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Palestinians in Silwan defend their homes from ongoing settler excavations

April 10, 2017 1:55 P.M. (Updated: April 12, 2017 9:25 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- After Israel ordered the evacuation of three homes in occupied East Jerusalem due to severe structural damage caused by settler-led tunnel construction below, Palestinian residents say they refuse to leave, and accuse Israel of indirectly attempting to expel them from the city, where Israel has openly called for maintaining a Jewish majority.

The homes are located in the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood just south of the Old City walls, where Israel frequently allows excavations and archaeological digs that threaten the structural integrity of Palestinian homes and holy sites in the area.

Rights groups claim that these excavations often seek to promote Jewish heritage and attachment to the occupied city, while erasing Palestinian history, in order to promote claims of Jewish ownership and further displace Palestinians, particularly those living in neighborhoods around the Old City.

Last October, UNESCO denounced Israel for failing to put an end to the practice.

Israel’s Jerusalem municipality issued the evacuation orders to Hamed Oweida, Abed Oweida, and Suleiman Oweida on Wednesday evening, due to fractures and cracks formed at the base of their houses, where 16 people, including ten children, live.

Family members said that after calling Israeli police to report that their houses were shaking from loud tunnel digging below, a municipality inspection team arrived and ordered the families to evacuate the homes immediately due to them being at risk of imminent collapse.

Palestinian residents in Wadi Hilweh have long reported sounds of underground digging and the resultant cracks appearing on the walls of their aging homes, but the Oweidas said that the “life-threatening” damages in their homes seen in recent weeks were “more severe than ever before.”

However, Khadija Oweida affirmed to Ma’an that her family would not leave.

"We have been living in these houses for decades despite cracks in the foundations and despite the risks," she said. While the municipality says the buildings have become too dangerous to inhabit, Oweida explained that if the families abandoned the houses, they also ceded control over what happened to them.

Settler groups, such as the Elad organization, have long been trying to take over any house in the area by any means, she argued.

"We hear sounds under our houses around the clock from manual tools as well as heavy machinery. We see large amounts of earth being taken out from under our houses, which are clearly causing these cracks."

Rather than force them out of their homes, Oweida demanded that Israeli authorities simply put a stop to the excavations.

However, in response to a request for comment after the evacuation was ordered on Wednesday, a spokesperson from the Jerusalem municipality told Ma'an that "claims that the city is attempting to construct underneath this family's structure are patently false."

Khadija said that excavations under the three houses started about four years ago, while the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood committee said that Israeli authorities began work under the neighborhood at large in 2007.

Another resident of the neighborhood, Wafaa Bamya, told Ma’an that her family couldn’t sleep at night because of constant digging, shaking, and lighting caused by the excavation work. “All of a sudden, new cracks appear on the walls, and old cracks become wider and wider,” she said.

"This is an indirect attempt to expel us from our homes,” she charged. “In spite of the threat caused by the digging, we are going to stay here because it is the only place we truly feel safe."

Nihad Siyam, who works at the Silwan-based watchdog the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, affirmed that the cracks started to appear in houses long ago. After the excavations were first noticed in 2007, residents appealed to an Israeli court that ordered to put a halt to construction under their homes for 14 months.

However, he said that settler organizations submitted their own appeal to the decision, and obtained a court order allowing the groups to continue "searching for their history and heritage,” on the condition that the digging not endanger the lives of residents.

Israeli authorities have claimed, according to Siyam, that the excavations “are based on engineering standards to ensure the safety of neighborhood.”

Siyam said that the cracks and collapses sections in walls, rooftops, and floors in numerous homes in the area are proof of the contrary.

Meanwhile, according to experts, archaeologists abandoned the practice of digging horizontal tunnels as long as a century ago, as it is considered professionally unethical and actually leads to the destruction of antiquities.

Ahmad Qarain, a member of a local committee representing Wadi Hilweh families, said that their lawyer Sami Rashid was set to appeal to Israeli courts again to put an end to the excavations.

More than 50 houses, he said, have suffered to varying degrees as a result of the ongoing construction.
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