Two more Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem by the Israeli government today, leaving 18 people homeless. Earlier today Israeli bulldozers demolished another two-family home in the town of Isawiya in East Jerusalem. On Tuesday, a four-family home was bulldozed and its 30 residents made homeless. Meanwhile, Jewish-only settlements continue to expand on Palestinian land.

As many South Africans who’ve been here continue to attest, Apartheid wasn’t this bad.

In honor of the families made homeless over the past two days, I’m posting a story written by David Shulman about a neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Al Bustan in Silwan, a Palestinian town southeast of the Jerusalem Old City. It’s part of occupied Arab East Jerusalem. The entire neighborhood of Al Bustan, housing over 1,000 people, is threatened with demolition by the Israeli government.

Here’s a story of Israelis and Palestinians trying to prevent this by working together to clean and rehabilitate the town’s ancient aqueduct. It’s a simple but wrenchingly beautiful story written by a Jewish Israeli man. It brings me to tears every time I read it.

Two of the homes demolished today were in Silwan.

Work Day, Al Bustan, Silwan

David Shulman
July 2, 2005

Ankle-deep in the pungent, turbid water of Silwan, we stand in the old ruined aqueduct, hoes and pick-axes in our hands. It is 9:30 in the morning and already hot. We have come to clean the aqueduct and make it functional again. We scrape away at its muddy bed, filling buckets with sandy clay and rocks to be emptied out on the hill below, where a new terrace is being built by our Palestinian friends.

The task is Sisyphean; the Palestinian locals keep reassuring us that we will hit bottom after 15 centimetres or so, but as the day progresses the channel becomes deeper and deeper, with no bottom in sight. The water flows downhill from an ancient spring somewhere up-mountain — so we are told — a spring older than King David, who lived here in Silwan, older even than the Jebusites from whom he captured the city 3000 years ago. The Silwanis think the spring was here from the beginning of time.

In the old days, the aqueduct carried this clean spring-water in a carved stone channel just under the wall of heavy stones that lines the road; in this way water reached down into the village for drinking, washing, irrigation. At some point in the last years, the Jerusalem municipality blocked it at one end and built a large concrete cess-pool just below it. So now the water still emerging from the ancient spring mostly stands stagnant in the aqueduct, evaporating in the hot sun of the Jerusalem summer.

The people of al Bustan have long wanted to unblock the channel, to clean it and let water flow back toward their neighborhood; but they have been afraid to do this on their own, knowing very well that the police or the Border Guards would almost certainly intervene to prevent them. Only our presence here today, some 100 volunteers from [Israeli peace groups] Ta’ayush [Arab-Jewish partnership], Bat Shalom, Machsom Watch [Checkpoint Watch], and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, has given them the freedom to put their ready plans into operation.

We are here, however, not just for the water and the terrace but mainly because of the [Jerusalem] Municipality’s plans to demolish 88 houses in al Bustan — in fact, to wipe out the neighborhood altogether, ostensibly in order to create an “archaeological park” in the heart of Silwan. In fact, the intention is very different and altogether transparent: al Bustan will fall victim to the latest attempt to Judaize east Jerusalem, pursuant to the settlers’ stated goal and the government’s clear policy of making the lives of Palestinian Jerusalemites as miserable as possible.

The sheer scale of the current attempt — some 1000 people will be rendered homeless — has sparked considerable protest as well as this collaborative venture between Israeli peace-groups and the local committee. We have come in the hope of drawing international attention to what Israel is planning, and thus of forcing the government to back down. We have come in solidarity with innocent victims. And we have come to work.

There is a lot of press, including a Korean TV journalist making a film about life in Israel-Palestine, a reporter from the Berliner Zeitung, and a Chinese crew; if they manage to get a few seconds on the evening news in China, possibly many millions will see this happy moment. Several video crews are filming continuously, and indeed the hillside looks, to my eyes, strikingly photogenic. There are teams of volunteers cleaning up the debris of decades — rusted spikes wrapped in barbed-wire, blocks of concrete, huge broken branches, and moldy piles of tin and plastic; others are breaking up the caked top-layer of soil just down from the aqueduct, readying it for the grassy terrace it will soon become; some are filling buckets with rocks and earth and pouring them out on the hill below to build up the emerging terrace.

The whole hillside is alive with color and movement; young men from the village, and some children, work side-by-side with the Israelis, and the site is changing rapidly, minute by minute, the long neglect over at last. Amnon, only recently recovered from a broken shoulder, is working heroically with his one uninjured arm, hoeing and raking and carrying buckets and branches and heavy stones.

I am not alone; three Sanskritists from our group at the Institute for Advanced Studies have joined me, along with R., my Tamilist friend and colleague from New Zealand; also P. — my closest friend in the world — is with us for the first time. Thirty years ago we were in the [Israeli] army together — an irrevocable bond. He is working — hard — on the Sabbath; he rode the bus down to the village with the rest of us; he is an observant Jew.

How does it feel, I ask him?

“Like Shabbat Bereshit,” he says — the Torah reading about the creation of the world.

From the start, the police are also with us, seeming, on the surface, rather benign — at first two blue jeeps, reinforced later by a detachment of Border Guards. They have promised that we would not be stopped on our way down into the village, and they do not appear to be unduly troubled by the notion of this work-day. It is not, after all, a demonstration. But around 11:00 a settler appears, dressed in his white Shabbat clothes, with conspicuous skull-cap and fringes and a well-fed belly. He looks scornfully at the Jews working beside Palestinian Arabs. He lives in a house seized from one of the Silwanis, overlooking this hillside.

He stops for a word with the police commander. It is not allowed, he claims — and, as usual, the settler calls the shots — to pour earth to make a terrace, or to plant a tree, or to repair a stone wall, without specific permits. We are intending to do all of the above, but now the officer informs us, bowing to the settler’s mysterious authority, that we can go on working so long as we refrain from these clearly criminal acts. They will stay here to make sure we keep within bounds.

The man working beside me says to me in Arabic: “He — the settler — is living in my house. He took my house.” He is, of course, enraged. “All the problems,” he says, “come from them; only from them. They won’t let us live. They won’t let us breathe.”

Another Silwani bursts out in a torrent of curses, and for a moment the rhythm of our hoes and buckets is rent by the pulsations of rage. The moment passes. We will wait a while before deciding about the tree.

Amiel has brought it, a huge mulberry, tut in Arabic and Hebrew; he and Ezra scoured the nurseries of Jerusalem looking for it, because this place was years ago known as “Tut Junction,” after a famous, ancient mulberry tree. That tree is gone, and we intend to replace it today, also to restore the street signs with the original names. Ezra, meanwhile, has been imprisoned by the army for visiting our friends in the south Hebron caves; tonight he will be brought before a Jerusalem court for an extension of his remand. They seem, this time, intent on punishing him. Nothing, truly nothing, threatens the army more than a man of peace.

From my position inside the aqueduct, I wonder out loud with P. at the hate that has risen up within me at the sight and sound of the arrogant settler. I can’t deny its existence. I can call up not even an iota of empathy, and I refuse to try to imagine his warped inner world. Hate, I say to P., is a part of us; like love. Better to acknowledge it.

Is that why you are here? he asks me. Is that why you act? Of course, he agrees, this settler is hateful: look at his swagger, look at the stolen house, look at the hate coursing through him. Who, after all, would try to stop a man from planting a tree in his own garden? But is that a reason to act?

No, I answer. I mostly seem to act from some other, obscure place. Maybe it is a need to be outside, away from my professor’s desk. Maybe it is a hunger for the intense connectedness of days like this, days of crossing the borders, one by one. Maybe it is love — for these people working beside me. Maybe, very likely, it is pure, uncontainable outrage at the immense injustice inflicted on them, day by day, and a refusal to let the Jews, or anyone else, perpetrate it without protest: being Jewish, so I thought, was mostly about just such a refusal. The prophets who lived here in Silwan, when David was king, sang mostly about that. If we had been alive in those days, I tell P., I would have been a ragged street urchin, mad with poetry, and you would have been one of those prophets. That is why you are here today.

Never before have I been so needed as a medic: there is a host of minor cuts and wounds which require cleaning and bandaging. I almost exhaust the medical supplies I brought with me; it is time to refresh my medic’s pouch. By now I am covered in mud and reeking of the stagnant water; will the stench ever leave my shoes, my jeans? I am also very thirsty, as the day wears on, an endless and relentless thirst no liquid can quench.

After lunch I climb with P. into the Roman antiquities farther up hill — a bath-house in the shadow of an overhanging cliff. Ta’ayush, P. says, reminds him of our days in the army; there is the same stark, unfamiliar eros of body and sun and smell, of the group living its life as a collective, of the simplicity of eating and working and using your hands.

Yes, I say — suddenly memory cascades back to Shomron and basic training, I can smell it again. But there we were slaves, and here we are free.

They ask us to climb up into the cemetery above the road for a few photos, for the Arabic newspaper Al Quds. Only men — women should not go into this space. We somewhat comically, artificially play at cleaning the grave-stones, mostly marked as children’s graves, for the sake of the picture. Why didn’t they photograph us working furiously downhill? Perhaps the sight of Israelis cleaning Muslim tombstones will have some power.

Pictures over, we go back to work. A little later someone climbs the tall electricity pole and ties a newly painted signpost on it, in Arabic and English, another fruit of today’s labors: maqbarat al atfal above, and below, an unconscious touch of poetry: “Children’s Symmetry.”

By now it is 3:00, the day begins to wane. Time to wind down: and time for the tree, come what may. Amiel carries it into the newly hoed plot. It is a splendid specimen, and within minutes it stands embedded in the soil, lightly tied to an iron stake; wrapped around the stake, covered in plastic, is a huge enlargement of an aerial photograph of the village, with a bright circle tracing the boundaries of this neighborhood threatened with extinction.. We pour buckets of water over the base of the tree, and a cheer goes up: “Silwan! Silwan!” People clap and sing and shout.

But now the police wake up, since we have at last broken the law. They march back and forth on the road, barking into their cell-phones. The Border Guards look restless, or agitated, as well, and for a few moments I wonder if at this final moment we will have to face a fracas, a police charge, or the arrest of some of our friends. In a way, I don’t much care. There is something about planting a tree that stands outside and beyond all other categories. It is always and ever auto-telic: its own intrinsic justification. I am glad we have planted this mulberry tree here, glad to have been part of it, glad also for the defiance. And now, as the policemen look on with anger, apparently hesitant to move, the Silwani spokesmen rise to speak through the loudspeaker to all of us who have worked here today.

“This is the day of Silwan,” says M., in Arabic, “a famous day, a day of peace. I thank you on behalf of the people of Silwan. You have come from all over, even from distant countries, to help us, who have been targeted by the Israeli authorities — one thousand men, women, and children from al Bustan. I thank you for the sake of peace. Let all people know. In Silwan we are not free. We want our liberty, we want our livelihood, we want an end to our agony. Make sure that the Israeli government knows, and the Jerusalem municipality knows: we will never give up our homes. Make sure for the sake of peace, the peace we all want.”

Again the cries: “Silwan! Silwan!” Mixed in with them is another shout, almost a rhyme: “Salaam!”

Now Khulood speaks for Ta’ayush in a swift, crystalline Arabic, every syllable a promise of human hope. “We are not afraid,” she says, “not afraid of the Border Guards or the Police or the soldiers, not afraid of anyone. We came here to stand beside you, and we will never abandon this struggle. Your struggle is ours.”

Someone suddenly thrusts the loudspeaker at me. I try to escape it, try to push it back at Amnon, at anyone, but they insist and I can see there is no choice. They want someone to say something in Hebrew, and it will have to be me. I have no idea what to say, but I press the button and start, without thinking.

“We had the honor, and the pleasure, of working here today as your guests. Thank you for inviting us. We loved this day, as we love and honor peace. We want you to know that we are with you and that we will never allow anyone to destroy your houses. We will come whenever you need us, whenever you invite us here, as your friends.”

I stop, the loudspeaker mercifully passes on to another, but one of the young Silwanis hurries over to me, takes my arm.

“You don’t need an invitation,” he says to me, speaking of all of us, his eyes full of light. “Silwan is your home.”