Archaeology and Occupation

Paleojudaica links to a UPI report on the planned demolition of Palestinian houses in al-Bustan, which is part of Silwan, a district in East Jerusalem close to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa. There are

88 that Jerusalem’s municipality says have been built illegally and should be removed to restore an open public area in the valley that it wants to make a national park. The archaeological and ancient remains in that area “have an international and national value and they give the city its status as one of the most valuable cities in the world,” Jerusalem City Engineer Uri Shetrit said.

It is the most important archaeological site in the country, said Amihai Mazarm a professor at the Institute of Archaeology. Large areas have been excavated, King David’s palace was probably there, but dense Arab and Jewish construction in recent years prevents archaeological digs, he told United Press International.

Local Palestinians are calling foul. They say that many of the homes are older than the Israelis claim, and that those that are illegal are only so because Israel rarely gives building permits to Palestinians. It should also be noted that despite Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, under international law Silwan is not “in the country” as Amihai asserts – it is among the territories captured in 1967, and most Palestinian Jerusalemites have declined offers of Israeli citizenship (see here). Palestinian politicians also suggest a strategic reason for the proposed demolitions:

“Silwan is part of this line of settlements that would run all the way from the Old City to Maaleh Adumim (southeast of Jerusalem. It would be) one line of connected (Jewish) settlements while Palestinian areas would be certainly isolated one from the other,” said Palestinian Minister of State Hind Khoury, who is responsible for Jerusalem affairs.

Shetrit rejects this analysis, but it should be remembered that the recent dispute over Greek Orthodox property sold to a Jewish group has also been seen as part of a plan to consolidate Israeli control over Palestinian Jerusalem. Israeli activists are also opposing the demolitions; according to Haaretz (link added):

MK Roman Bronfman (Yahad) wrote to Jerusalem City Engineer Uri Sheetrit, who signed the letter ordering the demolitions, urging him to cancel his decision.

“This is an ethnic cleansing and large-scale deportation that boggles the mind,” he wrote. “Such a plan can lead to a huge explosion, which the Jerusalem municipality, and you particularly, would be held accountable for.”

…Dr. Meir Margalit of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) said the plan’s real intention was not to save Jerusalem’s “primordial landscape,” as the city engineer claims, but to wipe out the Palestinian presence from East Jerusalem.

In the Jerusalem Post Shetrit argues that the area is already allocated as a national park, and that there are 5,000-year-old archaeological remains in the area. Plus, the area is in danger from floods (Haaretz notes that this last argument came later).

Some background to the dispute can found in a 2000 article from the Jerusalem Quarterly by Jeffrey Yas:

Ever since Captain Charles Warren of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund conducted the first excavations here in 1867, the modern village has literally grown up around archaeological sites. In many pre-1967 photographs, the wadi seems as much a place of excavation as residence. After the 1967 War, however, many Palestinian refugees resettled in Silwan, and village space became increasingly filled with the construction of new homes.

…During the Intifada, Palestinians from Silwan were often seen on the front line, prompting Israelis to imagine the village as the archetypal breeding ground for stone throwing youth and terrorist inductees. The subsequent plummet in City of David tourist traffic frustrated municipal efforts. On 4 September 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took a big step in the Israeli reclamation of Silwan, kicking off the Jerusalem 3000 celebrations in a roped-off ceremony staged in the recently opened “City of David Archaeological Park.” The number 3000, after all, counts from David’s reign, making the site of his city a potent place to celebrate national sovereignty. Begin and Netanyahu similarly made high-profile appearances in the village, orchestrated in sync with settler land-acquisition initiatives.

The park is now known as the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Israeli archaeologists Yas spoke with stressed their dislike of the Israeli settlers. However:

As many local Palestinian residents will tell you, the bulldozers do come, but usually to demolish unlicensed homes. Archaeologists like Ronny Reich would prefer to steer clear of demolitions, settlers, and Tourist Ministry officials alike, proclaiming an objective distance from such ideological conflicts. This professed neutrality, however, ignores the role of archaeology in the service of tourist development, which in the case of Silwan is transforming a living village into a place called “The City of David.” The antiquities produced through archaeological research in Silwan are being arranged to narrate the much contested Biblical story of David conquering the Jebusite City. Beyond re-inscribing the village with this new symbolic meaning as “Jewish space,” the practice of archaeology is physically reshaping the village, having in several cases paved the legal path for Jewish settlement expansion.

Yas concludes:

Given the austere political landscape in which Israeli land confiscations and house demolitions consume Palestinian space on a daily basis, it is important for us to be sensitive to other ways in which these erasures occur. The use of archaeological sites to reshape the land into historical landscapes assists Israel in its co-optation of places like Silwan in ways that bulldozers never could.

That was back in 2000; now the bulldozers and the creation of “historical landscapes” are working together.

Meanwhile, Palestinian archaeologist Ibrahim Al-Fanni has made the unlikely allegation to the Palestine Information Centre that the demolitions are a sign that Israel plans to build a new Jewish Temple:

The Israeli government has completed the construction of a religious tourism city 14 meters deep below the holy Aqsa Mosque, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Fanni, an archeologist, affirmed.

When I first read this I assumed he meant some sort of underground affair, but on reflection I think he must mean in a valley next to the mosque.

Fanni said that the step fell in line with the construction of an infrastructure of the alleged temple the Jews are planning to build on the ruins of the holy site, adding that the Israeli authorities changed the Islamic names of the Mosque’s surroundings into Hebrew ones in an attempt to wipe out the holy city of Jerusalem’s Arab and Islamic landmarks.

He noted that the construction works and excavations are now being implemented in the western and eastern facades of the Mosque, and highlighted that the Israeli authorities rather than the Jewish fanatics were directly involved in planning the construction of the alleged temple.

This “evidence” is rather thin. Most religious Jews believe that the Third Temple belongs to a future Messianic age, and is not to be rebuilt by humans. The contrary view is held by only a handful of hard-right Kahanist extremists (and large numbers of American Christian Zionists), who, despite being championed by the likes of WorldNetDaily, have very little support in Israel. As the Jerusalem Post has recently noted:

There is also a broad consensus, even among national religious rabbis such as Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, that no steps should be made toward the building of a Third Temple.

al-Fanni goes on:

The Israeli plan envisaging the demolition of some 90 family houses in Al-Bustan suburb adjacent to the Mosque was aimed at constructing a park in their place, he pointed out.

We shouldn’t be too hard on some Palestinians for being paranoid, but a guy with a PhD (from the Hebrew University, apparently) should know better. The recent Israeli far-right protests at the Temple Mount were small, and their primary aim was to spread fear and resentment among Palestinians. With the very real threat to homes in al-Bastan, I’m sorry to see al-Fanni get sidetracked by a red herring spawned by a lunatic fringe.