illegally, the authors upped the ante by claiming that the garden's residents were actually refugees from the 1948 war who had originally been forced to move to the Ma'aleh Adumim area, west of Jerusalem. There they lived until they were forced to leave in 1967 to make way for the building of the city of Ma'aleh Adumim. They then settled in the Silwan area, and over the years, built their homes in al-Bustan without permission from the authorities. If the King's Garden plan were to move forward, this would be, in their telling, their third expulsion.
Setting aside questions of historicity of that claim, the pamphlet goes on to detail the Palestinian narrative of the place in question. Under the subhead "Silwan Is the Most Important Place in Al-Quds which Was Dedicated by the Third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Righteous," it maintains that
With a slight nod to the universally reviled King Herod (74-3, 4 B.C.E.), the committee expunges all other ties Silwan has to Jewish history but significantly stresses the connection between the village, the waqf, and Caliph Uthman.
The word waqf used above has two interconnected meanings. It is both a Muslim religious endowment and a body that manages and oversees the endowment. The basic regulations governing waqf trusts are interpreted by Shari'a law, but in essence, waqf property is absolutely permanent, and once established, the contract cannot be altered or the property sold. Furthermore, by linking the establishment of Silwan as waqf to Uthman, its existence as an everlasting Muslim inheritance is made all the more inviolable. Uthman as well as the three other Righteous Caliphs were companions of Muhammad, so close to him in Muslim telling that their deeds and words are to be emulated almost as much as Muhammad's himself. If Caliph Uthman dedicated Silwan as a Muslim waqf, no Muslim can change that fact without being charged as an unbeliever.
This theme is expanded upon in the pamphlet when the authors write,
It is only fitting that the figure of Saladin is brought forward to justify the belief in eternal Islamic ownership of Silwan, despite there being no evidence in medieval Arab writings to attest to the tale. As the ruler who defeated the Crusaders and returned Jerusalem to Muslim control, who better to return Silwan as waqf to fellow Muslims?
"Judaization" of Jerusalem
Admitting that Silwan's designation as waqf may actually be a late episode in the village's history does not diminish the belief in Silwan's holiness professed by these and others. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with another more pernicious myth: the supposed Jewish design to "Judaize the blessed city of Jerusalem" with a view to transforming it into "a Jewish Talmudic Jerusalem":
Thus alongside the notions that Jews fabricate their history and that Silwan and its environs are a sacred waqf, opponents create a conspiracy of Talmudic Judaization of the city whose goal is the eradication of al-Aqsa Mosque to be replaced by a third temple. The trope of a perverted Talmudic Judaism is a favored one used by anti-Semites throughout the ages and most recently picked up and amplified by Muslim and Arab opponents of the Jewish state.
In their fixation on the Judaization of Jerusalem, the pamphleteers echo a 2006 piece in Sawt al-Haq wa-l-Huiriya (Voice of Truth and Freedom) the journal of the Islamic Movement centered in Umm al-Fahm and led by Raed Salah, where the plan to Judaize Silwan is discussed in great detail. The Islamic Movement, a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is at the forefront of organizing Israeli Arabs to identify themselves strictly as Palestinians with Salah leading the campaign to "defend" Jerusalem and "liberate" it from Israeli "occupation."
The other image used by al-Quds Foundation is the alleged Israeli plot to replace al-Aqsa Mosque with a third temple—despite the fact that the Israeli authorities have consistently restricted the movement of non-Muslims on the Temple Mount to the point where they have been accused of discrimination against Jews and Christians.
A pamphlet from the group Islamic Jihad-Beit al-Makdas uses melodramatic language to further illustrate the evil intents of the Jews, accusing Zionists of attacking Jerusalem, Silwan—"the gateway to al-Aqsa Mosque"—and al-Aqsa Mosque itself, which is "the rock of grace of Jerusalem and the crown of the whole Islamic nation."
The authors thank those "who protect al-Aqsa and its gates and the residents of the village of Silwan" and informs them that the way is clear "to the temple, from Silwan, the aristocratic, the symbol of steadfastness at the gates of al-Aqsa Mosque." The authors ask "Would you like to be a guard [on watch] at the blessed al-Aqsa and nothing will pass by you?" and warn, "Do not let into your homes the flocks of the settlers."
According to this line of thought, Silwan becomes the doorway through which the settlers are trying to pass to Judaize Jerusalem and at the same time, enter the Temple Mount in order to dismantle al-Aqsa and rebuild the temple. The steps that are being carried out, according to Islamic spokespersons, will lead to a third intifada.
The Palestinian Arab assault on the Jewish connection to Jerusalem continues apace aided and abetted not only by radical Islamists or angry Silwanites but by fellow travelers in the media and in academia, including Israeli Jews.
Consider the tours carried out by Emek Shaveh, an Israeli nonprofit organization, and Palestinian residents of Silwan with a view to rebuffing the "political archaeology of the Jews" and to prove the area's "true" archaeological significance. Emek Shaveh's founder Yonathan Mizrachi, who has voluntarily left his job at Israel's Antiquity Authority, spares no effort to downplay the Jewish biblical history of the area. As he put it: "After three hours on [an Israeli-organized] tour, you are convinced that you are at a totally Jewish site where evidence of Canaanite, Byzantine, and Muslim, and, of course, Palestinian [civilizations] are pushed aside. Jerusalem has 4,000 years of history. They only focus on the marvelous stories of King Solomon, David, and Hezekiyah, of which, by the way, they haven't found any archaeological evidence that ties them to the place."
Mizrachi's website contains an essay of over 5,000 words—"Archaeology in Silwan"—which transforms archaeology into a handmaiden of social science pieties and criticizes even the use of the phrase City of David as a manifestation of settler objectives. In doing so, he also manages to rewrite history, claiming falsely that "during the main periods of prosperity under the kingdom of Judah … the cultural identity of the town and its inhabitants was contested."
Sadly, the battle over Silwan (and for that matter the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict) is likely to continue as long as Palestinian Arabs and their brethren refuse to recognize that another people, the Jews, have a claim to the Land of Israel.
 Isa 8:6; Neh 3:15.
©1994-2014 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes