There is a battle being waged in Jerusalem, and this time it is not being fought with stones, tear gas and M-16s. This time it is a battle of wills: who gets to decide which part of the ancient city should be shown to present-day tourists? And how should these tourists be transported through historical Jerusalem in a respectful way?
The latest spat is about a planned cable car. Israel, which occupies the eastern half of Jerusalem (including the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site), want to take visitors to the Western Wall by air. The system will take tourists from the First Station in the western part of the city, fly them over two Palestinian neighbourhoods and finish at the Kedem Center – a massive, multi-storey complex that is due to be built just south-east of the Western Wall, above the Givati archaeological excavation. This excavation is exposing habitation dating from the time of the Second Jewish Temple, around the time of Christ.
The cable car is being designed to carry up to 3,000 people per hour and is supposed to start operating in 2021. Opponents of the scheme say Jerusalem is ‘not Disneyland’.
The dispute about the new mode of transport is emblematic of a more widespread row about archaeology in Israel. The biggest fight erupted in October 2016, when a UNESCO resolution led to widespread indignation in Israel. According to many Israelis, the resolution denied the Jewish link to the Temple Mount. In this resolution, the holy mountain was named exclusively by its Muslim name: Haram al-Sharif.
This anger overshadowed the full text of the resolution. Semantics aside, UNESCO is concerned about the way in which Israel deals with archaeological excavations in Jerusalem. The resolution stated that UNESCO strongly condemns Israel’s escalating aggressions and illegal measures against the Jerusalem Waqf (religious endowment) department and its personnel, and against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to al-Aqsa Mosque, which is on Temple Mount, and requests Israel to respect the historic status quo and immediately stop these measures.
The text of the resolution is “not out of line with what needs to be said”, according to Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian writer, activist and business consultant who lives in al-Bireh, a city in the West Bank. “Because it is Israel undertaking these aggressions, it is Israel blocking the ability for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, to reach their holy sites in Jerusalem.” Even so, Bahour said he would have added the Jewish name for the holy site – Temple Mount – to the resolution “since it is not the name which is the issue, it is the blatant violation of our human rights and international law”.
Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist and founder of the NGO Emek Shaveh (‘Equal Valley’), shares UNESCO’s concerns. He used to work at the Israel Antiquities Authority. The director of this government agency compared UNESCO to the terrorist group Islamic State. Archaeology in Israel has become fully politicized, said Mizrachi. “It’s all about creating a narrative. The Israeli narrative is that Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city, and that’s the reason why the city is ours.”
Over the past 3,000 years, Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, has been inhabited by Canaanites, Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans and Britons. Put a spade in the ground and you will find something interesting. This is especially true for the Givati excavation, the largest in the city. The Israeli government has awarded the management of this site – in occupied Palestinian territory – to Elad, a right-wing NGO that aims to ‘Judaize’ the city. One of the ways to do this is by emphasizing Jewish history in excavations. Findings from other periods are downplayed or ignored altogether. Elad is clear about its goals and beliefs: just like the Muslims have Mecca, the Jews have Jerusalem.
It is also Elad that wants to build the multi-storey building on top of the excavation – not to hide the excavation but to celebrate it. Here, in the so-called ‘‘City of David‘, tourists and other interested visitors will experience the Jewish origins of the city in all their glory. In the contested resolution, UNESCO laments the construction of this visitor centre.
Of course, Mizrachi acknowledges, archaeology has always been a political tool. “It is not an exact science. Regimes and groups use archaeology to emphasize the story they consider most important.” Who decides which layer should remain and which one can be reburied? Is it a political decision, or are some layers objectively more interesting than others? “One could also ask the question in a different way. How will Israel attract more tourists: by emphasizing the Jewish or Islamic history?”
Elad is an “extremist organization”, said Mizrachi. “No one can say that Jerusalem only belongs to them. There are billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims who feel a connection with this place. That is why I think it is fundamentally wrong to hand over this excavation to a group with purely nationalist intentions.”
This is only part of the problem, according to Bahour: “Since East Jerusalem is a military occupied territory, Israel has an obligation under international law to not make changes to the land, except that which is in the benefit of the occupied people, who under law are a ‘protected people’. These excavations, as well as the planned cable car, can be classified as part of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. According to Bahour, whatever is excavated should not leave Palestine, since these findings are Palestinian assets. “If they are taken by Israel, then they are stolen from Palestinian land.”
When asked whether the Jewish history of Jerusalem is not that important, Mizrachi said, “Certainly it is. But it is only one part of the history of the city.” He proposes that a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international archaeologists be assembled, who would together decide which part of Jerusalem’s history will be shown and which part will be hidden.
In response to the opposition, Ze’ev Orenstein, director of international affairs at Elad, said that the Givati excavation does show different periods in history. Under Elad’s management, he said, the city has become “one of the most visited sites of Israel”, attracting 500,000 visitors a year. “Millions of people from all over the world, from all faiths and backgrounds, are interested in the development of this place.”
About 400 metres to the north-west of the Givati excavation, within the walls of the Old City, is a spot that offers a phenomenal view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock towering above it. Every day, hundreds of Jews perform their religious duties in the square in front of the Western Wall, a Jewish holy place situated in occupied Palestinian territory.
“Ask [the worshippers] if they think this area belongs to Israel, and they will all say yes,” said Mizrachi. “For them, the whole question is about whether the Jews belong to this country, and in particular to Jerusalem. Even Israelis who never visit the city have an untouchable mental image of the city in their heads. When they have the feeling that someone wants to take Jerusalem away from them, they will say it’s anti-Semitism.”
That is exactly what Ze’ev Orenstein thinks. It reeks of intolerance, he said, to suggest that Jews cannot live in the place that defines their spiritual, political and cultural identity. This is what makes the controversial UNESCO resolution so “absurd”. The countries that voted in favour of the resolution are predominantly Muslim, such as Tunisia, Kuwait and Lebanon. “UNESCO has been hijacked by a block of countries that the UN sees as a vehicle for the demonization and delegitimization of the state of Israel,” he said.