The National Planning and Building Committee commenced final deliberations this week over the fate of the controversial Kedem Center, a proposed archeological facility that would sit atop the Givati Parking Lot excavation site in Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, adjacent to the Old City.
Located south of Dung Gate, the center would house archeological discoveries from ancient Jerusalem and serve as the planned entryway for visitors to the Jerusalem Walls National Park, which includes the City of David and Mount Zion, as well as to the Ophel and to the Hulda Gates.
Despite a petition filed against the center’s construction by a left-wing NGO, the project was approved by the Jerusalem local and regional planning and building committees and has received widespread support from scholars and public officials in a joint letter.
Signatories include Carl Steinitz, a Harvard University professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning; Hebrew University Nobel laureate Prof. Yisrael Aumann; Amos Yadlin, director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies; Shabtai Shavit, former director- general of the Mossad; former government cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser; and renowned archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay.
“Uncovering Jerusalem’s antiquities, preserving them, and displaying them to the general public has great value,” the letter stated. “The challenge of preserving the ancient character of Jerusalem, while developing it as a modern city in the 21st century, is no easy task....
“It is clear to us, the undersigned, that not only will the Kedem Center not damage the area in question (skyline, archeology, environment, etc.,), it will unequivocally complement and enhance it.”
Moreover, noting the many additional tourists the center would likely attract, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also expressed his support for the structure, stating it would assist him in achieving his goal of drawing 10 million visitors to the capital annually.
“The Kedem Center plays a large and important role in creating this infrastructure, given its convenient location in a central part of the national park and the ancient city, and the high quality of the site itself,” Barkat said.
However, in January of last year a consortium of prominent Israeli archeologists – joined by the leftwing NGO Emek Shaveh, a European- funded group of community activists – filed a petition to block the center, which it described as destructive and contributing to the “Judaization” of east Jerusalem.
“This decision intends to strengthen Israel’s hold on east Jerusalem and make a statement about who owns Jerusalem and its past,” the group said in a joint statement accompanying the petition.
“In addition to its political aspect, the building will alter the landscape of the Old City and its walls, and is unprecedented in the damage it will cause to an archeological tel.”
Archeologists from universities across the country, including professors Ze’ev Herzog, Gideon Ferster, Raphael Greenberg, Rina Talgam, Haim Goldfus, Yuval Yekutieli and Judith Green all signed the petition denouncing the project.
In it, the archeologists argue that construction of the compound would “damage Jerusalem’s role as a world heritage site and the preservation activities planned for the area.”
It also claimed that the building would harm Silwan’s residents.
The petition added that the construction plan contravenes previous decisions by the District Planning Commission by not presenting an appropriate preservation plan.
“It is impossible to construct a complex of this size without damaging archeological remains related to Jerusalem’s Old City,” the statement said.
“Had the plan been aimed at protecting the archeological strata, there would have been no need for a massive building atop the Givati Parking Lot, opposite the Old City walls.”
Additionally, the group argued that the Antiquities Authority, which is entrusted with protecting and preserving archeological remains, failed to present a plan explaining how construction at the site would preserve them.
“It is clear that various aspects of the plan – such as the building’s foundations, the parking area, etc., will damage the remains which are visible, as well as those yet uncovered,” it stated.
Finally, the petition claimed the project would set a dangerous precedent by permitting other construction initiatives around the Old City walls, damaging the archeological remains which “make such an important contribution to the landscape and to the area’s unique character.”
The building plans for the Kedem Center were developed by architect Arie Rahamimoff, the former chairman of UNESCO in Israel.
Plans for the center were submitted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, together with the Ir David Foundation (Elad), in close coordination with the Jerusalem Municipality and Antiquities Authority.