The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a petition submitted against the Israel Antiquities Authority by residents of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, concerning excavations being conducted at the City of David archeological park in the neighborhood's Wadi Hilweh section.
The petition, which was the second of its kind submitted by residents - and dismissed by the court - within the last week, alleged that the excavations were being done without the proper permits and were encroaching on the residents' private property. Residents also complained that the archeological projects had damaged their homes.
The IAA, however, claimed that the residents were being "incited by other figures whose considerations are political and improbable," and maintained that the excavations were of the utmost importance.
One of the excavations is being conducted next to the Givati parking lot, which is located south of the Old City's southern wall, at the entrance to Silwan. According to the IAA, numerous layers of antiquities have been revealed during the excavation, including a "very impressive" structure that was likely a public building dating back to the late Roman period.
Remains from the early Islamic period have also been uncovered, as well as remains from the Second Temple period. According to the IAA, "all of the remains were scientifically excavated, through meticulous work, while photographing and documenting everything."
The second excavation, which was the subject of the residents' most recent petition, exposed a drainage channel structure from the Second Temple period that extends over a distance of many dozens of meters. According to the IAA, "the structure is surprisingly well preserved, and one can walk through it upright, for most of its length. The excavators were aware of the structure's existence; nevertheless, the segment that was excavated was only recently exposed."
Despite the objections of residents, the IAA has maintained that the archeological excavations being conducted in the area are "exposing Jerusalem's magnificent past, in all of the periods."
"These finds are of utmost importance to the Jewish people in particular and world culture in general," a statement from the IAA stated. "The high court accepted [our] position pertaining to the great importance of the excavations and the general public interest in uncovering the antiquities."
Justice Edna Arbel, who issued Monday's court ruling, echoed the IAA's statements, but said that the court's decision was also based on a lack of information from the residents.
"The picture that was presented to us shows that the damage to the property rights of the petitioners - as much as such damage does indeed exist - is minor," Arbel wrote in a statement about the ruling. "As stated, the petitioners did not argue that any damage had been caused to their houses, and the respondents explained that the activity on the land was indeed underground, but did not extend as far as the houses of the petitioners.
"Surely revealing the secrets of the past, which have been hidden for hundreds and thousands of years in the bowels of the earth, is an essential part of the archeologist's research," Arbel's statement continued. "From the standpoint of public interest, conducting this research is multifaceted, whether because of the contribution there is in understanding the history of the country and the history of the Jewish people or because of the contribution there is in understanding historic events that have importance that is not just limited to the Jewish people and its history. [Because] the petitioners failed to point out real damage to their property, it seems that there is no justification in harming or restricting the public interest in conducting the excavation work on the land."
However, Peace Now, which filed the first petition together with the neighborhood residents, has said that the problem isn't the excavations themselves, but the manner in which they are being carried out.
"The excavation work has been going on outside of any legal framework," said Hagit Ofra from Peace Now's Settlement Watch program. "And it's a shame that the Supreme Court has now allowed the IAA to dig under private property."
Ofra also said that the ruling would only give fodder to rumors in the Arab world that the Israeli government was digging around and under the Temple Mount.
"This is one of the biggest fears among the Palestinians and in the Muslim world," she said. "I'm not saying that archeological excavations should stop; they just need to be done in a more delicate way - in a way that shows the residents that nothing nefarious is going on here. The way it stands now, the Elad settler organization is funding these excavations in Silwan, and it's politically, not historically, motivated."
A separate petition filed nearly two weeks ago by residents of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, together with two Israeli NGOs, was accepted by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, which ordered a halt to a number of construction projects in the area.
According to the court's ruling, the Jerusalem Municipality was ordered to stop work on the construction work on parking lots, sidewalks, facade renovations and the local electricity grid, totaling some NIS 30 million - because the projects lacked the proper building permits.