JERUSALEM — The bulldozer and more than a dozen Israeli police cars arrived unannounced at around 8:30 a.m. on June 29 to demolish Nidal al-Rajabi's butcher shop in al-Bustan. Residents poured into the streets of this Palestinian area of the Silwan neighborhood, south of east Jerusalem's Old City, as soon as word spread that the unwelcome Israeli team had come.
"They want to demolish 17 houses in the al-Bustan neighborhood," says Fakhri Abu Diab, who worried that a long-dreaded plan to destroy and replace Palestinian homes with a new tourist site — a lush garden with a Bible theme — was now underway.
Abu Diab, the head of al-Bustan's residence committee, claims Israeli police teargassed his house and knocked him down in the skirmishes between security forces and rock-throwing protesters that ensued that day.
"I came just to take pictures," he says. "The police injured me, five or six catch me."
He had rushed into the street following the first reports that the bulldozer had arrived to demolish the butcher shop, which had been built without a permit.
No one in al-Bustan denies they build without permits, but they say they have no choice because the Jerusalem municipality routinely denies building permits to them.
The families of al-Bustan have lived for more than a decade with anxiety about displacement. The plan to replace their homes with a park first emerged in 2005. Then came demolition orders from the municipality.
"Currently, there are 78 demolition orders outstanding," says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and a frequent critic of government policies. "Sixty have been stayed by the court until August." A total of 130 Palestinian households are affected.
"They don't want us," says Abu Diab, referring to Israeli settler groups who support the Old Testament-inspired park, which is to be built on part of al-Bustan land. "They want to make a garden for Jewish."
The park, known as the King's Garden, is considered part of the ancient gardens of King Solomon. It was first proposed in 2005 by Uri Lupolianski, then Jerusalem's mayor, and was revived five years later by another mayor, Nir Barkat. But each time the park was proposed, court challenges delayed the demolition orders to remove Palestinian homes.
There was also pressure from Europe and the U.S. — including what Israel's Haaretz newspaper described as "a high-profile conflict with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over [Barkat's] intention to demolish the homes" in 2010, settled only after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to postpone the demolitions.
But Palestinian residents of al-Bustan saw last month's butcher shop demolition as a sign that the park plan had been revived and their homes could be next. They feared the long battle for east Jerusalem was entering a new phase.
"God gave us this land"
Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and claims "undivided Jerusalem" as its capital city. Most countries consider east Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel. Palestinians seek part of the city for the capital of their hoped-for independent state.
"God gave us this land, and who are we to give it to somebody else?" declares Aryeh King, a settlers' movement leader and the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He lives in Ma'ale HaZeitim, a guarded settlement within a Palestinian neighborhood near al-Bustan, which he can see from his balcony.
"The law is the law. Any illegal building should be demolished in Jerusalem," he says. "Yes, Bustan is going to be demolished for a park."
King is eager for plans to move forward. He wants more Israeli settlers to move here. Settler groups claim they have the right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, as they did in ancient times and before the Israeli state was founded in 1948.
Settlers are using archaeology to make land claims
On a slope above al-Bustan, there is a popular tourist attraction called the City of David National Park, named for the biblical monarch who ruled some 3,000 years ago. A million visitors came in 2019, according to one of the licensed tour guides at the site. Noisy Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren swarm the site on school outings.
Visitors walk through a chiseled limestone tunnel built more than 3 millennia ago, leading to the underground Gihon Spring that supplied water to ancient Jerusalem. Christians believe that Jesus cured a blind man here, in the waters of the Pool of Siloam.
The Ir David Foundation, also known by its Hebrew acronym ELAD, is a settlers' group that supports management of the tourist site and archeological excavation in the City of David park — and encourages expansion of Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem.
"The most important archeological sites in the country are controlled by the settlers of Silwan," says Seidemann, the Jerusalem lawyer. He's referring to ELAD's support for the extensive tunneling under the City of David site and, he says, eight active archaeological digs.
Seidemann is especially critical of the plan for the King's Garden.
"Is it legal for the government of Israel to harness all of its authority to take property away from one population who is rightless, to turn them over to biblically motivated settlers in order to ring the Old City with a renewed biblical realm?" he asks rhetorically. "That's what is happening in the City of David — that's what is happening in Bustan."
"Confrontations" and uncertainty
From her roof in al-Bustan, I'tidal Abu Diab — Fakhri Abu Diab's sister-in-law — can see Israeli flags planted on the guarded compounds of settlers who have expanded their presence near her neighborhood.
"There are always confrontations in a negative way," she says of her Israeli Jewish neighbors.
She has lived here since 1985, when she came as a bride. Now, a dozen family members all live together. She has lived with uncertainty since 2005, when the park plan was first announced.
Her family received one of the latest demolition notices. Israeli bulldozers could arrive at any time.
Is she worried that she'll lose her home?
Her soft, round face creases and her eyes well up.
"It's a very painful thing for me to imagine," she says.
She vows to live in the rubble if the bulldozers come.
"I am always nervous with the children. It has totally changed me. I have not gained peace of mind for one second," she said, her words tumbling out with the tears.
An earlier version of this story misspelled former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's last name as Barket.