Bowing to pressure from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the US State
Department and the international community, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has cut
back on plans to remove 88 illegal Arab buildings from a rich archeological park
in the Kidron Valley adjacent to the City of David, the ancient city of
According to municipal plans, Barkat proposed relocating only
about 20 families in the disputed area, while retroactively awarding legal
status to the rest. The entire area would renovated and restored as a garden and
world-class tourist site, with an Arab residential neighborhood including shops
and restaurants, sports and health care centers. Arabs claim that these plans
threaten their property and their way of life.
The city claims it will
improve the quality of life. Arabs are opposed, saying it is “Judaizing” the
area. The city contends that Arabs have built on public land in an archeological
area and it is enforcing “the rule of law”; Arabs decry the lack of building
According to the Jerusalem Municipality, there are an estimated
30,000 illegal Arab buildings in east Jerusalem alone. The municipality is in
the process of providing them with infrastructure and legalizing them
Some Arabs claim they own the land, but are unable to
Assisted by a number of Israeli NGOs, like Peace Now, Ir
Amim and Bimkom – recipients of funds from the New Israel Fund, European
governments and the EU – they have protested archeological work in the area,
insisting that the entire area is “Palestinian.”
Aerial photographs show
that the area was sparsely inhabited until the early 1990s, when archeological
excavations in the City of David began to attract millions of tourists, and
artifacts could be found scattered throughout the area. Under Mayor Barkat’s
predecessors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, Arabs built extensively throughout
the area, without interference.
The King’s Garden, or Al Bustan (“The
Garden” in Arabic), a reference to biblical times when it was a source of spices
used in perfumes and incense, is located just below the City of David, where the
Kidron and Hinnom Valleys meet. Water flowed to this area from the Gihon Spring,
the ancient city’s sole water source, mentioned in Kings I, 1:39, where King
Solomon was anointed.
The prophet Isaiah called this “ ...the waters of
Shiloah that flow softly” (8:6), which were channeled into a pool, then into the
King’s Garden, and from there down the Kidron Valley into the Judean Desert.
During King Hezekiah’s reign (727-698 BCE), a tunnel was cut from the Gihon
Spring, through the mountain, beneath the city, to bring water into the city.
(II Kings 20). The King’s Garden is mentioned as the escape route for King
Zedekiah (Jeremiah 39:4); in Nehemiah (2:14); in the Song of Songs (4:15); in
Ecclesiastes (2:5) and many other biblical and talmudic sources.
modern Arab village of Silwan (an Arabized version of the Hebrew, Shiloah) is
located in and around what was the ancient Jewish cemetery of the Mount of
Olives, on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley, opposite the City of
Across from the Gihon Spring is the tomb of Rabbi Ovadiah
ben-Avraham, from Bartinoro, Italy, known as “the Bartenura,” who died in
Jerusalem around 1500. He traveled extensively in the Land of Israel, describing
Jewish communities in Bethlehem, Hebron and Gaza, wrote a famous commentary on
the Mishna, and was the spiritual and communal leader of Jews in Jerusalem, many
of whom had escaped the expulsion from Spain in 1492.
A few hundred
meters north in the Kidron Valley, at the foot of the Mount of Olives cemetery,
are monumental tombs from the Second Temple Period. This is called the Valley of
Jehoshaphat (God has judged) where, according to Joel 4, 2 and 12, in both
Jewish and Christian tradition, the nations of the world will be
Neglected by municipal authorities for decades, the encroachment
and damage may be irreversible. Mayor Barkat’s solution is not ideal, but at
least it is an attempt to deal with the problem seriously. No doubt he cares,
but, having inherited a very difficult situation, and restricted by politicians,
he seems to be making the best out of a bad deal.
The author is a PhD
historian, writer and journalist.