by Yehudit Oppenheimer
“If there is one area in the country where state control should develop, plan, manage and preserve, it is this area of the historic City of David.” That is what the Israeli Antiquities Authority wrote in a letter to the attorney general. And they were not alone in this opinion. The City of David is located a few dozen meters from the Temple Mount, in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.
A number of national and professional organizations have protested the management of such an important site, located in a politically explosive area, by the Elad association, a private entity that is not under the regulation or supervision of the government. Moreover, as noted also by the Antiquities Authority, the above-mentioned body is not a purely apolitical one. The Elad association has declared that its objective is to expand and strengthen Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
To this day, the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority, which, according to the law, is responsible for the national parks in the State of Israel, has refused to reveal the contract it signed with Elad, in sharp contrast to the rules of proper management. And the Jerusalem municipality, which also has a role in managing the site, has also been silent on the matter. Thus, there is no way of knowing exactly what administrative powers were granted to Elad. But there is no need for an archaeological dig to see that Elad’s fingerprints have been left on every aspect of the site’s management. Elad’s people are partners in determining the interpretation given to the archaeological findings at the site, often contrary to the opinion of senior archaeologists in Israel. They are working to promote construction projects within the site, which often conflict with the historic nature of an archaeological garden. They organize private events within the site with a clear political and ideological tone. They organize touring programs that are tainted with an ideological bias for the general public and tens of thousands of soldiers; furthermore, they are in continuous conflict with the Palestinians living in Silwan. It goes without saying that the management of the site was given to Elad without a legal tender, and that the Nature and National Parks Authority violated a promise it made to the court that the site would be under the direct management of the national authorities. Challenging the Unholy Alliance between the Authorities and Elad
Ir Amim recently presented a petition to the court, requesting that the Nature and National Parks Authority and the Jerusalem municipality cancel the contract with the Elad association and return the management of the City of David site to the state. Public officials, prominent archaeologists and former local officials also joined the petition.
Why now? A few days before the petition was completed, the Jerusalem municipality’s Planning and Building Committee approved a master plan for the al-Bustan neighborhood on the southern slopes of Silwan. The program, which was granted the semi-biblical name “Garden of the King,” was hastily presented and without adequate preparation. It promotes the establishment of an archaeological park which, in many ways, will be a continuation of the City of David National Park — and not just in the geographical sense. The plan includes the demolition of 22 Palestinian houses; it completely changes neighborhood’s character and ignores previous planning proposals filed by al-Bustan residents. It shares the same DNA of the sacrilegious cooperation between the authorities and settlers’ associations. It subordinates the rich and varied history of the region to a messianic biblical narrative, which serves as the basis for an aggressive policy that ignores the thousands of Palestinians living in the area and the dangerous political reality. Thus Silwan becomes one of the most explosive areas of conflict in Jerusalem. Silwan Has Changed Dramatically
During the last two decades, Silwan’s features have changed dramatically. From a Palestinian neighborhood associated with Palestinian East Jerusalem, Silwan has become a neighborhood under Jewish-Israeli control. Government authorities have been complicit in much of the land transfers in Silwan to the Israeli settlers. The Israeli government declares its commitment to the peace process while working hand-in-hand with extremist organizations whose goal is to take over the land and assets in the Holy Basin (the Old City and its environs) in general and Silwan in particular. Various decisions on the matter and the practical policy of the Israeli authorities reinforce the impression that the Israeli government is working towards the Israelization of Silwan as part of an overall policy aimed at taking control of the Palestinians areas surrounding the Old City, encircling and cutting them off from the living fabric of Palestinian life and, in actuality, assimilating these areas into West Jerusalem.
Elad’s presence in the City of David National Park has been a springboard for action in all the national park areas surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem. The Nature and National Parks Authority did not stop at the transfer of the City of David National Park to the hands of Elad; it handed over to Elad the management of the Roman aqueduct that runs under the promenade at Armon Hanatziv (the Commissioner’s Palace), and enabled Elad to carry out regular activities in the Emek Tzurim National Park between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. The Elad association operates a visitors’ center on the Mount of Olives, while the Jewish National Fund transferred to the association a 5-acre compound in the Peace Forest southwest of Silwan. Thus, under the umbrella of state institutions, a segregationist topography is being formed, which seeks to reorganize the East Jerusalem space as an Israeli space and push out the Palestinian presence — both its physical existence and its symbols. At Stake Is the Future of Jerusalem and Israeli-Palestinian Relations
The issue on the agenda is not the right of Jews to live in this or that area of Jerusalem, but rather the struggle over Jerusalem and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than one prime minister and a number of major Israeli politicians have publicly recognized in recent years that the resolution of the conflict requires a compromise in Jerusalem. At the same time, they have given support to and continue to cooperate with extremist forces that are working tirelessly to create facts on the ground, which will create major obstacles to future agreements. These forces also consciously cause provocations designed to increase the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, to ignite the conflict in Jerusalem and move it from the confines of political negotiations to physical clashes in the streets.
“Here is where it all began” is the slogan that greets those who enter the gates of the City of David. Maybe not exactly here, but there is no doubt that the “City of David” represents the state’s shirking of its responsibility for what happens in Jerusalem. Here, at the entrance to the City of David National Park, the shady deal between the state authorities and the Elad association is nearing completion, as the former transfers control to the latter of one public space after another in and around the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. A city that wants to live, that is seeking a political solution, must stop this dangerous policy. “Here” more than anywhere else, a cautious and responsible policy is needed, a policy that keeps its options open for the future of Jerusalem, an agreed-upon political future that protects the fabric of life in this pained and conflicted city.