Umm Muhammad Hayat discovered early Tuesday that she had new neighbors in what used to be her brother-in-law’s home upstairs.
Jewish settlers had arrived in the early morning darkness, and by Wednesday evening they had already torn down an internal wall, creating a large living space, she said.
The settlers’ entry into the Hayat house was part of a coordinated move into seven buildings housing more than 20 apartments in the volatile Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the walled Old City in East Jerusalem.
The entry was the largest expansion in decades of Jewish settlement in Silwan, a flashpoint a few hundred yards from the area revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the compound of Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
About 350 Jewish settlers live in more than 35 buildings in Silwan, and the new expansion could increase their population as many as 150 people, according to Palestinian and Israeli activists tracking settlement activity there. The settlers are seeking to expand the Jewish presence in the ramshackle neighborhood of 30,000 in order to ensure it remains under Israeli control.
“It’s a major coup,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney who is a prominent expert on Israeli policies and settlements in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital.
Because of its sensitive location, “Silwan has the potential of being a detonator of conflict that would send shockwaves well beyond Jerusalem, throughout the region,” Seidemann said.
The settlers’ move comes at a sensitive time, after months of persistent unrest in East Jerusalem triggered by the slaying of a local Palestinian teenager in July in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. Silwan had long been a focus of street clashes stoked by the presence of the Jewish enclaves there.
The homes occupied by the settlers early Tuesday were empty, after they were sold by their Palestinian owners at handsome prices to Arab middlemen and cleared of their tenants, residents said.
According to Israeli media reports, the homes were purchased by a U.S-based firm, Kandel Finance, serving as a front for Elad, a Jewish settlement group active in Silwan.
A lawyer representing the firm, Avi Segal, issued a statement describing it as “a company that deals with property and investments.”
“The company chose to invest in buildings in Jerusalem that were bought legally,” the statement said.
Selling land to Israelis carries a heavy stigma in Palestinian society and is punishable by death in areas under control of the Palestinian Authority. So purchase of property by settlers is often shrouded in secrecy and conducted through middlemen and front companies.
Some of the owners of the homes occupied by the settlers in Silwan said their property had been fraudulently sold without their agreement, while others have disappeared, residents said.
Umm Mahmoud Hayat said that shortly before the settlers moved in, her brother-in-law had vacated with his family after evicting his tenants living in an adjacent apartment. Local activists said he was now contesting the sale to the settlers, asserting that he had not made such a deal.
“This is a takeover, they came in by force, and no one here is pleased with it,” Umm Mahmoud said.
As she spoke, a group of settler activists came to inspect the building, which, like other properties occupied by the settlers, was protected by armed security guards. Beefed-up patrols of Israeli riot police roamed the alleys of Silwan, and after nightfall the pop of firecrackers could be heard from clashes near other settlement outposts in the neighborhood.
“How can a country that respects itself allow (activity by) an organization like Elad, which has an agenda of transferring the Palestinians,” said Jawad Siyam, a neighborhood activist. “They want us to go, and to turn this into a Jewish neighborhood.”
But despite the settlers’ efforts to change the character of Silwan since they first moved into the neighborhood in 1991, they have not succeeded in significantly altering the demographic balance there or in other Arab areas of East Jerusalem, Seidemann argued.
The latest settlement push “is very inflammatory,” he said, but “it doesn’t change the big picture: They have made very few inroads into East Jerusalem.”