Claiming to preserve Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists wreck Palestinian heritage

Palestinian residents say plans to expand an archaeological park are intended to deepen Israeli control over Jerusalem.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

In an administrative building buried deep in the spaciously built suburbs of West Jerusalem, the latest phase of a long-standing struggle over a corner of land in the heart of the city concluded last week.

Israel’s National Planning Committee has overseen an appeal by several bodies who oppose the further expansion of the powerful settler group Elad’s control over archaeological sites in Silwan, a congested Palestinian neighborhood located just meters away from al-Aqsa Mosque and the walls of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem. With the blessing of the authorities, Elad plans to build a giant new visitors center on top of an excavation site.

Elad (a Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David”) is a private organization that has become the de facto administrator of some of the most controversial archaeological sites in Jerusalem. Elad was founded in 1986 with the explicit goal of removing Palestinians from East Jerusalem and settling Jews in their place. It accomplishes this by providing assistance in the purchase or seizure of Palestinian properties.

Last fall, under cover of night and flanked by police officers and private security guards, Elad moved dozens of Israeli settlers into 25 apartments in Silwan. The apartments were sold to a company registered abroad, but thought to be a disguised Elad, for between $1 million and $2 million.

After two hearings before the planning committee, during which Palestinian residents of Silwan, human rights lawyers, as well as architecture and urban planning scholars made their case against the Israeli state and Elad, the committee is now adjourned to deliberate its final decision on whether the proposed building can proceed.

Meanwhile, at the entrance to the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, a cavernous crater reveals that the archaeological dig at the site is well underway. Surrounding the pit is a tarped wall, lined with images depicting what Elad’s finished product will look like if the residents fail in their appeal: a massive new archaeological visitors’ center that will be known as the Kedem Compound, an extension of the City of David National Park in Silwan.

The site was formerly known as the Givati Parking Lot.

Neglected neighborhood

Like most Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Silwan is largely neglected by the Israeli authorities and is provided inadequate to non-existent basic services. While Palestinians comprise 40 percent of the city’s population, they receive only 10 percent of the city budget, according to the human rights group Ir Amim.

With a state-of-the-art new building surrounded by manicured landscaping, the Kedem Compound will comprise a seven-floor archaeological museum, lecture halls, classrooms, shops and an underground parking lot. When the vast compound is finished, Kedem will provide a pleasant tour for visitors through its 718-meter-deep excavation site, and permanently transform the city’s skyline.

But residents of Wadi Hilweh expect the new structure to further isolate them from the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem. “They are controlling the entrance and exit to the village,” Jawad Siyam, director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, told The Electronic Intifada.

Palestinian residents staunchly oppose the project, fearing its establishment will usher in additional forces of private security guards and border patrol agents who regularly guard the Jewish settlers and menace Palestinian residents. For the last five years, Silwan has been the target of Jerusalem police: young teens are regularly arrested, interrogated and detained. Many have reported being brutalized in the process.

Audacious and destructive

During the two days of hearings, the state defended the construction of the enormous visitors center, arguing that it would help preserve a historic site.

But Yonatan Mizrachi, a member of the alternative archaeology group Emek Shaveh, rejected this excuse. “It’s very simple: if you’re doing an excavation, any building that is going to be on it will damage the artifacts,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

Archaeologist and Tel Aviv University professor Raphael Greenberg has also said excavators have destroyed layers from Muslim periods, including an 11th century cemetery.

David Kroyanker, an expert on the architectural history of Jerusalem, has described the Kedem proposal as the most “audacious plan” he’d seen, with “destructive potential.”

Elad and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have avoided making the conservation plans normally required of archaeological projects by postponing the completion of official proposals to build the massive structure.

Colluding with criminal group

The IAA has been a crucial ally to Elad. However, this wasn’t always the case.

An in-depth investigation conducted by Emek Shaveh and Haaretz newspaper revealed last year a sharp shift in the IAA’s position on constructing on top of archaeological sites.

The investigation revealed that in the past, IAA was against construction of this nature on archaeological sites. For example, in 1997 — in opposition to settlers and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — IAA’s legal advisor, Yoram Bar-Sela, wrote, “The Antiquities Authority categorically maintains that it is vital to preserve the City of David, and that no construction whatsoever should be conducted at the site.”

Bar-Sela accused Elad of being “directly responsible for criminal damage to antiquities.”

But by 2005, the IAA had done an about-face. Today, Elad’s operational control over the City of David has the full backing of the IAA.

Commenting on IAA’s behavior at the hearings, Mizrachi said: “It was very interesting to see in the hearings the IAA was defending the structure, instead of the archaeology.”

In 1987, the cultural organization UNESCO designated the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls a world heritage site and declared that the site was in danger. Last year, opponents to Kedem’s construction called on UNESCO to intervene in order to protect the Old City’s wall.

However, Israel’s representatives to the international body took no action to make good on its word.

Of note, the chairperson of UNESCO-Israel was, until last year, Arie Rahamimoff, the very architect who designed the proposed Kedem Compound. According to Mizrachi, Rahamimoff has worked with Elad for more than two decades, designing a number of the group’s buildings.

Asserting control

The Elad-operated City of David provides a narrow interpretation of the archaeological history of the area, aiming to draw a direct link from the biblically derived history of a 3,000-year-old Kingdom of David to the modern Israeli state.

The new US television series Dig has come under strong protest for promoting this view of the city’s history and archaeology. Celebrity academic Reza Aslan serves as a “cultural consultant” to the series, which was not renewed for a second year, it was recently announced.

“I think that in Silwan we have a very unique case where the settlers decided to promote their goals — increase their settlements — through archaeology. The structures give them more hold in the village. They find it more convenient to talk about archaeology than to talk about settlements. Eventually it is part of the struggle over Silwan,” Mizrachi said.

Jawad Siyam said that these archaeological sites are utilized to enable settlers and their advocates to feel a proprietary connection to a neighborhood in which they remain a minority: there are approximately 700 Jewish settlers in Silwan, whereas the number of Palestinians is between 20,000 and 50,000 residents.

“They will always be the minority,” Siyam said. “But this doesn’t mean they have less control.”

On the day this writer met Siyam, one Palestinian youth from Silwan had been arrested by Israeli police. The day before, five more had been nabbed and hauled off to jail.

Siyam anticipates the Kedem Compound will serve as a gathering spot for Jewish settlers at nighttime, creating an even more hostile environment for Palestinians.

Lawyer Sami Ershied has been involved in defending the residents of Silwan since the late 1990s, but he didn’t begin opposing the archaeological projects in a vigorous manner until 2007. He is representing residents of Silwan against the proposed building.

Ershied pointed out that East Jerusalem is considered occupied under international law, making any Israeli decision over the development of the area problematic. “Any action here, or exercise of power here, of course inherently has a conflict within itself,” he said.

If the National Planning Committee gives a green light to the Kedem Compound, Ershied will appeal against the decision in Israel’s Court of Administrative Affairs.

When asked how the archaeological projects have transformed Silwan since he began working in the area almost 20 years ago, Ershied said: “Just in one direction: Silwan has been shaped in the last 15 years by plans that isolate Palestinian communities from the Old City and its environment.

“There are zero improvements to housing plans in Silwan; zero additional housing units for the Silwan area and Wadi Hilweh area and, on the other hand, plenty of plans and projects to deepen the Israeli control in the area.”

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @CharESilver