There has been a lot of press coverage of yesterday’s march and counter-protest in Silwan in East Jerusalem. The New York Times reported that “Israeli Rightists Stir[red] Tensions in East Jerusalem” and Israel’s HaAretz Newspaper reported that “Clashes Erupt[ed] As Extreme Rightists March Through East Jerusalem”.
The press likes to focus on violence and conflict here in Israel — maybe it’s just what people have come to expect. But there was a bigger story yesterday from the march and protest: a story about the people of East Jerusalem working peacefully to show the world that the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem do not want to get lost in the tired rhetoric of politics as usual. It is a story of changing the political dialogue. And it’s one of hope.
The Palestinian residents of Wadi Hilweh in Silwan are living in a very special place. Located at the slope down the hill from the Haram A-Sharif – the Temple Mount, Wadi Hilweh is the place where the city of Jerusalem was established 5,000 years ago and where many cultures left their mark. The Jewish settlers who have established “the City of David” and who started to settle in the neighborhood in the early 1990’s are taking advantage of the historical and archaeological significance of the place in order to make it Jewish-dominated. The Palestinian residents are, at best, ignored or pushed aside. Yesterday’s march was yet another manifestation of the daily oppression of the Palestinian presence in Silwan.
The march, with its deliberately aggressive and provocative route and message has been planned for quite some time. While the marchers were planning their political grandstanding and the PM’s office was trying to avoid another embarrassing explanation to the Americans, a group of Wadi Hilweh residents was meeting at its community center to try to find a different path. It was important to them to remain non-violent but also to assert their rights to live in their homes without harassment and without being pushed away. They also wanted to make a statement to the world about the true nature of the neighborhood which was forced to host the march (and the settlement). I think they succeeded beautifully.
Children in the neighborhood stayed home from school for the day. Their parents, aided by Israeli and Palestinian friends and supporters, decorated the neighborhood with flags — white flags of peace saying “I Love you Silwan” in the three colors of the Palestinian flag:
Residents hung empty pairs of shoes throughout the neighborhood, in a nod to the custom of throwing shoes as a sign of protest:
Children were given balloons in the colors of the Palestinian flag and armed not with stones but with pots and pans from their kitchens to bang on. When the marchers came to their neighborhood, families and neighbors gathered together to play Arabic music, bang on pots and pans, and make the statement that this was an Arab neighborhood, populated by actual Arab families.
It was exciting to see that, as soon as the march left the main street of Wadi Hilweh, the spontaneous demonstration of the Palestinian residents together with Israeli activists singing and yelling, happy together, at least for a moment:
It is very easy to forget in the political turmoil surrounding Jerusalem that we are talking about actual functioning neighborhoods filled with very real people who have been caught up in a globally important political issue. The counter-protest in Wadi Hilweh was a thoughtful and nonviolent response to the message of hate and domination that the marchers brought to their neighborhood. Around 100 or more people participated in this counter demonstration, as compared with about 30 marchers and a handful of stone-throwing kids in Silwan. How in the world was this not the story that the press picked up? Please take this opportunity to spread the word about what is really happening.
If you are interested in learning more about the fantastic community center that was established by the residents, please check out their website in English, Hebrew, or Arabic: www.silwanic.net