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Archaeological Digs Stoke Conflict in Jerusalem | The Nation

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Archaeological Digs Stoke Conflict in Jerusalem

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Something of the street punk and village elder mingle in Jawad Siyam. Wiry, dark and stubble-chinned, with a cigarette often dangling from the side of his mouth and a slightly amused look in his eye, he bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean-Paul Belmondo--if, that is, one can imagine the star of Breathless as a Palestinian community organizer who speaks five languages fluently, is married to a Bosnian Serb, has two small children, and is waging a possibly last-ditch struggle to save his village from destruction.

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Adina Hoffman
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Born a year after the 1967 annexation of that village, Silwan, to Israel, Siyam, the seventh of nine children, literally grew up with the occupation and at the same time saw Silwan evolve from a sleepy rural enclave to a teeming urban slum--now one of the poorest and most troubled in East Jerusalem. For Siyam's entire life, the people of Silwan have been considered "residents," not citizens, of Israel, which is to say that they pay their municipal taxes and get very little in return: they cannot vote in national elections; they have no local high school, no post office and no public parks. Some homes aren't even hooked up to the sewage system or electrical grid. But for all that hardship, Siyam's childhood was, to hear him tell it, somehow simple--almost pastoral. When he was little, his peasant grandmother picked vegetables from her garden and sold them in the market, and his family lived in large part off their land, harvesting olives and lemons from their trees, raising sheep and chickens.

Like his older brothers, Siyam began to work at an early age, washing cars and peddling popsicles and cold drinks to the tourists--both Jewish and Arab--who came to the nearby Old City and to Silwan, which contains the most ancient parts of Jerusalem. II Samuel says the area was once the city of David, the king. In the Gospel of John, it is here, in Siloam, that Jesus, devising a miracle cure made of spittle-mixed clay and water from the village pool, makes a blind man see.

Silwan spills down along the southern slope just beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Wailing Wall, and as Jawad Siyam remembers his childhood, the villagers lived comfortably with--if not in precise scholarly awareness of--the multiple layers of history and culture around them, whether Canaanite, Jewish, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader or Ottoman. The ancient tombs and terraces were their very own stony backyard. Stories were told of how, during the fighting in '67, people hid in secret networks of tunnels underneath the village.

Despite the hush that often attended such tales--as though it was buried treasure being whispered about and not what are probably 2,000-year-old waterways--the Silwanis saw the antiquities as part of their past, and they welcomed the Jewish archaeologists who came to excavate there in the late 1970s. Many of the villagers were employed on that dig, as they had been on others since the nineteenth century. "It wasn't political," Siyam insists. "It was work." When violent protests broke out around the site then, the demonstrators were ultra-Orthodox Jews who objected vehemently to the possible desecration of Jewish graves. The Palestinians of Silwan, for their part, were basically glad for the digging.

Those days are, alas, also part of ancient history. By now excavation in Silwan has become synonymous with a particularly aggressive campaign to expel Siyam and his neighbors from their homes and install in their place a die-hard cadre of flag-waving, gun-toting Israelis: since 1991, the first time a local Palestinian was evicted from his house to make way for settlers, a small group of Jewish families has planted itself in the midst of tens of thousands of Palestinian Silwanis, and all signs indicate that this is just the beginning. While Silwan's archaeological riches used to be a source of pride for the villagers, the presence of those same subterranean strata now seem to represent for them a nearly existential threat: To Dig a Tunnel Means to Kill a Village, reads the Arabic and English banner slung over the entrance to the protest tent where the local men spend many of their evenings, under the constant surveillance of several settler-owned security cameras.

How could a tunnel kill a village?

Or, to put it in slightly different terms: "Do you vant to know how it all began?" So booms the grinning, paunchy Israeli actor in the fedora and safari vest who narrates the 3-D movie on regular view at the City of David visitors' center, the national park run by the settler organization Elad (a Hebrew acronym for "To the City of David"), smack dab in the crowded midst of Palestinian Silwan. Plumes of sacrificial smoke rise and celestial choirs coo relentlessly throughout this kitsch extravaganza--equal parts Cecil B. DeMille and Lara Croft Tomb Raider video game--whose state-of-the-art digital animation swoops like a messianically minded combat pilot around the comic-book walls and cartoon valleys of the city "as it was" 3,000 years ago.

In fact, it may be more accurate to date this particular story of origins back a mere two and a half decades or so, to the arrival in Silwan of "an undercover commander of an elite military unit," David Be'eri, who would found Elad a few years later, in 1986. This, according to Elad's lavish website, which, using Be'eri's nickname, explains that when "David'le first visited the City of David...[it] was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste.... Inspired by the historical record of archeological discoveries made in the City of David in prior years, and by the longing of the Jewish People to return to Zion, David'le left the army to establish [Elad]." While the website does not put it quite so bluntly, Be'eri's real mission was to erase the Palestinian village of Silwan and replace it with the Jewish City of David'le.

Elad has since made serious strides toward that end. Funded by the likes of Miami bingo king Irving Moskowitz and, it appears, several well-known Russian tycoons, the group has refused to divulge the names of most of its donors, though according to Israel's Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations, in 2005 alone it took in $7 million. (A report last year in Ha'aretz said the Registrar was "considering demanding the dissolution of Elad" as a result of the group's unwillingness to disclose the names of its patrons.) Such secrecy and lack of transparency on all fronts seem part of Elad's strategy--designed to make it very difficult for those on the outside to figure out exactly what is going on. This much, though, is clear: Elad has bought, finagled and stolen Palestinian homes in the neighborhood--sometimes forging documents and paying off local collaborators to substantiate the fraud, other times bullying impoverished Palestinian homeowners to sell with threats and huge quantities of cash. Occasionally, they've forced their way back into homes that, in the late nineteenth century, housed a small group of Yemenite Jews; more often they've made clever use of Israel's Absentee Property Law, which allows the state to expropriate Palestinian land whose owners live in the West Bank or abroad.

In the early 1990s the state transferred all the land in that category to the Jewish National Fund, which in turn leased the Silwan properties to Elad--without proffering a tender or following any of the usual legal procedures. And this despite the fact that Elad has never attempted to hide its politics or plans for what it coyly calls "residential revitalization." As one of its spokesmen put it more directly to a reporter in 2006, the goal is "to get a [Jewish] foothold in East Jerusalem and to create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City."

Most clever of all was Elad's decision to fix on archaeology as the key to winning the hearts and minds of the wider Israeli Jewish public. Archaeology has, of course, long been something like Israel's national pastime, a "scientific" discipline that, in this particular cultural context, has often blurred into the realm of major-motion-picture-scale mythmaking (see under: Masada). Since the early days of the state, archaeology has provided vivid settings and props that have helped Israelis both secular and religious to dramatize the stories they like to tell themselves about their historic bond to the modern homeland.

Elad's use of archaeology may be entirely cynical, driven more by the desire to establish ethnic facts on the ground than to explore what lies below ground: settlers are quick, after all, to pour foundations and erect fortresslike homes right over the relics they declare so precious to the Jewish people. Their scheme has, however, worked like a charm. After a bit of legal wrangling in 1998, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jerusalem municipality relinquished to Elad the management of the area around the Old City walls, including the City of David archaeological park, providing the fringe group with major revenues and mainstream legitimization. Elad, in turn, hired the cash-strapped Israel Antiquities Authority to excavate the area on its behalf--funding and tightly controlling all the digging that takes place there. By various means, Elad has over the course of the past several years also managed to seize hold of many of the public spaces in Silwan--tree-filled plots and small patches of green that used to be open to the residents and have now been fenced, locked and deemed archaeological sites, off-limits to the villagers. (Again, settler home-building on the same sites often follows.)

Not surprisingly, the discoveries that have since turned up have hewed to an unabashedly selective Jewish story of this place through which so many civilizations have passed over the centuries: a few years back, for instance, Eilat Mazar, one of the archaeologists in Elad's employ (and that of the Shalem Center, a conservative Jerusalem think tank), uncovered a substantial set of ancient stone walls that she claims--despite a glaring lack of physical evidence--belong to King David's very own palace. More recently, Elad's workers have been digging under the homes of the Palestinian residents--clearing out by hand a drainage channel that Elad-sponsored archaeologists assert leads from the Temple Mount and was used as an escape route by Jews fleeing the city's Roman conquerors in 70 CE. Further down the slope, they seem to be carving a gallery that will one day link the historical pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount excavations. And right beside the northernmost homes in the village gapes a huge excavation trench supported by massive concrete walls, where heavy machinery and large teams of diggers are trying to reach bedrock, some forty feet below the surface.

Meanwhile, large, ominous cracks have begun to appear in the walls of Palestinians' homes in Silwan. When Jawad Siyam and several of his relatives and neighbors filed a petition with the Israel Supreme Court in a bid to end this destructive digging, he and all the other law-abiding not-quite-citizens who signed the petition were promptly thrown into prison or placed under house arrest--faced with trumped-up charges of having disturbed the peace and damaged property. Though those arrested were released after a night in jail, and a temporary injunction halting the digging was eventually issued by the court (a final decision on the matter is pending), the message was clear: dare complain to the authorities and your life will be hell. It is striking that every person who signed the petition was immediately imprisoned--some of them roused from their beds before dawn. Since then, all the signatories have been repeatedly questioned, warned and generally harassed by the police and Shin Bet, the Israeli security service.

However outrageous these actions may be, the takeover of such a charged area by a militantly right-wing organization like Elad seems to bother very few Israelis. Just last year, some 350,000 tourists of all kinds traipsed through--and paid entry fees to--Elad's City of David national park, where the glossy brochures tell a story that breaks off abruptly some 1,938 years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple, and picks up again with the late-nineteenth-century arrival in town of the British surveyor Charles Warren and that small group of Yemenite Jews. (The Palestinian Arab residents of Silwan, past and present, are entirely absent from this version of events.) Some of these park visitors are, one assumes, unaware of the control the settlers exert over the site; others know and do not care. Better belligerent Jews with guns nearby than belligerent Arabs with grudges--or so the logic goes. Even the ostensibly dovish Ha'aretz reporter Danny Rubinstein saw no shame in closing an op-ed piece critical of Elad's settlement plans by asking rhetorically, "But who can remain unmoved by the important addition to the study of Jerusalem's past that is now being revealed by the City of David digs?"

Tel Aviv University professor of archaeology Rafi Greenberg, for one, can. As he leads the alternative archaeological tours that he and a small group of like-minded Israeli colleagues have begun to conduct around Silwan and the City of David site--in a modest but concerted effort to counter the grossly skewed version put forth by Elad and the archaeologists on its payroll--his voice has a slightly weary edge, though it is a weariness shot through with a note of anger that seems almost, in this landscape, prophetic. As someone who first came to this site as a student volunteer in 1978 and stayed on as a staff member until 1982, meeting his wife-to-be amid the trowels and buckets (this was the same dig, sponsored by the Hebrew University, that Jawad Siyam remembers from his childhood), Greenberg is also deeply connected to this place, as he is deeply troubled by what is happening--to Silwan, to Israel, to his profession.

"We're not educated to be reflexive at all in archaeology," he explains, one on one, after a tour of Silwan, both above and below ground. "I was brought up as an archaeologist, making a complete hermetic distinction between science and everyday life. I was always politically active, but I never thought [politics] had any relation to scientific work."

Gradually, Greenberg began to see that such distinctions weren't possible, and to understand that digging responsibly--and ethically--meant paying attention to the lives of those above ground and to the ways in which the excavations would affect them. To foreign ears, this may sound like mere common sense, but in the fraught Israeli context, it's anything but that. (Sometimes that context extends well beyond the physical borders of the Jewish state, as was the case with the recent uproar surrounding the tenure case of Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who writes critically of Israeli archaeology and what she terms "territorial self-fashioning.") Greenberg and the handful of others who are involved in the alternative tours--which are conducted in Hebrew and English and include a thorough archaeological overview of the site as well as a short stop at the protest tent to hear the stories of several Silwan residents--are considered by other Israeli archaeologists to be playing with fire; their work in Silwan is seen as "political." Translation: to identify with the plight of Palestinians whose daily lives are being turned upside down in the name of biblical archaeology is "political." To take huge amounts of money from and lend a professional seal of approval to the highly dubious digging of a fanatical settler organization whose stated goal is the ethnic cleansing of one of the most sensitive pieces of real estate in the Middle East is not political.

"My interpretation," says Greenberg, "is that archaeologists are naïve children in their political perception.... They just don't want to know. They want to dig in the ground, get their hands dirty, find nice stuff, and it really is too great a mental exertion to think about what the impact is of what [they're] doing on society."

So forget society, I say to him. What, at least, of professional norms? As Greenberg had explained during the tour, the digs in Silwan are being conducted in the most tendentious way--with bulldozers clearing huge areas in haste and multiple levels being dismantled in a race to get to "Jewish" bedrock. Settlers build houses right on top of relics, and extremely tenuous conclusions are being drawn on the basis of nationalist ideology and a literalist reading of biblical texts, not the actual shards and stones that turn up in the course of the digging. Historical cross sections aren't being preserved. Instead of the usual timetable for a dig--with one season of excavation followed by months in the lab--the City of David excavations are taking place year-round, straining professional standards and leaving no time for careful analysis.

It is, says Greenberg, "bad science"; he believes other Israeli archaeologists aren't happy about this side of things, just as they are probably displeased with the involvement of Elad in the digs. In 1992, under the Rabin government, a state committee of inquiry issued a strongly worded report about the activities of settler organizations in East Jerusalem and singled out Elad's actions in Silwan for reprimand; several years later a suit was brought against Elad for willfully damaging antiquities and ignoring court orders. In 1998 a group of archaeologists from the Hebrew University petitioned the Supreme Court, protesting the involvement of a private group like Elad in managing the site; the petition was withdrawn after the authorities promised to issue a tender. Meanwhile, Elad has only tightened its grip on Silwan since these various decisions came down, and the vast majority of Israel's archaeologists (including the signatories to the 1998 court petition) have during that time fallen silent. Greenberg chalks up this absence of protest to the same mistrust among local archaeologists of the "political" and to what he calls the "general despair" that has swept over much of Israeli society in the past decade, the sense that the battle against extremism--be it cultural or political--is already lost.

But fatigue is not much of an excuse in a situation so dire. Neither are labored declarations of professional objectivity like the one made this spring by Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who proclaimed (in a slightly different but related context), "The minute you say that Jerusalem is occupied territory, that is political.... I am forbidden from making political calculations. I do purely professional work. We have to leave these matters to the decision-makers. Archaeology does not belong to the archaeologists." Then who, one wonders, does it belong to? And if not now, then when does such "pure professional" work give way to outright complicity in something as obviously awful as the expulsion of innocent people from their homes?

Several of Greenberg's Tel Aviv University colleagues recently published an article in a professional journal, refuting in firm if dryly technical terms the notion that the stones unearthed at the City of David site are part of King David's palace. Yet while it is clear from the article that the authors strongly disapprove of the methods being used by Elad's archaeologists, they seem unwilling to stand up and call for the taxpayer-funded Israel Antiquities Authority (and the Hebrew University, under whose auspices this dig is also being carried out) to cut off support for such shoddy work. Needless to say, their critique is all a strict matter of Chalcolithic shards, cup marks and Iron II dating; the name Elad isn't mentioned once, just as the larger social implications of the dig are completely avoided.

Given this rigidly old-school state of archaeological affairs, Greenberg and the others involved in the alternative tours have plainly taken a professional risk by speaking out--though they are quite humble and businesslike about it. Listening to them talk, it seems they simply felt that this was the correct--and in fact the only--thing to do. And while they're engaged in a struggle to help Jawad Siyam and his neighbors save their homes, the honor of their own profession as it's practiced locally is also at stake here. Yonathan Mizrachi, another archaeologist who organizes and leads the tours, told me he wants to present archaeology in a different light. He has a vision of how a site like the one in Silwan could actually be used to teach tolerance: "When you look at all these cultures together [in the ground], they're less threatening, you say, OK, there were a hundred cultures here, so another one lives right next to us."

Greenberg, for his part, takes a slightly darker view of his profession's potential. "Generally speaking," he says, "I don't think archaeology is important enough to create conflict over. In other words, if archaeology is going to lead people into direct conflict that can lead to bloodshed, it's not worth it. I prefer to cover up the site and wait for better times. If they ever come."

And yet, for all the uncertainty and even gloom that hovers over Silwan's future--just a few weeks ago, the Jerusalem municipality decided unilaterally to swap the longstanding, Arabic names of various central streets in Silwan with biblically loaded Hebrew ones, and so, overnight, Wadi Hilweh Street morphed into City of David Heights Street--something fresh and newly upbeat is also afoot in the village. This is partly a function of the heightened attention brought by the alternative tours and a flurry of reports in the local media, as well as by the legal steps that are being taken to try to stop the settlers. In July a lower court ruled that the municipality could not expropriate nine privately held open plots from their Palestinian owners; the city had wanted to create parking lots for tourists on the land. The situation in the village has also gained a certain international notoriety, as a petition against Elad's involvement in Silwan has been signed by a host of distinguished scholars worldwide and continues to circulate, calling on the Israeli authorities to "put an end at once to this blatant perversion and dangerous politicization of an academic field of endeavor."

Perhaps more important, though, a new sort of awareness--and sense of the urgent need to act--has begun to evolve among the Silwan villagers themselves. This has been happening for some time now, and it both is and isn't related to Elad and its bulldozers.

Several years ago, Jawad Siyam started a small community center in the heart of Wadi Hilweh, his own neighborhood and the most immediately endangered part of Silwan. Siyam has a keen social consciousness shaped by years of political engagement: when he was 14 he began to participate in strikes at school and to read Che Guevara and the Palestinian novelist and PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani. Then came the lessons of the first intifada and several years spent abroad--during which he earned a degree in American studies in Ankara and another in communications and social work in Berlin. Long before he began to work for various progressive European NGOs in Jerusalem, he had come to the conclusion that nonviolence was the only hope for the Palestinians: "Once my brother told me," he says, "throwing stones is easy, but to carry a pen is very difficult. Throwing stones--that's what the occupation wants us to do. But if all we do is throw stones for ten, twenty years, then what will we have?" His center is designed, in part, to provide the people of Silwan with an alternative to stones: there the children study art and music (an energetic young couple--she is Dutch, he is Israeli--teach guitar, singing and basic music appreciation to the apparent delight of the kids who crowd into the small classroom once a week); some of the local women attend English and Hebrew classes, and for several months they organized an informal cooking group, which has given way to plans for a cookbook and a new project: a traditional embroidery workshop. The teenagers meet to get help with their homework at the center, and a small library is beginning to take shape there. This summer marks the fourth year that a free, volunteer-run day camp is being held in the village.

Just as important as the activities that it sponsors, the center is meant, says Siyam, to provide a place for the people of Silwan to come together. Poverty, the Israeli occupation and the choking proximity of the settlers have wreaked havoc on the social fabric of the village, where collaboration with the intelligence services has become commonplace and the residents, according to Siyam, "don't know each other. They hate each other. They suspect each other." The idea of the center is to offer "a place for everyone, where everyone can meet, a place where children can feel themselves human beings."

He admits that it may be too late to stop the settlers from taking over Silwan, but he also insists that blocking their expansion is not the only goal here. What matters most to him is what he calls "social justice" and his desire to make the people of Wadi Hilweh feel that they've done all they can to protect their homes, their lives, their dignity.

The center is part of that idea, as is the protest tent, where--to judge from the intense pressure the police and Shin Bet are exerting on the local activists--the simple fact of the Wadi Hilweh men sitting down together for a cup of coffee is viewed as threatening by Elad and the authorities, who would much prefer a divided and conquered village. So it is that Jawad Siyam and his brothers, cousins and neighbors have decided to meet brutality with normalcy, constructing their protest tent as a living room turned inside out and opened to the elements. Plastic chairs are scattered all around; a battered refrigerator, a TV set and a lumpy mattress have been dragged in to give the place the feeling of home. In the evenings, the men come here to play cards. When they can, some of the Wadi Hilweh women venture out of their homes and arrive at the tent at a designated time, their heads covered, voices lowered, to sit and talk about their worries and hopes. This past winter, the village children crowded under the flaps to see the first appearance ever by a circus in Silwan.

Jawad's own small son and daughter are too young to understand what is happening with the settlers, but they like to come pat the skinny white horse that's tethered next to the olive saplings the villagers have planted around the tent. Gulping water from a rubber barrel, flicking its tail to keep off the flies, the thirsty mare lends this embattled patch of land an odd semblance of peace.

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