Israeli forces arrived before sunrise on Monday, 13 February to demolish a newly completed community facility that residents refer to as a cultural café in the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem. The bulldozers arrived without any prior warning. The Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality and the National Parks Authority carried out the demolition with Israeli police officers closing off the street and even preventing some nearby families to leave their homes while the demolition was underway.
Palestinians living in Silwan and other areas of occupied East Jerusalem are facing increased attacks from the Israeli authorities and Israeli settlers. Life for these Palestinian families is now complicated by endless legal battles and fear of the future. Simple things like living in their homes, sending their children to school, and creating spaces for kids to play can’t be taken for granted as homes are given over to Israeli settlers or threatened with demolition, as children as young as six are picked up by Israeli police for interrogation, and as community centers are destroyed.
The children’s only refuge
Jawad Siyam, director of the Madaa Creative Center in Silwan that runs the cultural café and the sports field directly in front of the café, lamented: “this was the only place in the area to meet, to sit together. It was the only place for children in Silwan.”
Though Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem pay taxes to the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality, the authority does not provide services like public parks and community centers so the local communities have to create their own. Madaa Center built the café with funding from international organizations including the Middle East Children’s Alliance, Playgrounds for Palestine, and War Child International. The center attempted to get a permit to build the café on this piece of privately-owned land but the Jerusalem municipality refused. Siyam said that Palestinians in Silwan have received fewer than 40 permits for building since East Jerusalem was occupied and then illegally annexed by Israel in 1967, leaving them with no choice but to carry on construction projects without permits.
More than 30 demolitions this year
Mahmoud Qaraeen from the Wadi Hilweh Information Center lives across the street from the site of the sports field and cultural café. He was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the demolition and he meticulously documented the destruction. Qaraeen explained that this was the 31st demolition in East Jerusalem since the start of 2012, an alarming statistic.
He also pointed out that on the same day, a settlers’ association took the first of a series of necessary approvals to construct an enormous 16,000 square meter compound just up the hill. Qaraeen says it is well understood that “the municipality is only for West Jerusalem. The only thing we get from them in East Jerusalem is demolitions.”
The community is determined to rebuild the café. For local residents, the right to build and live on their land is a constant battle and one they are not prepared to lose. Like many Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, they have adopted the principle that to exist is to resist. Volunteers have already begun sorting through the rubble, salvaging scraps of wood and metal. Their goal is to complete a new café in time for a Mothers’ Day celebration on 21 March (Mothers’ Day is celebrated across Arab countries on this date).
“We are also waiting for the bill for the bulldozer,” Siyam told The Electronic Intifada. This practice of charging people for demolitions began in 2011 (“Israel passes draft law requiring Palestinians to pay for their own home demolitions,” International Middle East Media Center, 29 June 2011).
But he added, “We won’t pay for this. Someone from the center might have to go to jail but we will refuse to pay.”
Josie Shields-Stromsness is the program director at the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). She lives in Palestine and can be reached at josie AT mecaforpeace DOT org. MECA has set up an online petition to protest the destruction of the Madaa Creative Center.