Tribune / July 6, 2021
For decades, Israel has used culture and heritage as a weapon in its war against the Palestinians – but its latest move in Silwan is the most brazen yet: replacing living neighbourhoods with a biblical theme park.
On 7 June, the municipality of Jerusalem delivered demolition notices to residents of Al-Bustan, an area of the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, which lies on the south wall of the old city. The municipality plans to demolish 100 properties, displacing 1,550 people, and gradually repopulate the entire Silwan neighbourhood with 25,000 settlers. Residents of Al-Bustan will have to ‘voluntarily’ demolish their own homes, or bulldozers will be sent in, and residents will be issued with a fine of $6,000.
The bulldozers were sent in on the last week of June, destroying a local butcher’s shop. Protestors were met with military enforcement, tear gas, and rubber bullets. There are currently 20 other properties in the firing line. There is almost no way for Palestinians to challenge demolition orders in the court, and besides, orders are rarely given directly to affected families; they might be strung up on a nearby building, or littered on the ground. Sometimes, the first inclination you might have that your home is being destroyed is the sound of bulldozers outside.
Since 2005, residents of Al-Bustan have received warnings to demolish nearly 90 homes, on the pretext that extensions and buildings have been constructed without permits. Although Palestinians make up the majority of the population of East Jerusalem, Israeli zoning laws have marked out 35 percent of the land area to be for illegal settlements, and another 52 percent for ‘green areas’, where construction is prohibited. This is one example of Israel’s larger program of ‘displace and replace’: the demolition of homes to make way for ‘green space’, emptiness, is particularly insidious.
The plan for the replacement of Al-Bustan is Gan Hamelech Park, billed as a new biblical theme park for the city of Jerusalem, which is to be linked to the pre-existing City of David national park. The development plan includes archeological excavations culminating in the ‘restoration’ of the park, the planting of a ‘blooming garden’, a touristic zone complete with restaurants, galleries and museums, as well as a new residential neighbourhood for settlers.
The role of the heritage industry has a long history in Israel’s war on Palestine. In the words of Benedict Anderson, ‘colonial regimes begin by attaching themselves to antiquity as much as conquest.’ In the case of Israel, the claim to the Silwan neighbourhood is based on the biblical significance of the land. El’Ad, a not-for-profit organization with ties to the far-right settler movement, has been almost exclusively responsible for both archaeological excavations and a residential redevelopment project in Silwan since the 1990s. The City of David is supposedly the old seat of power of King David, described in the Hebrew Bible as the King of Israel and Judah.
The park is a leading touristic site in Jerusalem, but also a political and territorial weapon: in their excavations, El’Ad prioritizes biblical findings above all else. From the visitor centre to tours of the land, international tourists are presented with a history that is exclusively biblical, erasing a long Palestinian heritage and contemporary urban life, and implying a shame that the Holy land is being used and possessed by non-Jews. In redeveloped settlements, carefully rebuilt houses are stepped into the hills, and with proximity to archaeological sites, arched windows, and limestone exteriors, evade any sense of modernism, reminding tourists of imagery of ancient buildings in David’s city, and projecting a narrative of linear continuity. Museumizing the area, and forcibly erasing Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem makes it easier to imagine ‘a land without a people’ as well as creating a historic homeland to return to in the first place.
Not only is the culture industry in Israel invested in removing Palestinian homes, but in removing their access to their own history, sacred spaces, and culture, too. In West Jerusalem, the Museum of Tolerance, also called ‘the Museum of Human Dignity’, is currently being constructed on top of the Palestinian cemetery Ma’aman Allah, which contains more than 2000 graves, some of which date back to the eleventh century. The house of Palestinian architect Andoni Baramki, who was forced into exile during the Nakba in 1948, has since been appropriated and turned into a sociopolitical contemporary art museum, the Museum of the Seam, whose exhibitions focus on ‘controversial’ social topics like the ‘right to protest.’
In creating such spaces, Israel manufactures depth in promoting an international image of reflexivity about their past crimes of colonial violence, ultimately naturalizing its existence by inaugurating Israeli national consciousness as uniquely self-critical, introspective, and therefore civilized. By contrast, Palestinians are literally denied depth, through military and surveillance technologies that render them pure biology or data, devoid of worlds.
Since its inception, the state of Israel has directly targeted sites of Palestinian cultural memory and property, looting libraries, archives and cultural institutions. Israeli filmmaker Benny Brunner and historian Ilan Pappe’s 2012 documentary The Great Book Robbery details how some 70,000 books, artworks, diaries, and even carpets were seized from Palestinian homes abandoned during the Nakba, and claims that this was with the specific intention of ‘erasing the Palestinians from history.’ In 2002, during ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, Israeli occupying forces looted and destroyed Palestinian libraries and archives. Last month, the Dar Jacir Arts and Research Centre in the West Bank was breached and raided by Israeli armed forces, and its accompanying garden set on fire by Israeli projectiles.
The projection of Israel’s national image as not only a beacon of democracy and ‘tolerance’, but as a unique cultural and historic hub, continues to depend on the ongoing erasure of Palestinian culture and history. This destruction is not just material; in 2011, Israel’s culture minister Miri Regev introduced the Nakba Law, which denied funding to any institution that recognized the Palestinian Nakba, and in 2018 proposed to cut funding to museums that highlighted a Palestinian national narrative.
Nakba is not a one-time event. Accumulation by dispossession not only includes razing Palestinian land and displacing and killing its people, but destroying evidence of its history and culture, and replacing it with teleology, new international museums and galleries. When we speak of a free Palestine, we speak of a nation able to articulate its own history and repossess its culture, as archive projects such as the Palestinian Museum Digital Archive are already doing. We speak of the reality of Palestinian life, and of knowing, in the future, that Palestine was always really there.
Leila Sackur is a freelance writer from London