In the early 1990s, a settler organization by the name of Elad (a Hebrew acronym for: To the City of David) began to plot its takeover of Silwan, a densely populated Palestinian neighborhood located a stone’s throw away from the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Silwan is also home to one of the world’s most important archeological sites – the original Jerusalem where, according to the Biblical story, King David established his capital some 3000 years ago. Elad never hid its goals: to control this sensitive site and replace Silwan’s Palestinian residents with Jewish settlers. Like other settler organizations, Elad gradually found ways of influencing the higher echelons of Israeli power and gained permission to operate on the ground.
In the winter of 1997-8, however, Elad suffered a series of setbacks. After several complaints were filed with the police, the state sued the settler organization for building without permit on the historic site and for damaging archaeological remains. Meanwhile, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who earlier thwarted Elad’s plan to build 200 new homes over and around the excavations was warning the Attorney General against handing over Israel’s most important archeological site to an organization on the margins of the law. Soon after, the Israeli Supreme Court held a hearing at which the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority promised to reconsider handing the “City of David National Park” to Elad. The same court decreed earlier that Elad’s acquisition of Palestinian homes in Silwan involved unlawful actions.
Yet, as is often the case, the Israeli justice system proved ineffectual against the settlers. Today, ten years later, Elad fully controls Silwan. The Palestinian neighborhood is now dotted with a dozen settler outposts, clearly visible with their watchtowers, flags, and armed guards. Elad also runs the National park and visitors’ center, providing tourists with an extremely one-sided version of history.
Moreover, as the residents of Silwan know all too well, Elad also has the full backing of the Jerusalem Municipality, the National Park Authority, the Israel Land Administration, and the Jerusalem Police. Thus when a few residents filed yet another lawsuit against Elad’s activities last month, the police stormed their homes that same night, and five people were arrested “for theft.” Those courageous enough to file a complaint at the police station itself were also instantly arrested. In short, Elad is the law in Silwan, where people joke that “David” in “City of David” stands for Elad leader David Be’ery, Silwan’s ‘Sheriff,’ who to this day resides in one of the homes whose acquisition the court decried.
But perhaps the most unexpected accomplice of Elad is the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The same government agency that in 1997 warned against handing over the site to the settlers is now Elad’s happy subcontractor. For on top of everything else, Elad runs all the excavations in Silwan: it decides where and when to dig and hires the IAA to do the work.
This is a sweet deal for the budget-hungry IAA and for its archeologists. It is also a sweet deal for the settler organization. The IAA itself issues the required digging permits in an internal process of dubious legality, thus allowing Elad to turn archeology into its most effective instrument of dispossession. Many open areas in Silwan have been fenced off as an excavation sites, and the settlers have now sent the IAA to dig under Palestinian homes, probably in the hope that their lives will become so miserable that they will simply leave.
The court has issued a staying order against one of these digs, but others have immediately popped up, and recent judicial history gives little scope for optimism. Elad is also pushing to destroy 88 Palestinian homes to expand the “archeological park” in the area of the neighborhood known as Al-Bustan. International pressure prevented the demolition from taking place in 2005, but the plan has not been abandoned.
Needless to say, the excavations run by Elad and the IAA violate professional rules of ethics concerning “equitable partnerships and relationships” between archaeologists and indigenous peoples (as stipulated by the World Archeological Congress) as well as the universally accepted convention on excavation, including excavating in occupied territories (the New Delhi Agreements). That science is being sacrificed to serve a narrow political agenda can be seen from the fact that not one of the historical Muslim buildings in the national park has been preserved, and some were not even documented.
Many Israeli archeologists are unhappy with this situation, though most of them are unwilling to openly criticize the IAA, their main source for jobs and funds. Still, a small group of Israeli archeologists led by Dr. Rafi Greenberg (Tel Aviv University) has established ties with the residents of Silwan and has been lobbying for Elad’s removal from the site. Renowned scholars throughout the world, including many senior historians and archaeologists, have signed a petition to the same effect.
Another team of Israeli archeologists has held talks with their Palestinian counterparts and came up with a historical document, the “Israeli-Palestinian Cultural Heritage Agreement.” But Shuka Dorfman, a former army general and the current director of the IAA, is unimpressed. In a recent interview to Ha’aretz, he responded to such initiatives by warning against “bringing politics into archeology” and urged “leaving these matters to the decision makers.”
In practice, all decisions about archaeological work in Silwan are taken by Elad. It’s good to know that politics are not involved.
YIGAL BRONNER teaches on South Asia at the University of Chicago. He is also active in the joint Israeli-Palestinian campaign in Silwan and is one of the signatories to the petition calling for taking archeology in the City of David out of the hands of Elad.