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Palestinians May Be Evicted From Jerusalem Neighborhood To Make Way For Biblical Park


Dozens of Palestinian families in an East Jerusalem neighborhood could have their homes demolished to make way for a special project by Jewish settlers - an archaeological park near ancient ruins. It could be the next focus of the conflict over Jerusalem. Plans to evict Palestinians from another neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, helped spark the Israeli-Palestinian violence in May. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on the latest neighborhood developing as a flashpoint.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Usually we begin a story like this in the neighborhoods that are the flashpoints. But first, we're going back in time to an active archaeological site and a tourist destination - the City of David National Park, named for a biblical monarch who ruled here more than 3,000 years ago. There are plans to expand this site to create a biblical theme park in the valley below.


AMOS: There's an underground spring here, too - a water source for ancient Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus cured a blind man. James Elrod works as a tour guide.

JAMES ELROD: It's an underground, manmade carved tunnel - over 3,300 years ago.

AMOS: How many tourists come to see this?

ELROD: In 2019, a million visitors arrived to see the City of David sites.

AMOS: This tourist site is just outside the walls of the Old City, on the edge of Silwan - a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and annexed. But most countries still consider this occupied territory. Israel claims the city as its undivided capital. Palestinians want part of it for their capital. The City of David tourist complex is run by a settlers group, the Ir David Foundation, that critics say weaponize archaeological findings to cement Jewish control in this part of the city.

DANIEL SEIDEMANN: The most important archaeological sites in the country are controlled by the settlers of Silwan.

AMOS: That's Daniel Seidemann, a legal expert on the city, often a critic of government policies. He's especially critical of the plan for the major expansion - this lush, green space called the King's Garden. The plan includes the demolition of Palestinian homes in one part of Silwan, al-Bustan, to make way for the park.

SEIDEMANN: Is it legal for the government of Israel to harness all of its authority to take property from one population who is rightless and to turn them over to biblically motivated settlers in order to ring the Old City with a renewed biblical realm? That's what's happening in the City of David. That's what's happening in al-Bustan.

AMOS: Arieh King says it is legal under Israeli law. He's a leader in the settler movement and deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He can see al-Bustan from his balcony. He supports the demolitions and is eager for the new park. He wants more settlers to move here to ensure Jerusalem is the eternal Jewish capital.

ARYEH KING: God gave us this land, and who are we to give this land to somebody else?

AMOS: He is impatient. He says the first demolition orders went out in 2005. He insists the Palestinian homes in al-Bustan are illegal - built without a city permit.

KING: Law is the law. Any illegal building should be demolished in Jerusalem. Yes, Bustan is going to be demolished for park, for public buildings, streetlights, everything.

AMOS: Anti-settlement activists say building permits are routinely denied to Palestinians. Earlier this year, the city asked a local court to revive demolition orders again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: And that's why Palestinians in al-Bustan are anxious. The Abu Diab family got one of the latest demolition notices, which means Israeli bulldozers could arrive at any time. Everyone here is on edge, as the family gives a tour of the three-story stone house.

Could we look at your kitchen?

I'TIDAL ABU DIAB: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: I'tidal Abu Diab has lived here since 1985, when she came as a bride. Now there are a dozen family members living together. From her roof, she can see Israeli flags planted on the guarded compounds of settlers who've expanded their presence here. When I ask if she's worried that she could lose her home, her soft, round face creases and her eyes well up.

ABU DIAB: (Through interpreter) It's a very painful thing for me to imagine.

AMOS: She vows to live in the rubble.

ABU DIAB: (Through interpreter) This is my home. We will stay here.

AMOS: You've been living with this tension since 2005. How does that work?

ABU DIAB: (Through interpreter) I have not gained peace of mind for one second. It has changed me totally. I'm always nervous with the children. I'm unable to do that. It has only created tension in my family.

AMOS: Tuesday, just a few days after we spoke, Israeli bulldozers arrived in the early morning and demolished a butcher shop in the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: There were skirmishes between protesters and police, with some injuries. Dozens of Palestinian homes face a similar threat here. Attempts to make room for settlers in the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah captured international attention in May. Al-Bustan might be next. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.