Archeological digs, settler movements support historic claim over Jerusalem

By Beth Spain

History has a way of throwing fuel on the fire, especially when it involves Palestinian and Jewish real estate in Israel. An archeological group is digging up antiquities in the area of Silwan, a village outside East Jerusalem, but the history being excavated is a small portion of a controversy feeding a larger problem of Palestinian displacement.

Silwan looks picturesque from far away, said Dan Izenberg, a 23-year veteran Israeli reporter covering the justice system for the “Jerusalem Post,” but get closer and the village of 45,000 people becomes a rough area. The 65-35 percent divide between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem contributes to Silwan’s conflicted character, with a total of 765,000 people in Jerusalem.

An archeological site known as the “City of David” has archeologists excavating parts of Jerusalem and Silwan to uncover the Old Testament city of King David. The archeologists have discovered many artifacts, such as ancient floor plans and waterways beneath the earth.

The archeological projects have taken the organization into the densely populated Palestinian village of Silwan. A “60 Minutes” broadcast showed one of the projects, consisting of vast underground tunnels stretching underneath Palestinian and Jewish homes.

Silwan locals do not particularly share the excitement over the archeological finds.

Izenberg said some Palestinians have complained about the damage the tunnels have brought to their homes’ foundations. Such complaints would normally be handled by the city; however, Izenberg said the permit to dig is granted by the Israel Antiquities Authority. In light of this process, he said some Palestinians petitioned the high courts of justice with their concerns in hopes of stopping the work, but they were rejected.

“Palestinians don’t have much power in Jerusalem,” Izenberg said. “It’s questionable how serious they are being taken.”

Powerful interests surrounding the City of David further complicate matters as the Israeli government seeks to maintain a unified Jerusalem. In an effort to keep both sides under Israeli law, Jewish families are moved into densely populated Palestinian areas. Izenberg identified El-Ad, an influential Israeli organization, as the key contributor in Jewish settlement movements. He said it has received much political backing.

“There isn’t any question; one of its purposes is to move Jewish families into Silwan,” Izenberg said, referring to El-Ad.

The organization financially supports the archeological digs, Izenberg said, and, therefore, has a strong “say” in the type and pace of work. The archeological digs are also strongly funded by donations through public support from the United States through the Friends of (the City of) David Foundation.

This non-profit organization was founded by David Be’eri in 1986 to conduct archeology in the biblical city of Jerusalem and assist in the education, housing and the rehabilitation of distressed properties.

Within five years, the foundation received more than $18.9 million in public support, according to 2008 tax records. That year, the organization sent more than $4.1 million overseas for program services it described as providing financial assistance to Jewish residents of the Old City of Jerusalem, teaching the history of the biblical city of Jerusalem and funding education and housing.

Be’eri is also known in Jerusalem as the leader of El-Ad, according to a 2008 State of Affairs report from Ir Amim, (“City of Peoples”), a non-profit organization working within Jerusalem to create a stable city for both nationalities, which also recognizes El-Ad at the forefront of settling Jews in Silwan.

“[El-Ad is] making a political statement,” David Smith, a Christian journalist who lived in Jerusalem for 28 years, said. Smith translated El-Ad to mean “to-forever,” essentially indicating “this is ours forever,” he said.

Izenberg said El-Ad repossesses Palestinian inhabited homes in Silwan that were previously owned by Jews before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Jews who lived in the homes, he explained, fled the fighting before the war, and the Jordanian government’s custodian of enemy property gave the homes to Palestinians. In a court ruling, Izenberg said Palestinians were allowed to live there if they paid “key money,” a British policy allowing tenants to live in the homes indefinitely without claiming ownership. Some Palestinians agreed to pay key money, and others, Izenberg said, refused to pay and believed the homes belonged to them.

Izenberg continued to say a 1972 law gave Israelis the right to reclaim homes that belonged to them before the 1948 war. That policy, however, was not extended to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem who lost their homes in the Jewish part of the city during the war.

Though many of the original Jewish homeowners have died since then or did not wish to move back to their old homes, Izenberg said Jews wish to “help settlement-streams get the houses back” and have given El-Ad permission to act on their behalf.

Silwan’s story is not uncommon. Izenberg also said the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah faces a similar situation, but those families have resorted to fighting. For more than a year, he said some of the displaced families have moved into protest tents across the street.

While the annexation of East Jerusalem “is a matter of international law” because the Geneva Accords deemed it illegal, Izenberg said it is a minor factor compared to what is going on.

“One of the terrible things about Israeli policy is that Israel has severely restricted Palestinian construction ever since it captured East Jerusalem in 1967,” Izenberg said.

Silwan is part of the Holy Basin National Park where construction is limited to two stories permitted in existing neighborhoods. There are many large families among the Palestinians and moving to another city is difficult for the younger generation, which has a rural mindset. So the Palestinians have no choice but to build illegally, Izenberg said.

Izenberg said illegal construction in Silwan is a common occurrence. Though Palestinians build the majority of illegal structures, a Jewish establishment has recently been built among the most contested areas of Silwan, without a permit. Named the House of Jonathan, the seven-story building rises high above the usual two-story homes.

“The House of Jonathan is built on purpose – deliberately,” Izenberg said. “The settlers want to make their presence known.” He said he was unsure which settlement organization built the structure.

Jewish settler movements such as El-Ad continue their practices in order to secure a unified city under Israeli sovereignty, and the archeological digs play a major role in unearthing history to give testimony to the Jewish historic claim over Jerusalem and Silwan.

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