JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Israeli settlers under armed police escort raided the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem after midnight Friday morning and took over a Palestinian residential building there, allegedly for the purposes of the Elad settlement group.
According to eyewitness accounts documented by local organization the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, approximately 20 Israeli settlers escorted by masked Israeli police special forces raided the building while its residents were not inside.
Israeli settlers blocked off the al-Fakhouri area of the neighborhood with a truck, preventing people from approaching, and took control of the building, which is located less than a hundred meters south of the Old City's walls and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The center said that the building has changed ownership between three Palestinian families over the years -- the Abu Irmeileh, Maswadeh, and al-Rajabi families -- and that several other families rented space in the building, which consists of two 160-square meter space floors.
Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Saturday that Palestinian sources in Silwan said the Elad organization had used a Palestinian "straw man" to buy the house about a year and a half ago, a tactic used in previous cases of settler takeovers of Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem. The man reportedly presented a permit from the Palestinian Authority authorizing him to buy the property and saying he was not collaborating with Israeli authorities.
Wadi Hilweh Information Center added that a Palestinian woman changed the locks to the building on Thursday, and that prior to the takeover late Thursday night, Israeli settlers raided Wadi Hilweh to install surveillance cameras at the entrance of the neighborhood.
When asked about the involvement of Israeli police in the raid, Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld questioned the validity of the reports, telling Ma'an that Wadi Hilweh Information Center
’s claims that Palestinian property had been taken over by settlers were “not serious” and “irrelevant.”
A spokesperson for Israel’s Jerusalem municipality could not be immediately reached for comment on the case, or whether ownership of the building had been transferred to Elad.
The right-wing Elad group is a strong force in the Israeli settler movement in East Jerusalem, leading a takeover of 25 buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan last year, which constituted the largest incursion of Israeli settlers into a Palestinian neighborhood in the past 20 years, according to the the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ).
Also known as the Ir David Foundation, Elad aims to "rediscover and preserve the Biblical city of David," in an effort to connect Jews to their Biblical roots through tourism, archaeological excavation, and "Judaizing Jerusalem" by buying out homes in Palestinian majority neighborhoods.
In March, an Israeli building council approved
plans for Elad's Kedem project, despite over a decade of appeals against the move by Palestinian residents and Israeli rights organizations.
The Wadi Hilweh Information Center and members of the Silwan community condemned the move, saying they feared the plan’s approval would set a precedent for approvals on all future settlement projects in Silwan.
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said the approval of the plan was a clear sign that Israel was "deliberately isolating Jerusalem from its Palestinian environs and indigenous people and transforming it into an exclusively Jewish city."
The Kedem project is expected to cover some 9,000 square meters of land that was confiscated by Israeli authorities following the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, and has served parking lot since.
According to Haaretz, the building that settlers moved into Friday is located near to the parking lot excavation site by the Old City walls, where Elad is planning to open a visitors' center for the City of David national park.
There are an upwards of 300,000 Israeli settlers residing in East Jerusalem, with at least 500 living in Silwan among a population of 45,000 Palestinians.
While Elad spearheads settlement activities in Silwan adjacent to the Old City’s southern edge, Ateret Cohanim has a similar mandate to “Judaize” Silwan in the center of the densely-populated neighborhood.
The plan will permit Ateret Cohanim to construct a new building located near the site of controversial Beit Yonatan, which was sold to Ateret Cohanim by the custodian of absentee properties, without a tender.