Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Battle over Silwan

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Battle over Silwan

Article excerpt

Fabricating Palestinian History

On August 26, 2010, a violent clash broke out between Jewish and Arab residents of Silwan, a predominantly Muslim village outside the southern end of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The name derives from the biblical "Shiloah"1 and its subsequently Graecized "Siloam."2

On the face of it, the sparring that erupted over a gate built illegally by Arab residents3 may seem like a miniature version of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over who controls the Holy Land. But reducing the struggle to a mere real estate dispute misses a critical point in understanding the persistence of the larger conflict. For the battle of Silwan is a microcosm of a larger fight, one in which one side, the Palestinian, seeks to erase the existence of the other - not merely through traditional armed conflict but also by rewriting history.


The tactic of denying a Jewish past to sites and holy places in the Land of Israel is of relatively recent vintage in the Arab-Israeli conflict but one that has increased dramatically in the past few years.

Jerusalem's Temple Mount, where both the First and Second Temples stood for some eight hundred years in total, now holds the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the underground Solomon's Stables mosque. Both in 1 925 and again in 1 950, Palestine's Supreme Muslim Council unequivocally recognized the Jewish connection to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary; i.e., Temple Mount), describing it as a holy site for Jews in its self-published A Brief Guide to alHaram al-Sharif:

Its identity with the site of Solomon's Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to universal belief, on which "David built there an altar unto the Lord."4

By the mid 1950s, this admission had been expunged, and by 2001, the chief Muslim cleric of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Jerusalem mufti Ikrima Sabri, was able to state,

There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place in the past. In the whole city, there is not even a single stone indicating Jewish history. Our [Muslim] right, on the other hand, is very clear. This place belongs to us for 1,500 years.5

The Western Wall, until recently the only visible remnant of the Temple complex and the place at which Jews have prayed for millennia, has been similarly transformed. Muslims have renamed it the Wall of al-Buraq after the tethering place of the horse on which the prophet Muhammad is reputed to have taken his night flight to Jerusalem.6 Palestinians continue to deny a Jewish connection despite the likelihood that the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1 520-66) reaffirmed Jewish rights to worship at the wall,7 or that three centuries later, the Muslim ruler Ibrahim Pasha (son of Egypt's viceroy Muhammad Ali) issued a decree regarding the site that allowed Jews "to pay visits to it as of old."8

Even the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem has come under assault. For centuries apilgrimage site, especially for barren Jewish women, it is mentioned by the twelfth century Arab historian, al-Idrisi, and became a site of veneration for Muslims as well, known as "Kubat Rahil." In 1615, Jews were given exclusive rights to the tomb by their Muslim mler, and again, in 1830, the Ottomans recognized the legal rights of the Jews to the site. Sir Moses Montefiore was permitted to purchase the site in 1841, at which time he restored the tomb and added a small prayer hall for Muslims.9 Since 1 996, however, Palestinians have taken to calling it the "Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque" claiming it as the burial place of Muhammad's first servant10 although there are centuries-old sites in Damascus1 ' and Jordan that have long-made that claim. In 2010, the heavily politicized organization, UNESCO, joined the Muslim deniers and demanded that Israel remove the grave from its National Heritage List and cede control of it to the Palestinians. …

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