Accompanied by police, Jewish settlers seize East Jerusalem land owned by Greek Orthodox Church

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  January 3, 2023

During Christmas week, settlers backed by Israeli police took over land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, displacing the Palestinian family renting it.

Earlier last week, Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem — accompanied by Israeli police — forcibly evicted a Palestinian family from the land they have leased from the Greek Orthodox Church since the early 1900s. The property, about 1.2 acres, is located just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque and immediately adjacent to the Pool of Siloam which, it turns out, is currently ground zero for the State of Israel’s work to extend the reach of the City of David National Park.

According to a report by Emek Shaveh — an Israeli NGO “working to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples” — members of the Sumrin family in Silwan have receipts proving they have paid their rent throughout the years, using the terraced land to grow agricultural produce using traditional methods.

In a December 27 statement on its website, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem “condemned the storming of its land today… by an Israeli radical group [that] has no right or judicial backing in their favour to allow them to enter or occupy the land.” Recognizing that the Sumrin family is still cultivating the land to this day, the statement continues, “the Patriarchate also condemns the fact that the raid took place with the protection of armed Israeli police and border guards.”  

In its statement, the Patriarchate charges: “this incident represents a direct reaction of the radical Israeli groups to the Patriarchate’s criticism of their expansionist practices that are being deliberately targeted against the Christian churches in Jerusalem, as His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, made it clear in his speech during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Jaffa Gate.”

One of the “radical Israeli groups” to which the Patriarchate and other religious leaders in Jerusalem refer is the Elad Foundation, Israel’s most influential settler group. In addition to its project to settle Israeli Jews in occupied East Jerusalem, a primary goal of the settler organization is the funding of dubious archeological projects in East Jerusalem. 

Excavation of the Pool of Siloam is part of Elad’s transformation of East Jerusalem through the development of its City of David National Park. Plans for the park’s expansion call for a cable car; a seven-story Jewish cultural center on land where Palestinian families used to gather; and, in the valley below, homes for settlers and shopping for tourists in the restored area referred to in the Bible as the King’s Garden (Nehemiah 3:15). A biblical theme park, critics charge.

The Pool of Siloam is an important site for both Jews and Christians, among others. The pool is thought to have been created in the 8th century BC by Israel’s King Hezekiah (Kings 2:20-20) and is the place where, according to the Bible, Jesus sent a blind man to dip in its water to be healed (John 9:7). 

A joint press release issued by the City of David Foundation, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that the archeological excavations, scheduled to begin in January, will reveal the pool of Siloam in its entirety. Pointing to the release, Terrestrial Jerusalem writes on its webpage, “For all those needing proof, this is further evidence that in Silwan, the settlers and the Government of Israel are one of the same.”

Terrestrial Jerusalem

Terrestrial Jerusalem is an Israeli NGO that tracks developments in Jerusalem which might “destabilize the city or spark violence or create humanitarian crises.” According to its report, “the takeover of the Siloam Pool is not taking place in isolation… In recent months, we have revealed the implementation of an Israeli Government Plan which entails encircling the Old City with Jewish settlements and settler-related projects…this plan not only fragments Palestinian East Jerusalem, it marginalizes the Christian and Muslim presence in the Old City and its environs.”

The report charges: “We are witnessing the incorporation of the historic, religious and cultural core of Jerusalem into a biblically interpreted Israel under the de facto authority of East Jerusalem. This is not just another ‘bad thing’ or ‘unhelpful unilateral step’. We are witnessing a radical transformation of the very character of Jerusalem, in ways not seen before.” 

In an email exchange, Emek Shaveh’s International Relations Coordinator Talya Ezrahi, writes, “From our point of view, the raid by the border police which allowed the takeover by the Elad settlers organization does not promote archaeology. On the contrary, archaeology cannot exist as a legitimate scientific endeavour when it relies on military force. When the practice of archaeology is enabled through the forceful displacement of people it loses its scientific credibility and is reduced to a political act.” 

Ezrahi no doubt speaks for the many Israeli and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations that seek a just future for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians when she insists, “Despite the increased pressure and attempts to silence civil society organizations, we will continue to speak up against abuses in the name of archaeology and heritage and promote a vision of heritage which is inclusive and beneficial to all those who have roots in this land.”

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)