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Silwan: The Jerusalem Story Tourists Don’t See in the City of David

As a Palestinian neighborhood, Silwan presents an interesting case.

Nestled just a few meters away from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Silwan is also the site of the Jewish tourist attraction of the City of David—attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, from curious internationals to young Jewish tourists discovering Israel on Birthright trips and local Israeli students and soldiers.
On one side of the street is the pristine entrance to the City of David—with an exterior that mimics the Jerusalem stone of the old city and a beautifully manicured garden of pink flowers. Inside, tourists purchase tickets to see the archaeological remains of what is thought to have been the oldest settled neighborhood of ancient Jerusalem. Either by themselves or on a guided tour, they will explore the preserved artifacts from King David’s time, marvel at the underground tunnels that showcase archaeological findings, visit the “miracle pool” and then finally end their tour, once again near the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

On the other side of the street—just a few feet away from the pristinely manicure entrance to the City of David—a dilapidated shanty home is spray painted with Arabic graffiti that says, “This is my house. This is Palestine. This is Silwan.”

But to most of the tourists of the City of David, this is just scribble.

Behind me an obviously Palestinian man hobbles down the steep incline on a crutch and a cane. He looks down as he walks, trying to keep his balance on the uneven, barely paved road. He sees me looking at the Wadi Hilwah Information Center—a small office a few meters away from the City of David that offers information on the “true story” of the Israeli tourist attraction.


“Bshwaya–a little bit”

“Follow me”

He introduces himself to me as Ahmed and ushers me into the building through a side entrance and then leads me through several hallways and finally to a small office in the back. There is a map of Palestine–not of Israel and the 1967 borders, but of the whole country, painted with the pattern of the Palestinian flag hanging over his desk.

“In 2009, I was shot by a settler in both legs–he tried to kill me,” he tells me as he struggles to sit down.

When I looked at Ahmed for a second time, now sitting down, I could see that he is a young man—I had only thought he was old from the pained way that he moved his body. The man who tried to kill him—an armed settler—was arrested, but released after two hours. Apparently this is common; according to Israeli Human Rights Organization Yesh Din, 91 percent of complaints filed by Palestinians about Israeli settler violence are dismissed.

“It wasn’t the City of David that changed things,” he tells me. “It was the settlers.”

Before Jewish settlers began to move into Silwan, many Palestinians profited from the tourism industry provided by the City of David. Many were employed at the site itself, or had shops frequented by tourists. However, in 1997 the City of David—a national public park—was purchased and privatized by Elad—an ideologically right-wing settler organization. Elad used the expansion of the City of David to expand the Jewish settler enterprise. Palestinians were forbidden from working in the City of David, closing their neighborhood shops frequented by tourists and replacing them with Jewish settler shops. Jewish settlers began to move into the neighborhood, forcibly displacing Palestinians—and being armed with guns and heavy security by the Israeli government to be able to do so. Many—like the settler who attempted to assassinate Ahmed—are specifically requested to perform targeted assassinations by the Israeli government.

It is no coincidence that since the settlers’ arrival and ownership in 1997, the City of David has expanded from a modest museum to a massive archaeological park, destroying Palestinian homes and buildings and drilling tunnels underneath homes that rattle the foundations and cause homes to collapse.

“The drilling is the worst of all—things are worse in Silwan than other parts of Jerusalem because of this,” Ahmed comments. “They want to make life unbearable so that we leave.”

Most recently, plans have been approved for a six-story Jewish Center to serve as the final tourist attraction of the City of David. To make room for the Center—which will be on stilts to show more archaeological ruins—many more Palestinian homes will be destroyed. Once the Jewish Center is completed, tourists will enter the City of David in its pristine welcome center, purchase a ticket to see the archaeological park, walk under numerous tunnels admiring the ruins and then emerge at the Jewish Center—all the while oblivious to the Palestinian story that is crumbling to ruins above their heads.

I bid farewell to Ahmed and wander into the Old City–from this entrance, it’s the Jewish Quarter. Overpriced Israeli taxis line up near the Western Wall to take tourists to their next destinations and young pale-skinned boys in yarmulkes sit around talking to each other, eating falafel. Israeli Defense Forces soldiers with M16s slapping against their hips enjoyed the February Middle East sunshine streaming into the Jewish Quarter’s clean, whitewashed walls–flirting heavily with the only girl in their unit, clearing enjoying the attention that her long dirty blonde hair and tanned complexion afforded her.

I climbed the stairs past the Western Wall, into a courtyard of tourist shops–including popular T-Shirts that said, “Israel! Guns ‘n’ Moses!” and a sat down outside at a café. Soon, an American tourist group was clustered around, complaining true to their American form that this place only accepted Israeli shekels and wouldn’t take dollars. I started chatting with one of them—a prototypical American tourist with a floppy hat and a camera around his neck. He told me he was from Florida.

“What have you seen so far?” I asked him, deflecting the conversation from my own visit to “Israel”–I can only bullshit that I’m an American tourist spending two weeks with my mysteriously absent Jewish boyfriend in Jerusalem for so long.

“Oh, what haven’t we seen!” he said with the exhausted exhilaration of a satisfied tourist. “We went to the Sea of Galilee, Haifa, the Negev, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv and now Jerusalem…we’re completely wiped!”

I smiled. It is not my place to say, but I would be willing to wager a bet that there is still quite a bit about this place that he hasn’t seen yet–even though Ahmed, the Wadi Hilwah Information Center and the 30,000 Palestinians of Silwan are only a ten minute walk away.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Manski


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