On a Sunday, during the intermediate days of Pesach, Jerusalem was quite
empty. Maybe the sudden rain kept the tourists away. In the city center,
next to the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, one could easily find a parking
space, which is usually just about impossible. But to the east, in Silwan,
the place was crowded with hikers.
To be more precise, not in all of Silwan. The crowds were present only in
the first few meters of the road that descends from Dung Gate in the
direction of Silwan, a Palestinian village that was annexed to Jerusalem in
1967 and has become a poor neighborhood of 40,000 people, right next to the
southern wall of the Old City.
The thousands of hikers exited from Dung Gate, marched up to the recently
built magnificent gate bearing the words "City of David," entered and,
probably without being aware of it, joined the battle for Jerusalem.
The battle for Jerusalem, or in effect the battle over the Judaization of
the city, has been waged with ups and downs since East Jerusalem was annexed
to Israel. Recently, it has reached a higher plane. One aspect of it is
apparent and understood by everyone: the battle over assets. During the past
three weeks, the association Elad, through legal acquisition, as it claims,
or through violent invasion, according to the Palestinians, has taken over
about 15 apartments in three different buildings, and another four houses in
two Palestinian neighborhoods, Silwan and A-Tur. In A-Tur, the entry of the
settlers ended in clashes with the local residents, and the murder of a
Palestinian who was suspected of selling assets to Jews. The first casualty
in a renewed battle for the city.
But this battle for Jerusalem has another, less known side: the battle for
public opinion. In recent weeks, a public relations campaign has been waged
on Internet sites, over the radio and on television, calling on Israeli
citizens to come and visit "ancient Jerusalem." Ostensibly, this is an
advertising campaign to encourage tourists to come and visit the national
park in the City of David, with the impressive antiquities found there, and
the Shiloah Tunnel. In fact, this is a kind of advertising campaign for
Elad, which operates the national park according to an agreement with the
Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, and charges an entry
fee of NIS 23. This is the same association that seized the assets in East
Jerusalem and – in the belief of Palestinian residents – is about to enter
additional homes in Silwan immediately after Pesach.
Story of a man
Elad is to a great extent the story of one man. David Beeri, who is known to
everyone as Davideleh, who first worked in Ateret Cohanim and then, in the
early 1980s, cast his eye on Silwan. The City of David is not populated, he
told his wife Michal (according to her testimony, which can be found in the
Elad archive) – we have to do something. Beeri discovered that some of the
village land belonged to Jewish institutions before the 1948 War of
Independence. He turned to the Jewish National Fund, asking it to authorize
him to remove the Palestinian residents from that land. The JNF agreed. And
Elad took over other assets by means of a very dubious implementation of the
Absentee Property Law. The attorney general at the time, Meir Shamgar,
instructed that this law not be used in East Jerusalem as a main instrument
for taking control of assets.
Michal Beeri tells – in the same conversation that is documented in the
archive – about one of those shady tricks. Beeri had his eye on the home of
the Abbasi family, which is located near the Shiloah Pool. He thought it
might be possible to declare it an absentee property, and then to confiscate
it and to transfer it to the state.
"Davideleh took a tour guide’s card from his friend, placed his photo on it,
put on the hat and the tag, and for a long time would take imaginary
tourists for tours," said Beeri. "Slowly but surely he became friendly with
Abbasi. At some stage Abbasi began to invite him, and that was what he
[Davideleh – M.R.] wanted."
The trick succeeded. In the early 1990s, the Custodian of Absentee Property
declared the Abbasi home absentee property, perhaps also relying on
information he received from Elad. The asset was transferred to Elad, and
Abbasi found Davideleh, the imaginary tour guide and imaginary friend,
settling in his house while he, Abbasi, was evicted.
Later on, when the issue blew up, it turned out in the Klugman Committee (a
committee headed by the then-director general of the Ministry of Justice)
that the attorneys of Elad and of Ateret Cohanim were the ones who had
brought the custodian the declarations testifying to the fact that certain
assets were absentee property – and that some of the declarations were
false. In the discussion of a petition to the High Court of Justice, three
justices decided that the activities of the custodian in the matter of the
Abbasi home "were tainted by extreme lack of good faith."
That was the beginning. Later on, Elad received several more assets in
Silwan through the Custodian for Absentee Property. There are still legal
disputes regarding some of them. Additional assets were acquired over the
years from their Palestinian owners, in return for full payment. The
association does the construction by itself, sometimes even without a
permit. The Jerusalem Municipality is aware of at least two criminal
indictments for illegal construction that were filed against the
association; two of them ended up somehow in the conviction of a Palestinian
An administrative demolition order was carried out against another of the
association’s buildings, and the expansion of a visitors’ center was carried
out without a permit. But all these offences did not prevent the Nature and
National Parks Protection Authority from transferring control over the
administration of the antiquities site in the City of David to the
association. An area of 24 dunams, many times the size of everything that
Elad has managed to take over on its own. Now Elad has become the real
master of the area. Simply put, the government gave a private association,
with a clear political bent, control over one of the most sensitive sites in
Israel, if not in the entire Middle East.
Elad did in fact take over the area. The area was cleaned and developed, a
visitors’ center was built, and the visitors began to return. Not free of
charge. In order to walk through the Shiloah Tunnel, visitors today must pay
NIS 23, which are transferred to Elad’s coffers. The guided tours are also
conducted almost solely by Elad guides. The spirit of the tours reflects
their worldview. "The people from the NNPPA are only advisers, the people
from the visitors’ center run the show," says someone who worked in the
NNPPA. "The focus of the tours is on the Temple, on King David. At the end
of the tour, the guides tell how they redeemed the neighborhood, how
Davideleh lives there alone. Stories of heroism."
The main feature of the compound is the huge archaeological dig. The
Antiquities Authority digs, Elad pays, also with the help of the government.
The findings are definitely impressive. On the slope of the hill, stairs
from the Second Temple period were found; in another place, ancient seals
(bullae) from the beginning of the First Temple period. Ayelet Mazar, who is
digging independently, claims that she has found vestiges of David’s palace.
Most of the archaeologists in Israel are doubtful about this finding, but
there is no question that it suits the spirit of Elad: to prove that King
David walked in this very place. All the other periods don’t really interest
them. In a list of dates that appears on the City of David Web site, the
time line jumps from the year 70 CE, the destruction of the Second Temple,
to 1882, the beginning of immigration to the Land of Israel in modern times.
For Elad, during the 1,800 years that passed between these dates, nothing
happened on this hill.
Elad tried to market its ideas with its most recent campaign. This is not a
matter of a desire for income. Elad lost almost NIS 1 million on the
visitors’ center in 2004. This is something else: "It was important to them
that the names "City of David" and "Mount of Olives" enter people’s
awareness, and replace the names "Silwan" or "Ras al Amud," says one person
who was involved in the campaign. Another such person says that the goal was
much more political. "The City of David, with its amazing findings, is 200
meters from the Old City," says the man, who is not suspected of being
overly fond of the settlers. "They want the people of Israel to become
accustomed to the idea that the City of David is among the places that
cannot be given up, even in the context of a final status agreement."
In this context, one can understand Elad’s latest moves. These moves are
meant to reinforce its control in Silwan, and to start building in new
Palestinian neighborhoods surrounding the Old City, such as A-Tur, which is
located on the Mt. of Olives and overlooks the Temple Mount. Thus 30 members
of the Gozlan family found themselves outside their compound in Silwan. The
father of the family, Haj Gozlan, saved Jews from a pogrom in 1920. He even
received a letter of appreciation for his act. "In West Jerusalem they plant
an avenue named after such a person," says attorney Danny Seidman of the Ir
Amim association, who represented the family. In East Jerusalem, three weeks
ago they evacuated Gozlan’s descendants from the four houses in which they
lived, near the City of David compound.
The family asked to stay
The legal story is complicated, and went on for years, but the bottom line
is that the High Court of Justice ruled seven years ago that the land
belongs to the JNF. The family asked to remain in the area as protected
residents. The JNF refused. Now it has become clear why. The Israel Lands
Administration, which received the area from the JNF about three years ago,
told Haaretz that even before it transferred the land to the ILA, the JNF
signed a protected tenant agreement with Elad, and therefore Elad can enter
the area without going through the tender process. Seidman says that there
is a question about the legality of the move, since even the JNF cannot
transfer its assets to whomever it pleases, without a tender, in addition to
the fact that during the legal proceedings the JNF did not mention that it
had signed a protected residency agreement with Elad. "They, from Elad, who
didn’t live here for a single day, are protected residents," says Ahmed
Gozlan. "And we, who have been living here since 1966, are not considered
protected residents? Is that logical?" The JNF did not respond to the claims
"because of the Pesach holiday."
The feeling among the Palestinians is that Elad is the real ruler in Silwan.
There is some truth to this. A few months ago, tractors began work on a plot
of land at the bottom of the hill, near the Gihon Spring square. The
Palestinian landowners rushed to the place, and managed to stop the work,
partly by force and partly with the help of a stop-work court injunction.
The Jerusalem Municipality said later that the area had been declared
expropriated for public needs, but the work itself was not carried out by
the municipality, but by a contractor working on the construction of a
parking lot for the Ministry of Transportation and for Elad.
The attorneys of the landowners claim that the expropriation procedure was
not carried out, but in any case, they ask, how is it that a private group
like Elad is carrying out work on an area that even according to the
municipality does not belong to it? Fahri Abu-Diab, the chair of the
neighborhood committee of nearby Al Bustan – a neighborhood all of whose 90
houses the municipality threatened to demolish last year – says that he was
recently invited to a discussion in city hall about the future of the
neighborhood, together with senior city officials, and with the "Jewish
mukhtar" of the City of David. Abu-Diab refused to come. What connection is
there between the people from Elad and the future of my houses, he asked.
In East Jerusalem they claim that even the police are on the side of the
settlers. This perception is reinforced by the manner in which the buildings
in A-Tur have been seized. What is involved are two buildings and a sing le
apartment in an adjacent third building. Elad claims that it acquired them
legally. The Palestinian residents claim that this is squatting.
Attorney Menahem Blum, who represents the Abu al-Hawa family, says that two
brothers from the family, Mohammed and Khalil, sold a building that was not
registered in their name. Mohammed Abu al-Hawa was murdered last week in
Jericho. His brother Khalil has fled to Jordan.
But the police, says attorney Blum, did not try to clarify these details.
They burst into the building together with the settlers the day after the
elections. "I have experience with evictions in East Jerusalem," says Blum.
"There is no chance that the police will ever evict a tenant for you. You
have to take a bailiff’s contractor, which costs you at least NIS 100,000.
In any case, the police cannot operate without a file in the bailiff’s
office. I don’t know about the opening of any such file."
Rafi Strauss, a judge in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, came to a
conclusion similar to Blum’s regarding the apartment the settlers entered in
A-Tur. The entry, a day before Seder night, was carried out by force.
Policemen accompanied by private guards of Elad evicted the Hijazi family
from an apartment it was renting. The dispute reached the courts, and the
police really did not succeed in convincing Judge Strauss. "The behavior of
the respondent [the Jerusalem police – M.R.] does not accord with the
existence of the basic condition for police intervention in a civil
dispute," wrote Strauss, and instructed the police to evict the settlers
from the apartment that they had broken into by force, under protection of
the police and the security guards. The matter of the security guards is
interesting in itself. A committee established by former housing minister
Isaac Herzog recommended that the guarding of the settlers in East
Jerusalem, which cost NIS 40 million annually, and is funded by the
ministry, be transferred to the police. The associations were not happy.
"It’s convenient for them with the private firms," says someone who was
involved in the work of the committee. "The security guards transport the
children to school. No police force will do that." The recommendation of the
committee is stuck in the Justice Ministry at the moment.
Plenty of money
There is no question about the fact that Elad has money. They paid at least
$925,000 for the building of the Abu al-Hawa family alone. And that is only
one of two buildings they acquired. Advertising people estimate that the
City of David campaign, which included television commercials, also cost
hundreds of thousands of dollars. Palestinians in Silwan tell of many
attempts to buy, for cash, which have greatly intensified over the past
year. Such sums are even greater than Elad’s very tidy budget, which in 2004
was NIS 11.5 million. Elad boasts of its tremendous fund-raising, which in
2004 netted NIS 8.5 million – NIS 1.5 million from government sources and
the rest from the revenues from the national park.
But for Elad’s projects, even such a sum is insufficient. About two months
ago, when a new park was dedicated at the visitors’ center, the ceremony was
attended by Lev Leviev and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, accompanied by
David Beeri and Natan Sharansky. Leviev’s office said that he was a "guest"
at the event, and is not a contributor to the association. It was impossible
to get a response from Abramovich. Does the presence of the two billionaire
friends hint at another, new channel for donations? Perhaps.
The map of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem leaves no room for doubt.
The Shepherd Hotel near Mt. Scopus, the hotels at the Jaffa Gate, two houses
in Abu Dis, a new neighborhood in Jabal Mukhaber – these are only part of
the "conquests" of the settlers in the past year or two. Adi Mintz, a member
of the Elad administration, told Haaretz immediately after taking over the
assets in A-Tur and Silwan about three weeks ago that this was a
"significant achievement." The goal of Elad is clear, says Mintz: "To get a
foothold in East Jerusalem and to create an irreversible situation in the
holy basin around the Old City."
Seidman, as usual, was more apocalyptic. "The battle for the holy basin is
at its height," he says. "There is an unholy alliance here between the
settlers and the fundamentalist Christians who support it, who want
Jerusalem to turn into the arena of Armageddon. They want this battle to
turn our conflict from a national to a religious one. That is the thing that
should concern us."
Asset No. 36
A document prepared by architect Gideon Harlap for the settlers’
associations in the early 1990s may indicate that Seidman is right. Harlap
mapped the Jewish and state-owned assets for the settlers; these are assets
that can be used to build new Jewish neighborhoods. Alongside each asset,
Harlap notes the type of ownership and the number of housing units that can
be built on it. There are several dozen assets listed there. Asset No. 36 is
especially interesting. Harlap writes that the waqf (the Muslim religious
trust) wanted to own this asset, but the British Mandatory government
refused to grant it to them. The name of the asset is "the Temple Mount."
The space for the number of housing units on the Temple Mount is empty. For
the time being.
Elad refused to answer the detailed questions sent to them. "People at
Haaretz are trying, and not for the first time, to attack the City of David
and those working to develop it, for ideological-political reasons," they
wrote in the reply sent to the newspaper. "The Elad association has been
working for 20 years to promote the development and flourishing of the
historical City of David, a site of national importance and a top-priority,
international issue. The association initiates and funds archaeological
digs, and invests in audio-visual presentations, development of
infrastructure and widespread advertising. These resources are paid for by
donations alone…. The Elad association operates to strengthen the link of
the Jewish people to Jerusalem, and for the continuation of the return of
the Jewish people to visit and live in the City of David…. In the past
decade, the City of David has constituted a unique model, which combines old
and new, Jews and Arabs, who conduct a cooperative fabric of life
characterized by mutual respect, personal and economic ties and mutual