How Jewish settlers use archeology to displace Palestinians from their land 

Silwan neighbourhood - the 'City of David' archaeological site, run by the Jewish settler organization the Elad Foundation (Allison Deger - Mondoweiss)

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  September 4, 2022

A new report from Emek Shaveh shows how Jewish settlers and the government use archeological projects to advance the annexation of Palestinian land.

In its 18-page biannual report released last week, Emek Shaveh documents the plans of Israeli government bodies and settler organizations it says are “designed to change the demographic and historic character of East Jerusalem.” The report also details “a widespread effort [in the West Bank] to crack down on Palestinian construction, agricultural activity and the development of heritage sites.”

Settlers and government bodies seize land or assume control, the report charges, “under the pretext of archeological research or the development of historic sites for the public benefit.”

Emek Shaveh is an Israeli non-government agency working “to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples.” On its website, the NGO charges that “the ruins of the past have become a political tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… [we] work to challenge those who use archaeological sites to dispossess disenfranchised communities.”

Its report on recent developments in Jerusalem focuses on the work of the Elad Foundation, one of Israel’s largest and most influential settler groups. According to an article in Haaretz, Elad, “operates in East Jerusalem with two main foci: settling Jews in the largely Palestinian Silwan neighborhood and running tourist and excavation sites.”

Elad’s flagship operation is its City of David Archeological Park, which the foundation runs for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The heart of the park is located in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

Projects related to the park include a suspension bridge, a café and events venue dubbed A House in the Valley, and a proposed cable car that will begin in the western part of Jerusalem, pass over Palestinian neighborhoods as it crosses into East Jerusalem, and end on the City of David’s proposed seven-story Biblically-themed cultural center being built on land where Palestinian families used to gather.

Emek Shaveh details how many of these projects—including homes for settlers, stores for shoppers—are expanding beyond the City of David Archeological Park into the Hinnom Valley to the south and the Kidron Valley to the east. 

While Elad suggests that these are merely efforts to expand the city’s tourist opportunities, Emek Shaveh describes how they serve more nefarious political and ideological ends—controlling the area’s development and celebrating the area’s Jewish history while dismissing the multi-layered narrative of the cultures and peoples who, over millennia, have occupied Jerusalem and its environs. 

Collusion between settlers and government

According to the report, “The multiplication of settler-led tourism ventures would not have been possible without the full cooperation of the relevant government bodies such as the Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA).” 

“Together,” Emek Shaveh maintains, “their actions exploit values of nature and heritage conservation to alter the multicultural identity of Jerusalem’s historic core.”

In May, the Israeli government announced its decision to fund continued work with a grant of nearly $5 million to, as the grant said, “enhance Jerusalem’s status as an international city of faith, heritage, culture and tourism.” 

Emek Shaveh insists that, instead, this was “a political decision to continue to finance the Elad Foundation’s archaeological-touristic settlement while sub-serving the Israel Antiquities Authority to its private ideological needs… designed to change the demographic and historic character of East Jerusalem in general, and the Historic Basin in particular.”

Using Jerusalem Municipality’s gardening orders and Israel’s discriminatory Absentee Property Law, Elad has conspired with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to begin several new projects in the Hinnom Valley which, for millennia, served as the city’s necropolis. 

Last summer, the settler organization created another tourist site, The Center for Ancient Agriculture

More than another cultural attraction

“The farm,” Emek Shaveh’s report details, “has become a strategic site for the Elad Foundation in their efforts to reach the Israeli secular mainstream public. Due to its proximity to West Jerusalem and mainstream cultural institutions…,” the report continues, “Elad is well positioned to attract relatively non-political crowds that would perceive the farm as yet another cultural venue in the area.” 

Over the past few months, Emek Shaveh reports, the Elad Foundation has been hosting groups of high school children, pre-military groups and groups of volunteers to work on the land, some of which is claimed by Palestinians to be privately owned and is now under the auspices of the General Custodian or the Jerusalem Municipality.

Students offered the opportunity to participate in a “social involvement” program hosted by the farm are often “unaware of the political and ethical implications of their actions,” according to the report. Elad doesn’t explain to parents or teachers that this is a political project run by the Elad Foundation. 

Consequently, visitors to Elad’s sites—Israelis and internationals—will likely be informed about life and practices associated with the First and Second Temple periods, without being exposed to the rich cultural heritage of other civilizations, let alone to the Palestinians whose families have resided in the area for centuries. 

In a Zoom conversation, Emek Shaveh’s International Outreach Coordinator Talya Ezrahi described a concerning trend. She affirmed the value of preserving Jewish heritage, then said, “While the importance of safe-guarding Jewish sites and sharing the Jewish history is taking root in this part of the world, the mainstream public is often unaware that projects are moving across the Green Line, that these sites are intended to exclude Palestinian stories and the accounts of other peoples and faiths that have lived in the land.”

Archeological remains in the area span 7,000 years, the city having been inhabited by Canaanites, Judeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greek, Romans and Byzantines, including a millennium of Muslim rule. “Settlers,” Ezrahi explained, “are taking the fascinating, layered history of Jerusalem and reducing it to a Jewish-only narrative.” 

Mount of Olives is back on the agenda 

In February, Mondoweiss reported on plans by Elad and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority—described by Emek Shaveh as “The two who walk together”—to take 68 dunams of land on the Mount of Olives.

At that time, it was reported that the plan was shelved in response to a sharply worded letter to Israel’s Minister for the Protection of the Environment penned by leaders of the historic churches in Jerusalem.

Plans for the extended boundaries of the park have been re-submitted to the local planning committee and are scheduled to be heard in December. A map of the proposed extension includes large portions of the Mount of Olives and parts of the Hinnon and Kidron Valleys.

In their letter, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian described the Mount of Olives as “one of the holiest sites for Christianity.” 

The letter continued, “In recent years, we cannot help but feel that various entities are seeking to minimize, not to say eliminate any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City….” 

“It seems that [the plan],” the clergy wrote, “was put forward and is being orchestrated, advanced and promoted by entities whose apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalize one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature.”

While seldom stated publicly, partisan observers of Israel’s apartheid laws, policies and practices have acknowledged that the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem stop short naming Israeli governments bodies and settler organizations—and refrain from using the terms apartheid and ethnic cleansing—for fear of reprisals from Israeli authorities, including harassment and/or prohibition of their believers seeking to worship in Jerusalem’s holy sites, confiscation of church property, imposition of taxes exempted through what is described as status quo agreements, and increased physical attacks on their clergy by extremists.

De facto annexation

Emek Shaveh’s biennial report closes with a critical assessment of what it describes as “a growing campaign by settler NGOs to extend Israeli control over sites in the West Bank claiming large-scale antiquity destruction and theft by the Palestinians.”

Emek Shaveh numbers approximately 6000 antiquity sites in the West Bank, writing that “in almost every village or town there are archaeological remains of varying scale from a watering hole to a multilayered mound.” 

“It follows,” the report acknowledges, “that there is always a tension between the need for development and the safeguarding of heritage.” Still, several sites are described in detail, illustrating Emek Shaveh’s concern that when the Israel Antiquities Authority sponsors projects it “signifies steps taken towards de facto annexation in the realm of archeology.”

Jeff Wright is a retired pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as a mission co-worker appointed to Kairos Palestine