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The Palestinian News Agency invents history in Silwan

July 11, 2011

WAFA, the Palestinian News & Info Agency today published an item about how the Israelis are changing historical sites in Silwan. They’re a West Bank outfit, WAFA, not Hamas, a point worth keeping in mind. The item behind that link contains various claims, such as

It said the diggings in Wadi al-Rababa, aim to establish more of the Talmudic gardens, change its historical and Archaeological character, and to build additional fake Jewish graves, in an attempt to give it a Talmudic historical character associated with the myth of the alleged temple [My bold].

Normally the Jewish knee-jerk response to such tales is to say that where Silwan is now once was the city David ruled, the place Hezekiah dug a tunnel which is described in the Bible and which had a Hebrew inscription which was discovered in the 19th century, and so on. Today however I suggest looking at a different part of history. Not millennia ago, but decades ago; not the matter of Jews being in Jerusalem 1,600 years before Muhammad, but the more mundane matter of the Palestinians who purportedly were moved so as to make room for the modern Jews.

Here’s an aerial photo of Jerusalem from the early 20th century.

I don’t know exactly when the photo was taken. However, at the top of the picture, on a hill outside of town, you can clearly see the British military cemetery (a long structure in a garden surrounded by a wall), so the picture must have been taken sometime after the First World War. Let’s say, 1920. The hill to its right is empty, so the picture was taken before the Hebrew University was constructed, in the late 1920s. Today that empty hill is deep in the city, of course, with buildings all around it.

The direction of the camera is north, so the military cemetery is to the north of the Old City. To the south of the Old City, notice the mostly empty area beneath the Temple Mount: a terraced slope, with a handful of structures. To its east (right), across the ravine, there’s a small village. That was Silwan in 1920. In the 1880s it hadn’t been there at all, but by 1920 there was indeed a village; to the best of my knowledge, the Yemenite Jews who had settled there in the 1880s were no longer there, and the villagers were all Arabs.

Here’s a closer picture of the same area, at roughly the same time: before 1925-6, when construction on Mount Scopus would have begun.

(Online source of photo)

As one sees at a glance, the area WAFA claims as historically the village of Silwan, now being destroyed, was mostly empty fields 80 or 90 years ago.

In 2008 Silwan looked like this – a thickly built town on both sides of the valley.

Now it is indeed an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem. But not because it was there since time immemorial, because it wasn’t. It appeared in the 19th century, and most of its growth took place during the 44 years of Israeli rule.

Now compare that story with the one told by WAFA, and see if you can see much resemblance.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Barry Meislin permalink
    July 11, 2011 8:12 am

    So what are you saying exactly?
    That Arab’s lie?
    That the Jewish Temple(s) actually existed?
    That Jesus wasn’t a Palestinian?
    That the Palestinian Authority wants to coexist with the Jewish State?

    Well, good luck to all that….

  2. December 2, 2011 8:40 pm

    It’s entirely possible that a village was built in the Silwan valley and later abandoned at multiple times throughout the past 2,000 years, depending on the viability of farming there vs. other available land at any given time. That could account for there being stories of a village there in the 900s, Ottoman tax records for it in other centuries, but also no village there at other times. However there was indeed a village there in the 1880s when the Yemenite Jews were there, because they were settled at one end of the existing village of Silwan.

    I’m not sure what you think these photos prove about the City of David area. Just because the houses of the village of Silwan were all on the valley’s eastern slope in the 1920s, doesn’t tell you anything about where the boundaries of the village were, nor family or individual property ownership. It may well be that most of the village farmland was on the western slope, and the housing clustered on the least agriculturally useful land, which also stays shady in the early morning. Surely the terracing is a sign that the land was being farmed, and therefore was owned by somebody.

    Okay, so the housing in western Silwan is not historic, but so what? Even if the entire village was created after 1850, by the 1920s, 1940s or 1960s all of the land was legally owned by somebody, who was probably an Arab. Creating or de-bunking a historic myth about ancient Silwan may be good for general propaganda purposes, but the settlement of disputes about particular pieces of land has to get back to documenting land ownership and compensating people who either had land expropriated illegally or who currently own land they bought land in good faith, not realizing that the seller was not the legal owner.

    The Yemenite Jews were still living in Silwan until sometime in the 1930s (though the population probably dwindled in the poor security conditions of the 1920s), and apparently their properties were expropriated without compensation when they left, probably by their neighbors, whose ownership I assume was then recognized by the state of Transjordan in 1948.

    Figuring out property rights in the wake of war, ethnic/religious cleansing, and refugee populations is always a nightmare. Ottoman property and inheritance laws, much of which is still in force in this area, is not like western property law. The Israeli state or the JNF owns so much of the land in Israel is also very confusing for outsiders. It’s clear that some property in Silwan has been expropriated in a suspicious manner that should be investigated. It’s also clear that any Arab wishing to sell land to a Jew had better do it secretly or under the guise of being forced, in order to avoid severe repercussions from other Arabs (likely including his/her own family members). El-Ad’s activities are just serving to muddy the waters further.

    PS to Barry Meislin: Jesus wasn’t a resident of Silwan, so I don’t know why you brought him up, but of course he could not have been a Palestinian, since the term “Palestine” was not invented until after his death. Jesus was a Jew and a Judean, a resident of the Roman-controlled kingdom of Judea. Your other questions are not worth answering.


  1. Official PA newspaper again says that the Temples never existed «

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