Jerusalem – The Holy Basin – containing Jerusalem’s Old City and its surrounding territories – may be the most contested piece of property in the world. Sacred to Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, it is both the centre of Jerusalem and the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since the “unification” of the city in 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and began its military occupation of the West Bank, this area has been subject to an ambitious Israeli government project to reintroduce Jewish history in and around the Old City, creating a link between the ancient Jewish past and the modern state. Central to the project has been archaeological excavation, which, in tandem with biblical tourism, has worked to advance Israeli claims to their “eternal capital”, often, some say, at the expense and erasure of the Palestinian past and present.
As Jerusalem-based Israeli archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi explained to Al Jazeera: “When they [Israelis] think about their belonging to Israel it is about Jerusalem. It’s not about Haifa, it’s not about Tel Aviv, it’s not even West Jerusalem. It’s the historical [holy] basin. And archaeological excavation has been the main tool to represent this belonging.”
Israel has used archeology as one of the weapons in this ground war about expanding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, particularly in Silwan.
But critics say settler-funded archaeological projects are fundamentally alternating the landscape of Palestine’s supposed future capital.
“Israel has used archeology as one of the weapons in this ground war about expanding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, particularly in Silwan,” said Rafi Greenberg, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University.
“That is what has been happening over the past 15 years or so. A combination of excavation and declaration of areas as natural parks that now surround the Old City.”
The most extreme example of this is the City of David Park where the archaeological site of ancient Jerusalem – situated just outside of the old city – is located.
Since 1997 the park has been operated by the right-wing settler foundation Ir David (ELAD). This organisation funds numerous state-run archaeological excavations and brings hundreds of thousands of people to the Holy Basin each year.
In the early 1990s, the foundation led an aggressive settlement campaign in Silwan.
“At first, archaeology was not part of the programme at all. At some point , they saw that this was a way of gaining influence on all the open spaces – a kind of silent settlement,” Greenberg said.
What has taken place since then is the transformation of a Palestinian village into an archaeological park, a process involving the physical eviction of Palestinians.
City of David tour
The City of David Park is located at the entrance to the Palestinian town of Silwan, near the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City. Nearly 400,000 people pass through the archaeological park each year, often taking part in one of the paid tours offered by Ir David.
Each tour begins with a 15-minute video, screened at the park’s 3D theatre. The video covers the establishment of ancient Jerusalem by King David, the period leading up to the destruction of the second temple, and the subsequent Jewish exile.
Throughout the movie, the narrative of Jewish biblical right is laid down, establishing a historic link between the city’s initial conquest and the current settler project:
“Jerusalem was resettled in the days of the second temple, then was ruined by the Romans. For 2,000 years the city passed from hand to hand. But the Jewish people never forgot its eternal capital… In the early 1990s, the year IR David foundation reestablished a Jewish residential community in the city of David, within the national parks surrounding Jerusalem.”
This passage openly acknowledges Ir David settlement activities, while simultaneously brushing aside 2,000 years of non-Jewish history.
“Three-thousand years after King David, we have returned to the hill where it all began,” the narrator continues.
“Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, Jerusalem is renewed as the eternal capital of the state of Israel. Boys and girls are playing in Jerusalem streets again; buildings from all eras adorn them. And at its heart one little hill stands eternal. The hill of the city of David. The place in which everything began.”
During the tour there is no mention of Palestinians or the city the compound was built on top of. When asked about Silwan, the guide described it as an “Arabian village… not very old at all” with “many important remains of Jewish people held underneath”. The Palestinian boys from Silwan encountered by the our group playing in the pool at end of tunnel were said to have come from a “village nearby”.
The tour itself leads participants through the park, the tunnels, and back to the visitors’ centre. Its design largely shields the participant from the town and residents of Silwan, which is replaced with a powerful narrative of righteous return and Jewish ownership.
Mizrachi, head of the archaeology organisation Amek Shaveh that also runs tours through the park, spoke about this.
“The tour, the video – it’s all designed this way. Excavations slowly, slowly create new landscapes. Instead of seeing a Palestinian village, from some places you see archaeological sites. From there it is very easy to create an identity to a place. Emphasising the site instead of the village, all of that together give it lots of power,” Mizrachi said.
Hamed Salem, a Palestinian archaeologist and professor at Birzeit University, spoke to Al Jazeera about the dangers of settler-run archaeological tourism.
“As a Palestinian and an academic this is outrageous, as it is clearly connecting archaeology to the politics,” Salem said. “The City of David Park has hundreds of thousands of internationals visiting each year exposed to the settler agenda. It is clear they want to justify the settlements in Jerusalem and everywhere. This important historical site is no longer an archaeological park; it’s an ideological park.”
Silwan has become the site of frequent violent clashes, arrests, and house demolitions, as more than 350 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli police and military, took up residence in the Palestinian village. For the residents of Silwan, the affect of the park is real. Beyond Ir David’s settlement activities, the tunnels and excavations have led to widespread structural damage of streets, houses and a mosque.
Silwan native Ibrahim Sion owns the lone shop located at the exit of the tunnels. Its walls are covered with cracks caused by the excavations. He spoke to Al Jazeera about the pressure he has faced since Ir David took over managing the park.
“My grandfather started this shop in the 40s,” Sion said. “Since they [Ir David] came, the guides won’t let anyone come to us. All the tourists – they used to come us and we would make our own living. Now, nothing.
“Why? Because they want me to leave. It’s a pressure on me. This is what we are living in Silwan, its terrible, we are loosing the most important thing, freedom,” he said.
As the struggles in Silwan continue, increasing attention is being paid to the effect archaeology has in Jerusalem and throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Archaeology here is always political,” said Mizrachi. “And it’s not just about privileging one history. It’s used to take lands, put holes in the ground; it’s as much a settlement as anything. And in Silwan it is affecting the lives of these people dramatically.”
As Sion the shopkeeper put it: “Life is terrible at times, but people here are staying very firmly. They want to swallow us, but we will never leave.”