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Two-day-old Silwan info center in jeopardy

Abe Selig | The Jerusalem Post

26 July 2009

“We built this place last Sunday, and on Tuesday, the police arrived with orders to knock it down,” said Ahmad Qara’een, as he sat inside the Wadi Hilwah Information Center, a 35-sq.m. covered wooden deck erected by residents of east Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood.

Qara’een does not dispute the lack of a building permit, although he does maintain that the center was built on privately-owned Palestinian land, with the consent of its owner.

The issue for Qara’een and his colleagues, who built the center to disseminate information about Silwan they say is not made available to the tourists who throng the area, is what they see as a double standard. A number of structures belonging to Jews in Silwan – some only a few doors down from the center – also lack permits, but the city has not issued demolition orders for them.

“It’s like a state within a state here,” Qara’een said. “The settlers get to do what they want, but we can’t have anything. It’s like the law doesn’t apply to them.”

The Jerusalem Municipality on Sunday disputed Qara’een’s assertion that the center had been slated for destruction, telling The Jerusalem Post, “They were not given demolition orders, just a notice that their building is illegal. Furthermore, the municipality is working in all areas of Jerusalem to enforce the law when it comes to illegal buildings.”

Still, Qara’een and others at the Wadi Hilwah Center said that permits were not the issue.

“This has nothing to do with permits,” said Nihad Siam, who works with Qara’een. “It’s all about politics and the desire of the government to shut us up and push us out of here.”

Silwan’s Wadi Hilwah neighborhood has emerged as one of the main points of friction between east Jerusalem’s Palestinians and Jewish residents, who are increasingly moving into eastern neighborhoods of the capital.

Silwan, just outside the Old City, has seen a rise in Jewish residents in recent years, many inhabiting homes purchased by the Elad and Ateret Cohanim organizations. Additionally, the city has drawn up plans to raze a significant number of homes in the area to begin work on a City of David archeological park – a move residents like Qara’een and Siam said would “turn the neighborhood into Hebron.”

“Is it my fault that I was born here?” asked Qara’een. “Is it my fault that King David walked here over 3,000 years ago? Why should I have to pay the price?”

A report released on Sunday by Peace Now, however, stated that “the hasty response of Israeli authorities to the opening of the makeshift Palestinian information center clearly points not only at the discriminatory use of law enforcement against Palestinians in East Jerusalem but also at an effort to silence the voices of the local residents.”

The report goes on to say that the “City of David Visitor’s Center, which is approximately 50 meters away from the Wadi Hilwah Information Center, and was established by the Elad organization, includes mobile and non-mobile structures including a shop, a cashier’s office, general office space and bathrooms.

“An application for a permit for these structures was submitted by Elad in November 2007, but was rejected by the municipality,” the report says.