Whose city is it, anyway?

Few people who visit the City of David are aware that the site is controlled and operated by a private organization, with a clear political orientation and ideological interest.

All over Jerusalem, impressive street advertising signs exhort passersby to come and see “where it all began.”
And indeed thousands of sightseers – Israelis and foreign tourists – are heeding the exhortation to visit the City of David, located in the vicinity of the Holy Basin. Schoolchildren, soldiers, VIPs, servicemen and women, many of them in officially organized groups, are streaming to see the excavations which aim at proving that it was here that the Jewish people first found a foothold. Here King David established his capital. Here Solomon built the Temple. Hence it is our inalienable right to reestablish and reaffirm Jewish control over the city – a city that is, uniquely, sacred to all three of the monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
If in the past religious fervor motivated warfare, it has now been joined by equally ardent and potentially destructive fanatic nationalism.
Few people who heed the call to visit the City of David are aware that, uniquely in Israel, the site is controlled and operated by a private body, the Elad organization, which has a clear political orientation and ideological interest. In an extraordinary and patently illegal move, the State of Israel has privatized one of the most sensitive sites in the country.
The Nature and Parks Authority, which according to the law officially bears responsibility for managing the country’s parks, has in this case abdicated its responsibility and transferred the management to the Elad organization counter to all rules of proper administration. Adding to the impropriety, the Nature and Parks Authority violated its duty to operate with transparency by refusing to reveal details of the 2005 agreement in which it transferred the management authority to Elad without a legal tender.
FULLY EXPLOITING the authority now invested in it, Elad controls the development of the City of David site, determines the route and contents of the guided tours, manages the Visitors’ Center and has a say in any future development of the site. It also charges entrance fees, as is customary in the country’s national parks.
Any sophisticated participant in the guided tours can hardly fail to note the degree of indoctrination that characterizes their contents.
Elad is undoubtedly a major player in the current trend of “Judaizing” east Jerusalem. As part of this process, the Palestinians’ “narrative” is being patently ignored and undermined and their civil rights are infringed.
Most recently yet another act by an official entity threatens the delicate fabric of coexistence in east Jerusalem. Mayor Nir Barkat has announced plans to establish an imposing archeological park near the same area of Silwan. The plans call for the demolition of 22 houses in the area, which the city claims were built without the necessary permits. (Ironically, the illegally constructed multi-story Beit Yonatan which towers above the overcrowded hovels of the village has not yet been evacuated and sealed, in defiance of a court order.) Few people are aware that the residents of Silwan, at their own expense, sought professional experts to draw up a plan which would enable them to engage in the kind of urban renewal that has taken place in other hitherto neglected areas of the city. Implementation of the plan would have enabled them to obtain building licenses and to develop the infrastructure essential to decent living conditions, including viable roads, water supply and sewage. The Jerusalem municipal authorities arbitrarily rejected the plan without even bringing it before the relevant planning forums.
There is surely a limit to the extent to which any underprivileged, persecuted and humiliated population can bear the tyranny of overlords. Would that the mayor of Jerusalem and likeminded chauvinists could appreciate how much a policy of “live and let live,” a recognition of the needs and human rights of all sectors of the public, Jews and non-Jews alike, respect for the beliefs and customs of the “other,” respect for the places holy to different religions, might transform Jerusalem into that which its name signifies – Ir Shalem, the City of Peace.
The writer, an Israel Prize laureate, is part of a group of academics and civil servants who petitioned the High Court of Justice to annul the agreement between Elad and the Nature and Parks Authority.