In May, an Israeli court’s order to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Shiekh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and allowing Jewish settlers to take over their property, triggered a wave of violence that spread to all parts of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For 11 days, Israel shelled the besieged Gaza Strip from air, land, and sea, killing at least 243 Palestinians, including dozens of children. (Israel reported 12 casualties, including two children.) Not long after the cannons fell silent, Israeli authorities targeted another Palestinian neighborhood in the village of Silwan on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem using nearly identical tactics.
In June, Israeli forces accompanied by bulldozers began demolishing Palestinian homes and businesses in the al-Bustan neighborhood in Silwan, an area long coveted by far-right Israeli settler groups. Palestinian demonstrators were pushed back with tear gas and batons. According to Al-Monitor, eviction and demolition orders have been served to 97 homes in the occupied neighborhood. Strikingly, residents of the neighborhood are ordered to raze their own homes; otherwise, Israeli forces carry out the demolition and charge them a $20,000 fine.
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A public art project on the walls of Silwan’s threatened houses draws attention to the displacement of residents through a series of large-scale murals depicting the eyes of famous philosophers, activists, and artists. There are currently more than a dozen murals featuring the eyes of figures like writer and art critic John Berger, Cuban revolutionary Che Guevarra, Lumad leader and environmentalist activist Bai Bibyaon, and Rachel Corrie, an American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003 while protesting in Gaza. Other murals depict the eyes of Palestinians slain by Israeli forces, including Iyad al Hallaq, a 31-year-old with autism who was killed by Israeli officers in Jerusalem last December. Another mural portrays the eyes of George Floyd in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Titled I Witness Silwan, the project is comprised of digital murals made by Palestinian and international artists, and others painted directly on the walls with the participation of community members. A total of 150 murals are planned, along with virtual tours via a smartphone app.
Through this gaze back at surrounding Israeli settlements — about 220,000 Israeli settlers live in and around East Jerusalem as of 2020, according to a recent European Union report — the murals aim to convey the message that “We see them, and they should see us too,” according to Jawad Siyam, director of the Silwan-based Madaa Creative Center.
“We want to say that we are here — we love our land and our home,” added Siyam in a statement to Hyperallergic.
The multi-site installation is the brainchild of Susan Greene, a Bay Area artist and clinical psychologist who has been organizing community-based mural projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the early years of the First Intifada in 1989.
“The images of eyes are created by Palestinian and international artists and the Silwan community to say the world is watching,” Greene told Hyperallergic in an email. “At the same time the eyes, seen across the city, witness the ethnic cleansing taking place.”
Along with Greene, participating artists include Sliman Mansour, John Halaka, Cece Carpio, Josué Rojas, Jinan Masawdeh, Manar Shreatreh, Varvara Raznak, Laura Rosner, and Chris Ghazeleh.
In 2001, Greene founded the nonprofit Art Forces, which focuses on public art, media, and activism in Palestine. Previous projects include murals in Gaza and various Palestinian refugee camps, with some also painted on Israel’s 440-mile Separation Wall with the West Bank.
Greene said that her background in clinical psychology and her identity as a Jewish American underlie her commitment to supporting Palestinians in telling their stories.
“Expelling Palestinians in Silwan is part of a larger effort to ensure a Jewish majority and Jewish Israeli culture in Jerusalem,” the artist said, calling her latest project an “act of visual decolonization.”
“I am seeking to make visible and draw attention to the links between occupation of Palestine and global issues of colonization,” Greene continued. “I am also Jewish, and I wanted to help draw attention to these injustices that are being done in my name.”
Most of the murals were installed on houses facing imminent eviction or demolition in the area of Batn al Hawa, located on a hillside overlooking the Silwan Valley.
“Batn al Hawa is constantly patrolled by heavily armed soldiers,” Greene said. “Hundreds of residents have already been displaced by Jewish settlers.”
One of these residents is Um Nasser, who lost her house to Israeli settlers. Her house is now covered with Israeli flags, she said in a video interview for the project. Speaking against the backdrop of a mural featuring her own pair of eyes, she said: “These murals mean everything to me. They mean my existence and my resistance. My life, my house.”