A new Israeli parliamentary (Knesset) bill that would give direct control of national parks to private organizations is causing alarm amidst Jerusalem-area activists, who say that its underlying aim is to provide legitimacy to a right-wing Israeli group’s control of an archeological site in East Jerusalem.
“[It] is quite incredible that Knesset members would go ahead and privatize one of the most important public assets in order to save one settler group,” said Orly Noy, the spokesperson for Israeli nongovernmental organization Ir Amim, which monitors governmental policies and actions in Jerusalem. “But on the other hand, it also indicates that they do understand that what’s going on today is illegal,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
The situation in question involves Elad, a private, right-wing Israeli settlement organization that controls and manages the City of David National Park, an archeological site just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. The site sits at the foot of the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Located at the entrance to the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of the East Jerusalem village of Silwan, the City of David is said to represent the location of biblical Jerusalem, which was captured by King David more than 3,000 years ago.
According to the City of David website, Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, “is committed to continuing King David’s legacy as well as revealing and connecting people to Ancient Jerusalem’s glorious past through four key initiatives: archaeological excavation, tourism development, educational programming and residential revitalization.”
In July 2010, Ir Amim and various academics and civil servants submitted a petition to the Israeli high court against the Nature and Parks Authority, the Ministry of Nature Preservation, the Jerusalem municipality and the Elad organization, demanding that the City of David be removed from Elad’s control.
“The petition refers to an un-transparent agreement, a contract between the authorities for the Nature and Parks Authority and Elad which transferred all the management authorities in this national site into the hands of Elad,” Noy explained.
“We claim that this is not just highly inappropriate in light of Elad being an extreme right-wing organization, but according to our understanding, it is completely illegal. National parks should be managed by statutory bodies, meaning the [Israeli Nature and Parks Authority],” she added.
Led by Israeli Knesset member Israel Hasson, the new bill — which would give any private, nonprofit organization the right to manage national parks — was initially presented as an effort to help the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority manage the many national parks under its responsibility.
The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported, however, that MK Hasson admitted that the bill was prompted by Ir Amim’s petition against Elad. “I don’t see why, because of some political agenda, an organization that knows how to do it can’t be allowed to continue running a national park,” Hasson said (“Despite jurists’ opposition, government to privatize national parks,” 21 March 2011).
According to Orly Noy, Elad’s control of the City of David is problematic because it “gives Elad an incredible basis to promote its political agenda in a very aggressive way in Silwan, which is the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem and a very sensitive and strategic place.”
“Elad also gets to decide who gets excavations, where do they dig and most importantly, how are the findings being presented and interpreted. This gives them the ability to establish the narrative of the place as an exclusive Jewish one, disregarding the amazing diversity of the site’s history,” she added.
Israeli settler take-over of Silwan
The City of David website states that Elad — an acronym for El Ir David, “To the City of David” in Hebrew — was founded in 1986 by David Be’eri, a former deputy commander of the Duvdevan Special Forces Unit, an Israeli army unit that conducts undercover operations in the occupied West Bank.
According to a May 2009 report released by Ir Amim titled “Shady Dealings in Silwan,” Elad’s first actions in Silwan were the takeover of Palestinian homes and the settlement of Jewish families therein.
This was accomplished both through an unwritten agreement between Be’eri himself, the Jewish National Fund and Hemanuta, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, and through the use of Israel’s Absentee Property Law, the report states (“Shady Dealings in Silwan” [PDF]).
The Absentee Property Law, passed in 1950, allows the Custodian of Absentee Property — an Israeli governmental body under the umbrella of the Ministry of Finance — to take possession of land formerly belonging to internally and externally-displaced Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during and after the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.
It is estimated that as many as 800,000 Palestinians were forced to flee during this period. According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, “assessments by Israel, Palestinian institutions and UN agencies as to the extent of the properties taken pursuant to this [Absentee Property] law range from around 2 million dunams to 16 million dunams [a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters] of land” (“Adalah to Attorney General and Custodian of Absentee Property: Israel’s Sale of Palestinian Refugee Property Violates Israeli and International Law,” 22 June 2009).
The “Shady Dealings” report states that David Be’eri himself posed as a tour guide in the late 1980s in order to gain information about Palestinian homes in Silwan. In one such instance, dating back to September 1987, Be’eri and the Israeli Lands Administration exerted pressure on the Custodian of Absentee Property to declare the Abbasi house — a Palestinian home in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood that comprised nine apartments and two warehouses — an absentee property.
“Members of Elad broke into the house in the middle of the night while the family was sleeping. The intruders suspended themselves by rope from a window in the roof, broke door locks, threw furniture into the courtyard and ascended on the roof, where they broke into song and dance and waved the Israeli flag in the light of the breaking day,” the report states.
While the Jerusalem District Court later found that the Abbasi home didn’t constitute absentee property after all, legal procedures are still ongoing and Elad-affiliated Israeli settlers continue to live in the house.
“Altogether, in this manner 68 properties in East Jerusalem were transferred to the hands of right-wing organizations, including 14 in Silwan that were transferred to Elad … All in all, the State and the Jewish National Fund gave Elad 36 dunams of the total area (about 116 dunams) of the City of David/Wadi Hilweh, or one quarter of the neighborhood’s land,” the report finds.
Today, it is estimated that approximately 400 Israeli settlers live amidst Silwan’s 40,000 Palestinian residents. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center has produced a map of the planned park superimposed on a birds-eye-view of the village.
Settlement impact in Silwan palpable
One Friday in late April, nearly 200 Silwan residents gathered for midday prayer at a protest tent in the village’s al-Bustan neighborhood. Only a few minutes after the prayer ended, a familiar scene unfolded: young Palestinian men clashed with Israeli police who, in full riot gear, shot sound grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas into the densely-populated area.
The clashes lasted for almost five hours.
“They [have] arrested us and arrested our children. They pushed us into the corner,” explained Fakhri Abu Diab, head of the al-Bustan Popular Committee, moments before the clashes began on 29 April. “We’re suffering psychological things, social things. Now we have no choice,” he told this reporter.
The weekly violence in al-Bustan, Abu Diab said, can be attributed to the Israeli settlers who are gradually taking over more and more Palestinian homes in the area, and who are supported by the Israeli army, police force and the Jerusalem municipality itself.
“[The Elad organization takes] homes and they have a religious agenda and they do not want us. We have no communications between us and between them but they have support from the Israeli government, the Jerusalem municipality,” Abu Diab said.
In 2004, the Jerusalem municipality unveiled its plan to build a new national park on land in the al-Bustan neighborhood. This park — which is said to represent King David’s ancient gardens — would necessitate the eventual demolition of 88 Palestinian homes and the forced eviction of nearly 1,000 residents.
“Because King Solomon traveled here 3 or 4,000 years ago, they want to turn this area into national gardens. We’re not against King Solomon or King David or whoever, but we said, ‘Who’s more important? The humans, the people, or the gardens?’” Abu Diab said.
“If the municipality of Jerusalem wants to make gardens, they can do it in an open area. But we know that they have a political agenda and they want to make settlements around the Old City and push us outside of this area,” he added.
According to Israeli archaeologist Yonathan Mizrahi, the Israeli Antiquities Authority has to date never conclusively stated that the King’s Garden is even located in the al-Bustan neighborhood.
“The Israeli Antiquities Authority is not saying that this is the place where the King’s Garden used to be. Definitely we’re not expecting to find a major archaeological find in this valley of al-Bustan,” Mizrahi, who is a member of Emek Shavek, a group of archaeologists and activists that examines how archaeology is being used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The story of the past is not one story. If you understand that this past belongs to everybody — to the Palestinians, to the Israelis and maybe to the international community — you can understand that you cannot come to a community and say that you want to demolish part of [the] neighborhood because of the past,” Mizrahi told The Electronic Intifada.
Mizrahi explained, however, that by controlling the past, right-wing Israeli organizations like Elad are providing legitimacy to Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and distorting the layered history of the area.
“[They are] coming and saying, ‘we are controlling the past [and] we have [legitimacy] to the present because of this past. Also the past shows that the Palestinians, they are irrelevant to this place and actually the Palestinians are the ones that behave like settlers because they have no roots here. The roots are ours.’ That’s how it’s been represented,” Mizrahi said.
“By having this power, it definitely can give you lots of options [for] how to increase your hold on the land. According to my understanding, the power of the past is a major tool in this conflict. And unfortunately, so far it’s in the hands of the right-wing in Israel and it’s a very important tool for them.”
Israeli-controlled ring around the Old City
According to the “Shady Dealings in Silwan” report, Israeli control of important archaeological sites in East Jerusalem doesn’t end at the City of David National Park.
Instead, a plan to build and connect nine parks “around the Old City, from the slopes of Mount Scopus in the north through the Mount of Olives, King’s Valley (the al-Bustan neighborhood) in Silwan to the Valley of Hinnom in the South,” is underway.
“In many cases, it aims to prevent Palestinian growth,” Ir Amim’s Orly Noy explained. “In East Jerusalem, nothing that the Israeli government or the Israeli authorities do can be seen as apolitical. Everything has political goals to deepen the Israeli grasp [on] East Jerusalem.”
According to Fakhri Abu Diab, who was born in the al-Bustan neighborhood in 1962 and has lived there ever since, the impact of Israeli settlement activity in Silwan is devastating and will likely only get worse, before it gets better.
“We don’t know if they’re coming to demolish homes. It’s very, very difficult, but we will never leave,” he said.
“My children, I couldn’t persuade them to live with the other side with peace,” he added. “My children said, ‘How can we live with the other side, the Israelis, in peace if they want to demolish my life, my future, my home?’”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com/.