A Deeper Divide in a Divided City: How Development and Tourism in East Jerusalem Has Turned up the Heat

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AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty

When 29-year-old Mohammad Shweki sleeps, he often dreams that bulldozers are coming to destroy his home.

Shweki is a Palestinian baker who lives in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood. A predominantly Muslim suburb around half a mile south of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and the walled Old City, Silwan has roughly 50,000 residents and feels more like a village than a city with its olive-tree lined dirt and gravel roads and hills stacked with small brick houses. Its necropolis is believed to be one of Israel's most ancient cemeteries, and the City of David, believed to be the urban center of ancient Jerusalem, is located in Silwan's Wadi Hilweh neighborhood.

All of this has made Silwan a bitterly contested piece of real estate, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in microcosm. Both Jews and Arabs say they were here first and both accuse the other of trying to rewrite history. Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem have few interactions that are not transactional, despite living side-by-side. Fear and suspicion are part of everyday life. And several contested archaeological digs in East Jerusalem, supported by Israeli groups and opposed by Palestinians, together with an influx of Jewish settlers and a boom in tourism, have heightened the tensions in Silwan.

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A view of construction works in Ramot, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem on October 04, 2018. Mostafa Alkharouf /Anadolu Agency/Getty

Israel took control of East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed it in 1980. Palestinians, who see the eastern half of the city as the capital of an eventual Palestine state, called the move an illegal occupation. The UN and most world governments agree. The United States, which moved its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2017, is a notable exception.

These politics and history are intensely personal for people like Shweki. He and other Palestinians in Silwan say the Israeli authorities have long been trying to force them off their land illegally to make way for Israeli settlers and development. He says that his family home, built in 1996, has been subject to a variety of fines and fees by the Municipality of Jerusalem. Recently Shweki learned that his house is one of around 700 homes in Silwan that are set to be bulldozed by the local government in coming months.

Shweki says that he doesn't know where he and his eight family members will go when their house is destroyed. It's a constant source of tension between him and his wife, he says.

"It's a lot of pressure. You give all of the money that you have for food in order to pay the fees," Shweki told Newsweek in late May. "It's constant mental and economic pressure. It affects your personal relationships and the relationships in the family. You lack basic things."

The Municipality of Jerusalem did not respond to requests for comment.
Most homes in East Jerusalem are built without permits on land that has been owned by one family for many years. Few of those families have the modern paperwork that the Municipality of Jerusalem requires for construction of a new home or modification of an existing one. The government can retroactively legalize buildings, but very few Palestinian families have succeeded in getting those permits. According to the United Nations at least one third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack a building permit. Those who build without one can expect to be fined or to have their homes seized and demolished.

Lawyers for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem say what the authorities are really doing is driving Palestinians out to make way for Israeli settlers and tourists. Diana Buttu, a lawyer based in Haifa, says "The Israeli authorities enact laws and regulations declaring areas in East Jerusalem as green or open spaces, where construction is prohibited, while also expropriating land for settlement construction.... Lawyers end up spending a lot of time and a lot of energy, the families spend a lot of money and a lot of heartache trying to fight the system. But in the end the system is virtually insurmountable."

"We paid a fine twice, and hired a lawyer and an architect," 28-year-old Hamza Moraya, whose house is set to be demolished this summer, told Newsweek. "Everyone in the family chipped in to pay the fines. We spent money to get a permit so that we would have permission to stay here. But in the end they never gave us a permit." So far, Moraya says he has paid around 135,000 shekels, or around $38,000 in fines. The average gross annual salary in Jerusalem is around 164,000 shekels, or $44,000, but many Palestinians make less.

Meanwhile, around 4 million tourists visited Jerusalem in 2018, a huge number for a city of under 1 million. The government has an ambitious plan to attract an additional 4 million tourists by 2020, and it is marketing the historic city as a tourist destination. But Jerusalem lacks hotel rooms and space to accommodate the desired influx of guests. In 2018 the government announced that it would spend $13 million to excavate the City of David and an additional $54 million to connect the City of David to West Jerusalem via cable car in an effort to build tourism that will "reflect the national heritage of the Jewish people."

"Within East Jerusalem, the government is developing ambitious plans to build tourism infrastructure in Palestinian parts of the city," reads a report published by Amnesty International this year entitled Destination: Occupation. "Hundreds of Palestinian residents are threatened with forced eviction."

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The Petra Hostel, which has been sold to a Jewish pro-settlement organization. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty

Saleh Higazi, deputy regional director for Amnesty's Middle East division, told Newsweek that American companies like TripAdvisor and AirBnB are profiting from this expansion.

"It is alarming to see tourism and online booking companies such as TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Expedia, and AirBnB being part of this,' he says. "By listing and promoting settlements as destinations, including in Silwan, these companies benefit from an illegal situation."

TripAdvisor and Expedia both say they are only in the business of providing travelers with information. "We aim to provide travelers with an apolitical, accurate and useful picture of all accommodations, restaurants and attractions that are currently open for business around the world," Brian Hoyt, a TripAdvisor spokesman, said. Booking.com did not respond to requests for comment. Airbnb declined to comment.

At present there seem few legal options open to Palestinians in East Jerusalem facing eviction. Nonetheless, no one Newsweek interviewed had any plans to leave. Moraya, who says his house could be demolished any day, lives with fifteen family members in a home erected in 1998. His uncle's house across the street has already been torn down.

"When our house is demolished, we will sleep in tents," he says.

A Deeper Divide in a Divided City: How Development and Tourism in East Jerusalem Has Turned up the Heat