Court considers allowing Silwan excavation to resume

The High Court of Justice is due to hand down its decision in the next few days on a request to lift the interim injunction preventing the Antiquities Authority from resuming its excavation of a Herodian water channel in Silwan, outside Jerusalem's Old City. In March, the court issued the injunction at the request of six Palestinian families, who charged that the authority was excavating underneath their homes. "The Antiquities Law does not permit archeologists to excavate underneath private homes," said the petitioners' attorney, Sami Ershied. "The discovery of antiquities cannot take precedence over individual rights." The excavation is not a new archeological discovery. The site is a tunnel or channel located about six meters below the surface, and archeologists believe it was built by King Herod. It was built to direct rainwater to the upper city of Jerusalem and is apparently part of a massive underground water system. The channel was originally discovered in 1895 by archeologists Frederick Bliss and Archibald Dickie of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Today's work is meant to remove the residue that has piled up in the channel over the centuries. But the archeologists are following the underground channel along its length, leading them to work underneath the homes of the petitioners. The original excavation began on a plot of land administered by Elad, a right-wing organization that has brought 50 families to live in Silwan and administers the large archeological park in the neighborhood on behalf of the Nature and Parks Authority. According to Ershied, Silwan residents became aware of the excavation when the road that serves the neighborhood buckled and the municipality came to fill it in. The petitioners knew about the original dig, but had no idea that it continued underneath the foundations of their homes, he wrote. "They discovered that the Antiquities Authority, without authorization and without asking for permission from the Palestinian occupants or informing them, was excavating underneath their homes and vineyards on their land," he charged. Attorney Yoram Bar-Sela, representing the Antiquities Authority, told the court that the excavation had begun as a "salvation dig" before the construction of a new residential building. However, the archeologists had discovered the side of a massive structure built with the same stone foundation as the outer Temple wall. They then began to work on the water channel, which served the building, he said. Bar-Sela said the work had been going on for six months and that members of the petitioners' families were working on the excavations. "They have known all along what was going on," he said. He also denied that the work was proceeding without a permit, since the entire area had been declared an antiquity zone by the government after the 1967 Six Day War. On the contrary, said Bar-Sela, it was likely that many of the homes of the petitioners did not exist in 1967 or had been expanded since then. This would have been done illegally, since they were obliged to obtain permission from the Antiquities Authority before changing the site, he argued.