Digging too deep?

Archeologists are unearthing J'lem's beginnings in the City of David, but at what cost to Silwan?

protest Ir David 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
protest Ir David 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
'You can feel it here. It's life, real life," whispers a voice in the dim light illuminating a narrow tunnel hidden below the surface of Jerusalem's streets. "Life in Jerusalem ended here," says Doron Spielman, the Ir David Foundation's international director of development, crouching in the passage in which he says the last Jewish residents of ancient Jerusalem took their final stand during the revolt against the Romans in 70 CE. Indeed, one can actually feel the soft black residue lining the stone walls of the channel - dubbed the "Herodian Tunnel" because it is believed to have been built by King Herod - which Spielman says is ash from the destruction of the Second Temple. "It was built to direct rainwater to the upper city of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period and is part of one massive underground water system. At that time, water meant life," he explains. The still air in the tunnel is a stark contrast to the controversy that it has caused above ground. Climbing up to the surface, the 21st century comes to life in the shape of Sudanese laborers carrying rubble around the site, not to mention the large protest tent erected yards from the excavation where local Arab residents raised a banner across the street declaring, "To dig a tunnel means to kill a village." Tourists have been flocking to see the phenomenal archeological findings at the Ir David site, or City of David in English, the place where the city of Jerusalem began thousands of years ago. But the new excavations in the Arab village of Silwan have brought simmering tensions in the neighborhood to the surface. Demonstrations earlier this month by a group of Arab residents and Jewish Israeli activists to prevent work on the latest tunnel, which runs under the homes of several families, resulted in the arrest of eight people under suspicion of interfering with the dig and damaging property. But the disquiet goes beyond the tunnels to the wider activities of the Ir David Foundation, which opponents says is telling a selective history of the area and putting archeology before the daily lives of the local residents. The entrance to the main City of David Visitors Center, a five-minute walk from the Western Wall, has now become the site of weekly Friday protests, with a few dozen activists distributing leaflets to tourists and holding placards reading, "Yes to archeology, no to re-writing history," "An entrance ticket = ticket for a brainwash" and "Enter as a tourist, exit as a settler." The protests were sparked by excavations on the new tunnel, which residents fear will endanger the safety of the people living above them. "Unlike the usual manner of an archeological dig, which is vertical and digs deeper, here it is advancing horizontally in both directions," says B., a Jewish Israeli activist. "It is very dangerous for the families and children living here," believes Abu Diav Fakhri, from the community committee. "The dig is passing under the land of the Palestinians and we argued that they do not have a permit for these digs. To get a permit, one has to ask the owners of the land and involve them in the process; they can't dig horizontally under the land of the Palestinians," says attorney Gabi Laski, who is representing three of the protesters who were arrested. "According to land law in Israel, a person who has property is also the owner of what is underneath. Of course, if archeological artifacts are found there is a process to enter the land, but to do that the landowner must be involved, and they have never been approached." In a written statement, the Israel Antiquities Authority says: "The IAA acts according to the Antiquities Law and does not take any action that is contradictory to the instructions of the law." The Ir David Foundation says that locals have nothing to fear from the digging. "The claims are bogus. We are simply cleaning out tunnels that were already dug by King Herod," says Spielman, noting that the tunnel was originally discovered and partially excavated in 1895 by archeologists Frederick Bliss and Archibald Dickie of the Palestine Exploration Fund. In an exclusive tour of the Herodian Tunnel In Jerusalem saw first-hand the progress of the latest discovery at the City of David which runs south to the Shiloah Pool. "Everything I am showing you now was dug here by Bliss and Dickie. It's defined as an archeological cleaning operation because the work is taking place in a confined capsule," says Spielman nine meters below street level, pointing to the large stone slabs supporting the tunnel walls. "It's not a standard archeological dig when you dig down through all the layers, from the base of the excavation up to the surface. We are literally cleaning what Bliss and Dickie left behind, it's as if the Channel Tunnel got dirty and was cleaned out. Whenever we dig we put up steel supports… but we are not required to put up supports here because the tunnel is a capped space. We're not going to the surface of the earth. If we were digging to the road we would be having a different conversation. There is no structural damage to any homes." Silwan residents showed In Jerusalem large, fresh cracks in the road adjacent to the new excavation site, including where they say the road caved into the ground three weeks ago and was subsequently filled in by the municipality. Residents say that property is at risk of damage occurring on the northern section of the tunnel, which they claim is not supported by walls, but IJ was unable to confirm this. Attorney Sami Ershed, who took a petition by the villagers to the High Court of Justice to stop the excavations on February 10, says that the dig requires legal permission from the municipality, as well as permission from the landlord in order to enter privately-owned land. Nevertheless, Spielman says he is "extremely confident" that the case will be rejected by the court. The municipal spokesman's office told IJ that City Hall does not deal with permits for archeological digs, leaving this to the IAA. WHAT HAS set apart the latest demonstrations is that, unlike the first protest in early February, they are being attended entirely by Jewish activists. "People in Silwan are afraid to attend the demonstration after last week. They were arrested very quickly so people are frightened," says Ronnee Jaeger, a pensioner who has been involved in campaigns against the Ir David Foundation, the non-governmental organization that administers and runs tours on the site, for around five years. Police advised residents to register a complaint at the police station following their attempts to stop the dig on 10 February, but when two Arab residents and a Jewish Israeli activist went there they were arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace as well as damaging property on a separate occasion. "We were surprised to be called 'criminals.' We went to the police to make a complaint and instead we were interrogated and then taken to prison for 36 hours," says Muhammad Siyam, one of the three arrested, sitting under the protest tent meters from the excavation site. "We want to stop the works underground, not just here, but in the whole neighborhood because it's very dangerous and houses will be destroyed." The three were eventually freed on bail, while another five Silwan residents, arrested in their homes during police raids before dawn the following day on suspicion of damaging property belonging to Ir David, were released without charge. "If I get arrested, I'll get released the same day," says Jaeger. "For them [Arab residents] it takes a few days and they don't know what will happen to them. I don't need to be afraid because I am Jewish. Some people think Israel is just for the Jews and Arabs can go and find somewhere else. But I want them to be here, they are part of this country too." UNDENIABLY, THERE is a fascinating story to tell beneath the houses of present-day Silwan. "This tunnel is an incredible representation of life in the Second Temple Period, not only of how they drew water and the evidence of the Temple's destruction, but as evidence of Jewish life and resilience - how we held out against the Romans. It's incredible for a Jewish person to go and see this, it's a connection between the past and the present," says Spielman. Many opponents to the latest dig agree that the site holds tremendous archeological importance. Among them is Yoni Mizrachi, a former archeologist who worked at the Israel Antiquities Authority and is part of a group of archeologists who believe the excavations are a political tool. "We think it is a very important site because Jerusalem started here, we don't deny that. But archeology shouldn't be used as a political argument, to claim belonging to the land and that others don't belong. This is not a question for archeology. Elad [the Hebrew name for the Ir David Foundation] is running the site and talking only about a period that they claim is a Jewish period, but there are 20 or 30 layers of history here, from 5,000 BC to 2,000 CE," says Mizrachi. Accusations of political motives are being hurled by both sides. According to Spielman, "The protests are ludicrous. They are politically based... Palestinians are taught history that claims that Muhammad was the founder of Jerusalem and there was never a Jewish temple here. So we have a big problem because anywhere we dig in the ground we find things that are older than Muhammad." Spielman also says that Hamas has been involved in recent protests, and that their members have been coming in from outside the area because they are weak in Silwan. "I don't mind about the digging; it's our history too, the history of every human being. It's the political agenda that's the problem," says Fakhri, who objects to Jews moving into Silwan, currently numbering around 50 families with over 250 people. "The settlers [Jewish Silwan residents] mainly started coming after [the] Oslo [Accords] since they were scared about a peace deal which would divide Jerusalem into two capitals for two peoples. That's why I say it's a political agenda. The archeology is to [hide] the political agenda; the settlers came first, but they are together with Elad." Residents of a house next to the Herodian Tunnel excavation declined to speak to In Jerusalem. The Ir David Foundation is open about its objectives: "As an organization, we have various goals. One is archeology, one is encouraging the Jewish community here via legal means, as well as our educational tours and projects," explains Spielman. The City of David Web site says that it is committed to what it calls "residential revitalization." "In 1991 the first Jewish residents began to return to live in the City of David and today the area is a thriving Jewish community," the site reads. The houses occupied by Jews in Silwan are conspicuous by their heavy fortification and Israeli flags fluttering in the wind. Spielman says that relations with Arabs in the village, several of whom work for the foundation, are "very positive," and that "most people living here are comfortable living with Jews." Indeed, he seems well-liked by many locals who strike up friendly conversations with him as he drives through the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they [Jewish residents] "don't take any chances" and the area is protected by a system of CCTV and "quiet security," which Spielman says guards "both Arabs and Jews." WHETHER OR not the protesters will be successful in bringing the work on the Herodian Tunnel to a halt, their objections go beyond the latest digging or the heavy-handed police response. Perhaps at the root of the tensions in Silwan lie the competing narratives of uninterrupted Jewish continuity in Jerusalem, and the many other layers of history and culture, including the current Arab residents. "Most people coming here don't get the feeling they are in a Palestinian village, they just see the archeology and talk about the Jewish period. They don't see the Palestinians," says Mizrachi, who launched the alternative tour of the area in January to provide a counter-narrative abut how "archeology impacts with society." Rafi Greenberg, who leads the tour called "From Shiloah to Silwan," recently began taking groups of 30 people around a circuit of the archeological findings, ending with tea with local residents in their protest tent. "Archeology is all about interpretation. The findings don't speak for themselves, archeologists speak for them," says Greenberg, a senior lecturer in archeology at Tel Aviv University who participated in excavations at the City of David in the 1970s. On the terrace of the visitors center, his group rubs shoulders with official tour guides as they stand in the shadow of Al-Aksa Mosque and take in the stunning views of the Mount of Olives and overlapping hills of the Kidron Valley. "This tour is about how archeology interacts with society. Archeology confiscates places, temporarily or permanently, and returns them in a different form, with a history which has value judgments about how they have changed," says Greenberg. "Here, empty lots are taken away from the public, the Palestinians, and returned to a different public. This is an action with political impacts in which archeologists are implicated." But Spielman rejects charges of interference with archeology: "There is an absolute divider between archeology and the foundation," he says. "No one in the Ir David Foundation picks up a shovel and digs, it's the Israel Antiquities Authority doing the digging." According to the IAA, it is "involved only in the scientific-archeological aspects of the archeological research and not in the political and religious aspects of it." The IAA says that it has "no connection to the chronological dating/original era or to the political and historical interpretation." Spielman argues that life has improved for Silwan's residents since Jews began to move in and tourism took off. "The value of property has gone up and the streets are clean. It was an absolute slum before with a big drug problem." Greenberg disagrees, pointing to the mounds of garbage lining many of the village's streets and the dilapidated condition of many of its buildings. "I would define Elad's presence and use of archeology as analogous to colonization," he says. "It is for the benefit of the incoming power and to the detriment of the local people who have no say in what is happening. If there are benefits for locals here and there, like a water pipe or new pavement, then it simply has the effect of consolidating the power of Elad. "I've known the main drag here since the Seventies, there is the same absence of sidewalks and municipal services. Nothing has changed." THERE IS also scholarly disagreement over some of the archeological findings, including the actual connection to King David. According to Dr. Eilat Mazar, a senior fellow of the Shalem Center, walls of a large public structure she has excavated could be part of King David's palace. "Dr. Mazar's excavation uncovered the walls of a massive Phoenician-style public building dated (via preliminary pottery finds) to the 10th century BCE, the period in which the Bible describes King David as having ruled in Jerusalem. Mazar believes the structure might be the palace built for David by King Hiram of Tyre (a Phoenician city), as described in the Bible in Samuel II (5:11)," according to the Shalem Center's Web site. Mazar could not be reached for comment. "I think we should be dealing with layers, not historical figures, because in Israel-Palestine there are no name tags that say King David or King Herod lived here," argues Mizrachi. Rafi Greenberg says that if King David existed here in the 10th century BCE then this is the place where it is most likely he would have built his palace, but he argues that Mazar's pottery discoveries provide insufficient evidence to prove this. "There is a large distance between 'could' and 'is.'" His alternative tour will be hard-pressed to match the popularity of the official City of David Visitors Center, which now sits among Jerusalem's top five tourist attractions, having mushroomed from just 25,000 visitors in 2001 to 350,000 last year. During one hour of the protest, three buses dropped off at least 100 people from Israel, North America and Russia, who gave mixed reactions to the demonstration. Many walked by perplexed, unaware of what the protest was about, but some did listen to their message. "I don't have a problem with the digging because of the historical value. The houses aren't going to fall down, I assume so at least," says a middle-aged tourist from Houston. "I wouldn't like digging under my home, but I do want to see what they are finding here," says his wife. "We should preserve all history, not just Jewish history."