[The following article is extracted from the March-April 2008 issue of The Other Israel .
Who is inciting? King David, Silwan and the decent rabbi
March 13 headline : "Rabbi arrested with connection to East Jerusalem incitement."
No, this was not about one of those extreme-right "spiritual leaders" openly exhorting their followers to indiscriminate violence against East Jerusalem Palestinians. The rabbi who spent a night in detention was Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights for "inciting Silwan residents to disobey the police."
Silwan, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, has already been in the headlines many times before. Its tens of thousands of Palestinian inhabitants have the great misfortune of having some archaeological remnants found in their vicinity "from the time of the Biblical King David." This identification, however, is speculative and strongly contested by historians and archaeologists. However, a certain David Be'eri, who first arrived at Silwan in 1986 in his then role as the undercover commander of an elite military unit, took it seriously enough that he appointed himself to the mission of restoring the site's ancient Jewish glories — by means of eradicating its Arab present.
The Elad Association, which Be'eri founded and still heads, has been aggressively taking over more and more houses and lands in Silwan, on the most flimsy legal grounds. For example, on March 9, 2006 some 50 armed settlers broke into the Silwan house of Ibrahim Ghozlan, evicting him and his family, and claiming that they acquired the rights to the building from an earlier Jewish association which bought it from its Palestinian owner as early as 1923.
The alleged seller, it turned out, had been only six years old in 1923. Nevertheless, police accepted the new status quo, preventing members of the Ghozlan family from approaching the house. Later, it was surrounded with barbed wire entanglements patrolled by security guards — funded by the government — and a huge Israeli national flag hoisted from the roof, as in earlier occupied Silwan homes.
A neighboring house, for which Elad could not find even this kind of legal pretext and whose owners refused tempting offers to sell, happened to be the target of an massive raid by police, who broke down the doors and turned the house upside down while "looking for drugs" (none were found).
Israeli peace groups had some successes in their efforts to help the Silwan residents stem the settler tide. The takeover of some Palestinian homes was prevented — and of others, delayed for years — by prolonged legal and public struggle. Israelis also held several summer camps in Silwan and helped rebuild houses demolished by the Jerusalem municipality (which claimed such demolitions were "unconnected" to presence of settlers just next door). And when it turned out that the Jerusalem Municipality failed to notice the settlers erecting — without asking for any kind of permit — a massive seven-floor structure on a piece of seized Silwan land, a judge ordered the settlers vacated and the structure sealed with concrete blocks.
In 2005, a big outcry, in Israel and internationally, prevented the Jerusalem Municipality from carrying out an announced plan — believed to be inspired by the Elad settlers — for the massive destruction of 88 Silwan houses, which were to be replaced by a big park with the name "King David's Garden." And the Registrar of Associations began proceedings about Elad's refusal to divulge the sources of donations totaling over $7 million that the settler association received in 2005.
Nevertheless, despite such setbacks to their cause the Elad settlers succeeded in establishing what Akiva Eldar of Ha'aretz described as "a veritable empire." Particularly, the government authorized them to run the "City of David Archaeological Garden." It covers a large and expanding area, and is energetically promoted by the Ministry of Tourism in the glossy brochures provided to foreign visitors (in which the presence of Palestinians in the vicinity is in no way hinted at).
Moreover, the government authorised Elad to continue archeological excavations on the site, which it immediately embarked upon and in no time announced the uncovering of... yes, King David's Palace.
All around Elad's archaeological digs, an increasing number of cracks appeared in Palestinian houses, and Silwan's main street repeatedly caved in — for which the settlers and their pet archaeologists denied all responsibility, while blocking "interfering outsiders" from any access to their tunnels.
On Friday, February 7, Silwan residents held a demonstration and established a protest tent on a privately owned plot adjacent to the Elad " Visitors Center ." Israeli activists started distributing leaflets to visiting tourists, and an Alternative Archaeological Tour was established, covering historical periods omitted from the Elad-sponsored tours. Knesset Member Yossi Beilin of Meretz came to the spot, but the settlers refused to let him inspect their tunnels, where diggings continued under police protection. On February 10, a number of Silwan residents, apprehensive lest diggings threaten their homes with collapse, lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court. The following night they were lifted from their beds and arrested, charged with "sabotaging Elad property."
Meanwhile, the Elad archaeologists announced that they had discovered parts of an ancient roadway used by Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple ; uncovering the full length was, they said, their manifest duty to Jewish history and heritage.
A different interpretation of Judaism was offered by Rabbi Arik Ascherman. Citing the ancient precept "Where nobody is acting as a decent human being, try to be one" from the Talmudic Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Ascherman threw himself in and by his presence made the police/settler game more difficult.
Ascherman afterwards pointed out that his detention had been far more brief and easy than what some Silwan residents recently endured — and still got more attention. Fellow Rabbis came to the courtroom to express solidarity. More Rabbis wrote extensive shocked and outraged reactions from America .
Three days after his release, on March 18, the Supreme Court issued an unequivocal order to halt immediately and completely the settler diggings at Silwan. But as is their frequent habit, the judges "counter-balanced" this by a negative ruling on another contentious issue, and approved the exclusion of Palestinian motorists from the notorious Highway 443 (" Apartheid Road ").