Touted as any tourist’s “first stop” in a visit to Jerusalem, the City of David is considered one of Israel’s most important historical landmarks. It is also one of the country’s most complicated sites, as a right-wing organization uses the site’s archeological findings to prove a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Palestinians in the nearby Silwan fear it is encroaching on their neighborhood. And Silwan is no stranger to violent uprisings. It is in this tinderbox that Tel Aviv University archeologists, in cooperation with the Antiquities Authority, began excavating the site in December 2012, taking over from AAhired archeologists who were paid by the Elad organization.

As controversial as the site is, the university says it pays “particular attention to professional ethics” and works only under the AA’s supervision.

But our story begins further back.

Elad, which stands for El-Ir David, or “to the City of David,” is an organization founded in 1986 by David Be’eri with the mission of acquiring the former homes of Jewish families who left Silwan after the 1936 riots.

Jerusalem annexed Silwan, a village today of some 40,000 Palestinian residents, in 1967. Working through the Jewish National Fund, Elad was granted the power to reclaim property in Silwan through the use of the Absentee Properties Law, sometimes evicting Palestinian families from their homes in the process. Eventually, Elad began acquiring property directly from the owners, using Palestinian intermediaries, and also constructing new buildings altogether. Today, there are nearly 100 Jewish families living in Silwan, many under the protection of privately contracted security.

The property acquisition and evictions have not been peaceful. Tension in Silwan is at a high in an already tense city, and violent riots, even deaths, have occurred over the last several years.

Fall 2010 was a time of particular unrest. An Israeli guard protecting a Jewish family shot and killed a Palestinian throwing stones, sparking widespread rioting throughout east Jerusalem. Three weeks later, footage was captured of Be’eri hitting two young Palestinian rock throwers with his car, as they pelted him while he drove through the village.

To understand the storm surrounding the ongoing land acquisition and construction, one must first approach the history of the site now known as the City of David – a long history that is sometimes validated by concrete evidence, and sometimes only by negligible archeological substantiation.

The City of David, or Wadi Hilweh as it is known to the Palestinians, is located on a ridge known as the Ophel, which leads south of the Temple Mount on a valley-bordered peninsula: the Tyropoeon to the west, to the south, Hinnom, and to the east, the Kidron Valley.

Perhaps the most important geographical marker is the Gihon Spring, one of only a handful of freshwater sources around Jerusalem, and in this case, essentially the source of life in the city itself.

Archeologists agree that this small ridge, and eventually the area of the Temple Mount, comprised the original Jerusalem at its apex – that is, the Jerusalem of the Biblical King David. It is there, in that small city some 3,000 years ago, that today’s controversy begins.

Elad’s founding and goals are based on the assertion that the Biblical land on which modern Silwan was built, must be re-inhabited by Jewish families. To that end, they have been bankrolling excavations in the village for decades, and the main finds can be seen today at the City of David, a national archeological park that was privatized and given to Elad, and which attracts some half a million visitors annually.

The archeologists digging at the site were hired by the AA, but paid by Elad.

The park includes Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel, the Siloam Pool and various other structures. There have been extensive finds over the years: bullae with unique Hebrew inscriptions, coins and jewelry, and even a small golden bell claimed to have fallen, perhaps, from the robe of a priest on his way to the Temple.

In short, no one doubts that a rich history is being excavated at the site.

The controversy stems from the fact that the AA, which oversees all archeological work and certainly at the City of David, is essentially in partnership with and funded by a private organization with clear ideological goals – chiefly, to utilize the archaeological finds as a means of promoting the self-described “Judaization of east Jerusalem.”

Political and human rights group like Ir Amim have fought legal battles for years in an effort to minimize Elad’s control over land in Silwan, finding limited success.

The High Court struck down an attempt by Ir Amim to challenge Elad’s right, as a private organization, to control a national park in 2011. Ir Amim charged that Elad, as a political organization, had a clear conflict of interest in managing a national site. The ruling stated, however, that administration and major decisions of the City of David park should be left to the National Parks Authority.

It is through these layers of modern day politics that archeologists who by participating in the project open themselves up to attack and criticism, attempt to excavate the site. As a result, none of the archeologists contacted for this article agreed to speak without the AA’s approval – which they could not obtain – so cautious are they about expressing an opinion on the site and its findings.

One archeologist, however, in another report, claims that the best way to handle the politics is simply to ignore them.

In an interview last year in Haaretz, Professor Ronny Reich of Haifa University, one of the longest-excavating archeologists in Jerusalem and one of the most highly-regarded, took criticism of his involvement with Elad in stride.

“I have no agenda to find any particular thing,” he said. “Besides, if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be.

And he would uncover the same artifacts. So what’s the difference?” If all the artifacts are there to be found, do the politics of the group funding the excavations somehow change their meaning? Elad has been accused of mishandling artifacts, and the AA for being complicit. The excavations at the site of the Givati parking lot, led by AA officials and underwritten by Elad, have produced some interesting finds, which may likely be on display in the tourism center the City of David plans to open in that very spot once the digging ends.

What will not be on display are dozens of skeletons dating to the early Islamic period that went missing from the site in 2008, an incident for which the AA took responsibility. The excavation of bones is always a delicate process in archeology, but it is complicated further by religion and politics. AA rules require any graves discovered to be reported immediately to the Religious Services Ministry and to Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization that preserves Jewish grave sites. Neither they, nor any Muslim equivalent, were informed until the skeletons were already missing.

There are, of course, criticisms aimed at the Palestinians over arguably much more brash and open mishandling of archeological material – namely the removal of some 300 truckloads of topsoil and fill from under the Temple Mount by the waqf during the construction of the underground el-Marwani Mosque between 1996 and 1999. This move was roundly decried by archeologists, who pointed out that much of the area dug up hadn’t been touched since antiquity, and that the use of large, earth-moving machines showed no respect for the archeological method.

It is into this murky back and forth that a new player wades. Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archeology, for better or worse, has remained tight-lipped about its assumption of excavations at the City of David. Its critics, however, have not. Emek Shevah, a group of archaeologists critical of Elad (and now the university, for agreeing to work with them) released a petition last December calling on TAU to cease activity in the City of David.

“In entering into such a partnership, Tel Aviv University will be granting the Elad Foundation the professional recognition it seeks,” the petition states, “recognition that academic institutions in Israel and abroad have thus far refused to grant.”

Of the nearly 250 signatures on the petition, three dozen are TAU faculty, some of who are connected to the archeology department. Already opposed to Elad’s involvement in the excavations, the group appears to be concerned about the effect TAU’s involvement will have on Israeli academia’s reputation abroad, particularly given the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The institute responded quickly: “The area designated for the excavation is located far from the houses of Silwan. The dig will be carried out using modern scientific methods, at the highest professional standards, with particular attention paid to professional ethics. In the dig, a great deal of attention will be paid to the needs of those living nearby and the dig will be open to visits by local residents and tourists.

“Other than cooperation and professional oversight by the Israel Antiquities Authority, as required by law, no directives from any other organization will be accepted and there will be no supervision by any other group of the Tel Aviv University excavation.”

Strictly in terms of archeology, TAU’s involvement in the dig is mutually beneficial for both the university and the AA. The institute possesses the resources to take on such a project, with a large staff of accomplished, fieldready professors and a fast turnaround on the publication of excavation reports and scholarly articles, a boon to any project. In return, the university stakes its claim in what is, surprisingly, its first Jerusalem dig. It also expands its involvement in an early Iron Age site, which is of particular interest to the archeology institute.

TAU’s best defense against its critics may already rest in some of the highly critical assessment put forth by Tel Aviv archeologists against the work of Prof. Eilat Mazar, who excavated at the site between 2005 and 2008. Mazar concluded that a Stepped Stone Structure and Large Stone Structure which they found was some sort of royal palace, very possibly King David’s, and this claim is promoted by the City of David.

Not long after, several Tel Aviv archeologists, including Prof. Israel Finkelstein, lambasted Mazar in a rejoinder to her published findings for her reliance on the Bible in making her assessment of the palace.

“The Biblical text dominates this field operation, not archaeology,” the article accuses. “Had it not been for Mazar’s literal reading of the Biblical text, she never would have dated the remains to the 10th century BCE with such confidence.”

The authors of the article suggested that Mazar took very broad creative license with her reconstruction of the palace, utilizing a type of Bible-centered archeological practice that had fallen out of popularity in the late 20th century, but had, as they deemed, “reemerged with all its attributes in the City of David.”

The dark, damp walk through Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel is a popular draw at the City of David.

According to the Biblical narrative, this was the means by which Hezekiah prepared Jerusalem against an impending Assyrian siege, diverting the spring waters into the city. The exit from Hezekiah’s tunnel opens to the Pool of Siloam, where it is said that Jesus sent a blind man to be healed. Just a few steps from there is an exit – visitors can either walk back up a steep hill to the City of David park, or down the dusty street into Silwan. It is in this spot that the magnitude of the archeologists’ task in excavating the site brightly glares – a task not only of preserving and understanding an ancient history, but of life in a modern city.

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