City of David and the Settler Organization Elad
Since the early 1970s, the City of David archaeological park, located within the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, has been part of a larger designated national park system that surrounds the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. In October 1997, the Israel Land Authority and the settler organization Elad signed an “authorization contract” without a prior legal tender. That contract gave Elad “guardianship and maintenance” of the six acre City of David National Park for an initial period of seven years.1
At present, approximately 400,000 people, including tens of thousands of soldiers and Israeli students, visit the City of David National Park each year. The City of David remains the sole instance where a private political entity has administrative authority over a national park in Israel. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority involvement with the site remains minor. Elad manages the park; provides all of the educational materials, films and signs; collects entry fees for its guided tours; and runs the concession and gift shops.
Elad also funds the majority of the archaeological excavations in and around the City of David Park. Concerns have been raised about the ways Elad conducts its “salvage excavations.” Critics point to the lack of independent oversight in the approval process and in the excavation work. Digging is conducted under roads, schools, mosques and Palestinian homes without consulting or notifying local residents. Excavations are likely the cause of surface cracks, sinkholes and some structural damage to buildings that have occurred throughout the neighborhood.
In the United States, Elad raises money through an American charitable fund called Friends of Ir David, Inc. (a.k.a. Ir-David Foundation). Their American fund brings in between 2 to 4 million dollars in annual contributions.2 American donors are supporting not only excavations and the tourist site, but also Elad’s efforts to move ideological Jewish settlers into East Jerusalem. These Jewish settlers are making a political solution for peace between Israelis and Palestinians less tenable.
In its presentation of modern history at the City of David and on park’s website, Elad proudly promotes the encroachment of Jewish settlers in Silwan. Glossing over any mention of the Palestinian community surrounding the archaeological park, Elad states:
Following the Six Day War Jerusalem was united and the boundary erased. However, a Jewish presence was missing from the City of David. Towards the end of the seventies, archaeological excavations in the City of David began, and continued for several seasons, under the directorship of Professor Yigal Shiloh discoveries and greatly expanded our current understanding of the City of David. Throughout the years, additional excavations have taken place which enriched our knowledge about the City of David. 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 purpose of the “City of David Visitors Center” is to bring as many people as possible to visit the area and to experience the place… where it all began.3
Emek Shaveh, an alternative archaeology organization, shared several areas of concern regarding the archaeological research and the presentation of that research conducted under the auspices of Elad:
[W]hen ideological groups use the archaeological finds as proof of their historic right to take possession of a given place, and at the same time to undermine the rights of the local people living there – then archaeology is in danger of losing its status as an independent field of research. When tour guides in the site of ancient Jerusalem turn it into nothing more than an illustration or backdrop for the biblical stories, without acknowledging the difference between a mythical perspective on the past and the actual archaeological finds, or when they do not acknowledge the rich remains from other cultures and societies that inhabited the place throughout time, they are feeding the tourists a distorted, nationalist version of history. By appropriating the past to serve their world-view, and ignoring the significance of the site for a wide range of peoples and cultures, and the Palestinian local residents in particular, these guides are doing a great disservice both to past and present day societies.4