Israel's 'Silicon Wadi': The next Sheikh Jarrah?
In mid-July this year, the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem approved the establishment of a vocational training college in the Wadi al-Joz area of occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli press reports touted the move as "the first step towards the realization of the Silicon Wadi project", a high-tech redevelopment plan proceeding against the wishes of the Arab neighbourhoods of the city.
"This is the first part of the Silicon Wadi project...the program will increase the supply of high-tech employment and cause a significant revolution in the east", said Mayor Moshe Leon.
However, the project, in principle illegal under international law given the occupation context, is being advanced with little consultation of the Palestinian population of the neighbourhood it threatens to evict. It is also proceeding without any transparent planning and objection process; and appears to be part of a series of similar projects that could alter the ethnic identity of the occupied city annexed by Israel in 1967, doing the opposite of bringing inclusion and employment as the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem has claimed.
Last year, more than 200 Palestinian business owners and renters in the industrial area of Wadi al-Joz, East Jerusalem, received official evacuation orders from Israeli authorities.
"Despite the enigmatic legal language of the text, there was one point that was totally clear: We had a time window of six months to fully evacuate our workshops," Mahmoud Al-Kurd, who was renting an auto-repair shop, told The New Arab.
A few days after receiving the orders, Al-Kurd and his colleagues were shocked by a video clip circulating on Facebook. The English-language video depicted several modern buildings rising from the rubble of their workshops.
The footage showed Moshe Leon, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, promising a massive makeover of the area with a high-tech investment project.
The Silicon Wadi investment project
The project, called "Silicon Wadi" (Wadi means "valley" in Arabic), is the Israeli equivalent of America's Silicon Valley in San Francisco; a high-tech hub for Israeli - and possibly international - high-tech companies. A few months after the eviction orders were given to the Palestinian residents, the plan was approved by the municipality's planning and construction committee, in November 2020.
According to the Jerusalem Post, about 200 Palestinian-owned industrial buildings will have their tenants evicted and be demolished, but the report claimed that they would be compensated. Yet the Palestinian locals who spoke to The New Arab have a different story.
Based on the plan, an area of 200,000 square metres will be allocated for the project, including 50,000 square metres for hotels and another 50,000 square metres for retail. When completed, the project will be twice the size of New York's Grand Central Station.
Wadi al-Joz is a Palestinian neighbourhood located in the northern outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem, located between Mount Scopus and Sheikh Jarrah. The 15,000 Palestinian inhabitants who live in the neighbourhood are rarely permitted to expand their buildings or build new structures on their own lands.
"More than 200 Palestinian families and 700 workers in the area could find themselves without a source of income, fitting a larger pattern of plans to demographically alter Jerusalem by expelling its Palestinian population"
In addition to the industrial area, the neighbourhood contains a building for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, which was constructed on seized Palestinian land.
Hanadi Qawasmi, a journalist and researcher specialising in Jerusalem affairs, says there are several reasons behind the location of the tech development project.
"If you were going to plan a project of this size, you'll start looking for an area with adequate infrastructure. In the case of Silicon Wadi, there is a transportation network that could help even those coming from Tel Aviv to reach Wadi al-Joz," she said.
Additionally, "the location of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Mount Scopus, only a few minutes away from Wadi al-Joz, could help provide the skilled workers needed for such a project."
Finally, building an Israeli high-tech development in that area would also separate the northern area of the Old City from its Palestinian basin, helping to fragment the Palestinian community.
"A settlement belt that starts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in Mount Scopus, to Karm Al-Mufti Settlement in Sheikh Jarrah where there's an ongoing evacuation of the Palestinian population in the neighbourhood, would lay the bases for a new reality in Jerusalem," Qawasmi said.
The project comes as a part of two plans. First, is the five-year plan announced by the municipality of Jerusalem for 2018-2023, with a budget of $677m (2.1bn Israeli shekels).
The second, which includes several intersecting plans and projects, is the 'Jerusalem 5800: Vision 2010-2050', a privately-funded plan which puts "strengthening the status of the city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people" as its main objective.
Several settlement projects are being launched simultaneously, with different levels of progress both on the ground and on paper. The mixed nature of the plan had led to some doubts among Palestinian scholars around the true aims of the Silicon Wadi project.
"In order for us to take the project seriously, there have got to be some legal documents, such as the initial building scheme, which, in the case of the alleged Silicon Wadi project, does not exist. The whole thing is more of a propaganda," says Khalil Tafakji, head of the maps department at the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem.
"The deputy mayor of Jerusalem paid a visit to the UAE, in which, according to her, Emiratis expressed intentions in investing in the Silicon Wadi project"
After watching the Silicon Wadi video on Facebook, Mahmoud Al-Kurd and a few of his colleagues headed to the municipality of Jerusalem headquarters asking for clarification. However, the employees there claimed they do not have any further information about such a project.
But further evidence of the plan can be seen in the intensive meetings held by the municipality to convince the landowners of the feasibility of the project and the visit paid by the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan Nahoum, to the UAE, in which, according to her, Emiratis expressed intentions in investing in the Silicon Wadi project.
Such a step could lay the foundation for further regional and international investment in the settlement efforts in East Jerusalem, given the blatant privatisation of recent settling projects, the weak position of the PA, and the acceleration of normalisation agreements in the region.
Following the evacuation orders of the 200 local businesses in Wadi al-Joz, the Palestinian Authority sent a lawyer to help defend affected renters and owners in the Israeli court system. Little is currently known about the status of these proceedings, which have been eclipsed by the conflagration in Sheikh Jarrah and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under Israeli regulations, the final approval for the project has to come from the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, following the approval of the local construction and planning committee. As far as The New Arab understands, this has not yet come and may not happen until 2023.
In fact, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee would have to open up the plan to official opposition and court action from Palestinians, which may be why it is being held in legal limbo. A similar project pursued by mayor Moshe Leon to develop Jerusalem's City Centre triggered a major backlash from the Palestinian population of the neighbourhoods affected. Following official objections and court action that went all the way up to the Israeli Supreme Court, the latter suspended the City Center plan until further notice, on 27 July this year.
Nevertheless, given several precedents, and the approval of the vocational academy construction last month, plans like Silicon Wadi can be imposed in East Jerusalem without the need for official procedures.
"Take the case of Karm Al-Mufti, a green land of 38,132 square metres that was confiscated by the Israeli authorities in 1967 in the name of Public Interest," says Zakaria Odeh, the coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinians Rights in Jerusalem (CCPRJ).
"Across the land beside the house of the late Mufti of Jerusalem, Al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Israel is planning to build national parks on the land and had already built 28 settlement units around the house, which was partially demolished and later turned into a synagogue," he added.
"All these steps are part of the Jerusalem 2020 plan, which was neither permitted by the municipality nor raised for objection by the Palestinian locals...just because the plan does not include an initial building scheme in the municipality database, does not mean the plan is not going to happen".
Farah Issam is a Palestinian journalist and translator based in East Jerusalem.