Grounds for dissent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am

As cranes dig the foundations for new apartments on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, at the City of David site in annexed East Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists are also busy.

The earthworks in both cases deepen Israel's hold on territory it captured during the 1967 Middle East war - the same land on which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hopes to establish an independent state as a result of peace negotiations that resumed last month.

In recent years, the state of Israel has transformed the City of David digs into a national park under the supervision of a right-wing settler group, Elad.

The message of the highly popular tours given at the site is straightforward: the past here belongs primarily to King David and other biblical figures, so present dominance in the area should also belong to Jews. This is irrespective of the fact that about 40,000 people live in the lower-income Palestinian Silwan neighbourhood where the digging is proliferating.

'The rejuvenation of ancient Jerusalem takes place above and below ground,' Elad spokesman Doron Spielman said. 'Below ground we have the archaeology. Above ground we have the Zionist enterprise of returning the Jewish people to live in the City of David.'

Mr Spielman said that since 1991, Elad had bought up 48 homes in Silwan, housing about 300 Jews.

In a softly lit subterranean passage that is part of the national park, guide Hila Levinger, 21, read from the Bible's Second Samuel verse 5, an account of how King David captured the area that was thought to be impregnable before establishing his capital there.

'It is possible he captured it through this conduit,' she told a group of about 30 Israeli tourists. 'You can picture Joab, son of Zeruya [the commander of David's Army], standing here. It was from here that King David captured the city.'

Mr Spielman said that each year 350,000 people, the vast majority Israelis, took the City of David tour.

But despite its popularity, not everyone is spellbound. For the first time, a small group of dovish Israeli archaeologists - six activists claiming the support of dozens of others - has begun to challenge the story being told by Ms Levinger, the settlers and the state, saying it is selective, misrepresents the past and complicates any present efforts to share the city as capitals of both Israel and a Palestinian state.

'There are many layers in this land,' said Yoni Mizrachi, who worked as an archaeologist in East Jerusalem for the antiquities authority from 2003-05 and at the weekend gave an 'alternative' tour of Silwan.

'You can't just negate some of the layers. This site was settled before Jews arrived and also after the second temple was destroyed [in AD70],' he said.

Dr Mizrachi handed out a timeline showing the Canaanites established a small village in 3000BC and a city with a water system in 1700BC, before the period ascribed to King David around 1000BC.

On Ms Levinger's tour, the Byzantine Christian period and Islamic periods are not mentioned in the dominant narrative, and some of the other 'non-Jewish' periods are mentioned only in passing.

The question of to whom Jerusalem belongs is one of the thorniest issues on the agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that resumed last month as a follow-up to the Middle East peace conference in the US in November.

US President George W. Bush hopes to encourage both sides to overcome their differences during a visit to the region next week. The talks have thus far been foundering amid Palestinian protests against Israeli plans to build hundreds of new housing units at Har Homa, a settlement inside occupied territory Israel annexed as it expanded the borders of Jerusalem after its victory in the 1967 war.

Israel, for its part, has voiced worry about Mr Abbas' ability to meet security obligations. Two off-duty soldiers were killed in a Palestinian attack near the West Bank city of Hebron on Friday. Two assailants also died.

Israeli public opinion is divided over relinquishing territory in Jerusalem. Settler groups are dead set against such a withdrawal, and the dovish archaeologists maintain that the tours of the City of David enable Elad to spread an anti-compromise message. 'They see the tours as a way of drafting thousands of people on their behalf,' Tel Aviv University archaeologist Rafi Greenberg said.

Mr Spielman denied this, saying any guide who discussed politics would be dismissed.

During the same tour, Ms Levinger pointed to a wall of stones unearthed two years ago. 'The supposition is strengthening that this is a support wall from King David's Palace,' she said. But later she dropped the ambiguity and said that King David's Palace 'is here, where the support wall is situated'.

In announcing the find at the time, Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar said that her dig, which was carried out in co-operation with Elad, found a large stone structure that might have been King David's Palace.

In another highlight of the tour, Ms Levinger described how archaeologists found a government seal with the name Gemaryahu Ben Shafan, a scribe mentioned in the book of Jeremiah chapter 26.

Shortly afterwards, she pointed across the valley to Silwan dwellings carved on the hillside, many of them caves. 'These are burial sites from the first temple [destroyed in 586BC],' she said. 'An archaeologist went there and discovered a burial site was under a room being used by children. The family still lives there, over the burial site.'

Later, Ms Levinger showed a picture of a small number of houses which comprised Silwan at the beginning of the 20th century. 'It's only recently that the village became huge. It just started recently.'

Abed Shalodi, a Silwan resident who helps the alternative archaeologists conduct their tours, views Elad as an threat. 'They want to take over all the land here. We can't live with them because they don't want us here. They want the land without the people.'

Mr Spielman said it was not 'realistic' to expect the area to become completely Jewish. 'Our goal is that it should be as strongly Jewish or Jewish-identified as possible,' he said.

Palestinian fears of Israeli intentions are not entirely baseless. In 2005, Jerusalem municipal engineer Uri Shetreet announced plans to demolish an entire section of Silwan - 88 homes - to make room for an archaeological park. Amid an international uproar, Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski distanced himself from the plans.

Dr Greenberg said that having a settler group sponsor the digs inevitably influences the antiquity authority's archaeologists. 'It impacts on the pace, the range and on the decisions of what to preserve and what not to preserve,' he said. As an example, he said that some archaeologists in the City of David had begun using settler terminology, such as terming the Bronze Age 'the first Temple Period'.

'Slowly the archaeologists absorb the concepts of those around them,' he said.

The antiquities authority denies this, with spokeswoman Merav Shai saying archaeologists 'conduct a complete and full excavation of all the remains in the ground and document and publish them in a professional, scientific manner regardless of their time period and historical and political interpretation'.

In Dr Greenberg's view Elad 'has created a situation where Jews feel at home and local Palestinian residents are totally alienated. Jerusalem does not belong only to Jews or only to Jerusalemites. It is important for many people and you must give various narratives, not just one'.

He takes issue with the find as enunciated in the official tour. 'It's a lot more complicated than that. At most you can say they found part of a building, but there is not even a hint it was a centre of authority and certainly not something that can be tied directly to David.'

Dr Mizrachi said there were not only doubts about whether the find was David's Palace but also whether David was anything more than a mythical figure.

'Archaeology should not be a political tool,' he said. 'If I find a synagogue or a mosque or a church it tells me about the past of a place but that doesn't mean that one person has more rights in a place because the find belongs to his culture. The past also belongs to those who live here now. Even if they found the palace of David, it doesn't mean that what existed 3,000 years ago needs to be resumed today.'


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