Controversy in Jerusalem: The City of David

“…more and more Israeli settlers have moved east into the Arab-populated areas. One place where it has gotten especially complicated – and volatile – is the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.”

CBS News – 60 Minutes

Lesley Stahl: Oct. 17th, 2010 

(CBS)  Jerusalem is one of the holiest cities on Earth, for Jews, for Muslims and for Christians. It is also one of the most difficult issues at the negotiating table as Palestinians and Israelis struggle to continue the peace talks.

The challenge is how to divide the city between the two sides. Back in 2000, then-President Clinton came up with some parameters for how to do it: areas populated mostly by Jews would remain Israeli; those populated mostly by Arabs would become the new Palestinian capital. That meant that for the most part East Jerusalem would go to the Arabs.

Well, it’s not so simple anymore. In the decade that has elapsed, more and more Israeli settlers have moved east into the Arab-populated areas. One place where it has gotten especially complicated – and volatile – is the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

The complication in Silwan involves an Israeli archeological dig called the “City of David.”

Go to Jerusalem today and you’ll likely visit the City of David, one of the world’s great archeological wonders, where diggers are sifting back through time: scores of workers, filling hundreds of buckets, unearthing thousands of years.

“This tunnel is 3800 and 50 years old,” Doron Spielman, the site’s international director of development, told correspondent Lesley Stahl as he led her through an ancient tunnel.

According to Spielman, the tunnel is exactly as it was when it was built. “Look at these stones, you can see the chisel marks on the walls,” he pointed out.

He then took her to another area aboveground. “This is the original flooring. These are more ritual baths or water cisterns,” he pointed out.

Spielman led us down to an ancient waterway carved out of the hard stone. “The whole beginning of life in ancient Jerusalem happened from this little spring which is nestled in this little cave,” he explained.

We were taken down excavated tunnels no human eye has seen for two millennia and shown the process of removing the layers of history – sandbag by sandbag – from when the city was sacked by the Romans, and before them the Babylonians.

“So this structure was here when Abraham was here?” Stahl asked.

“That’s right. He saw it with his own eyes,” Spielman said.

That’s a bit of a stretch: archeologists tell us that no one has found any evidence that Abraham was ever there. It’s controversial that the City of David uses discoveries to try to confirm what’s in the Bible, particularly from the time of David, the king who made Jerusalem his capital.

“People believe that when King David captured the city, he snuck underground through this tunnel which led him underneath the city wall, up into the city,” Spielman said.

Half a million tourists visit the site every year, with guides who try to bring King David to life. There’s an implicit message: that because David conquered the city for the Jews back then, Jerusalem belongs to the Jews today.

“Today, I’ve seen scores and scores of soldiers coming through,” Stahl remarked.

“It’s part of their cultural day to try to learn about what they’re fighting for. And when we bring them here they understand that they’re not just fighting for today, they actually represent the return of the Jewish people to Israel after thousands of years,” Spielman said.

“So archeology is being used as a political tool. I mean, I hate to use the word, but indoctrination almost,” Stahl replied.

“I wouldn’t call it indoctrination. I would call it giving meaning to life, giving meaning to why we’re here,” he replied.

But for all the talk of King David, one thing is glaringly missing here at the City of David.

“There’s actually no evidence of David, right?” Stahl asked.

“There’s no doubt that this is the City of David from the Bible. There’s no doubt that the Bible took place here. Proof of David himself, until we find the actual name, we can’t say,” Spielman acknowledged.

Another problem is an inconvenient truth: that biblical Jerusalem is not located in the western half of the city. It’s right under the densely populated Arab neighborhood of Silwan. And according to the Clinton parameters, Silwan should be part of a Palestinian state.

To remedy that, organizations that move Jewish settlers into Arab areas have infiltrated Silwan.

For example, a group of settlers live in a seven-story building under heavy security. They’ve barricaded themselves in and refuse to leave. With some 450 Jews living among tens of thousands of Arabs, Silwan is now at the center of the battle to keep all of Jerusalem under Israeli control.

(CBS)  So how does the City of David tie in to this?

While a government agency oversees the excavations, the dig and the site are largely funded and run by something called “El’Ad.” Spielman works for El’Ad, which claims they’re not a settlers’ organization, though people we spoke to say they are.

“I think that it would be correct to call us an organization who believes deeply in the history of Jerusalem,” Spielman said.

Asked if it’s all archeology, he told Stahl, “Archaeology and rebuilding a Jewish neighborhood.”

“So El’Ad is doing archaeology and settlements?” Stahl asked.

“We are doing archaeology and we are buying homes and buying land,” he replied.

“But is it El’Ad’s goal to ease the Arabs away from right where we are right now?” Stahl asked.

“Put it this way, if there’s a home that an Arab wants to sell and I have the money to buy it, and I can move, enable a Jewish family to live there, and I can dig archaeologically underneath it, then I think that’s a wonderful thing to do,” he said.

The Arabs say it’s a provocative thing to do. Devout Jews Yonatan and Devorah Adler live in one of the houses El’Ad bought. El’Ad has raised tens of millions of dollars, half from the United States, and buys the homes on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

The Adlers raise their six kids on the actual dig. “The City of David is where Jerusalem began,” Yonatan Adler said. “This is where prophets walked. This is where half of the Bible was written. This is what we’re talking about.”

“And yet, when you see those maps, it’s over in the Palestinian side,” Stahl pointed out.

“Yeah, well, maps are written on paper. This is written on our hearts,” he replied.

“But it is one of the proposals on the table,” Stahl said.

“I’ll tell you. Jerusalem cannot be divided. Jews would never allow it,” Adler said.

The Adlers say they don’t mind living behind gates, and having guards on their roof. They would never consider leaving.

“But you’re like a soldier on the front line,” Stahl remarked.

“I don’t think we see ourselves as soldiers at all. We see ourselves as everyday regular people, living in a very, very special place,” Devorah Adler replied.

Palestinian Jawad Siyam was born in this “very, very special place” and says he can trace his roots there back 930 years. He’s pessimistic about the Palestinians ever having their own state.

“What will happen to this village if there’s a two-state solution?” Stahl asked.

“I don’t think there will be a two-state solution. That’s not possible to do it. Today they, the settler groups, are much stronger than before. The settler groups in Jerusalem, they are controlling,” he said.

He’s angry that El’Ad bought his grandmother’s house and moved a number of Jewish families in, so he’s become an activist leader in Silwan, where there has been a string of escalating confrontations.

In one protest we attended, at the City of David, Jawad got into a shouting match with a site-worker behind a gate. “You will be the rubbish of the history!” he shouted. “There is no proof that King David was here. You want to take our land.”

Some of the incidents have become violent, like one on October 8. Boys were throwing stones at passing cars; two of the boys got hit by a car.

The driver was, of all people, the head of El’Ad. He later went to the police and said he hadn’t stopped because he felt his life was in danger. Both boys survived, one with a broken leg.

Fighting often erupts there with Israeli guards brought in to protect the settlers. “Clashes are daily inside Silwan between the villagers and settlers and the gun guards for the security there,” Jawad told Stahl.

“The government pays for the gun guards?” she asked.

“It’s tax money. It’s, I pay it. Everyone who is paying taxes is paying it,” he replied.

“You pay taxes and that money goes to pay for the guards to guard the settlers,” she remarked.

“Yes, of course,” Jawad said.

“So you’re helping guard the settlers,” Stahl remarked.

“Yeah, I’m a fan of the settlers and the gun guards,” he replied sarcastically.

(CBS)  Jawad says that El’Ad uses the dig’s archeological prestige to hide its aim of moving the locals out. And he believes that the tunneling is a way for El’Ad to extend its reach deeper into Silwan.

“They think you’re digging under their houses,” Stahl told Doron Spielman while in one of the tunnels.

“It does at points go underneath homes. Deep underneath the ground. Which is why we have these metal supports around us,” he replied.

“But it’s under Arab homes,” she said.

“It’s under Jewish homes, Arab homes, and a road,” Spielman said. “What concerns these residents, Lesley, is not the tunnel. It’s where the tunnel’s going. It’s what the tunnel means that concerns them.”

“Well, where’s the tunnel going?” she asked.

“The tunnel one day will open into the Western Wall Plaza. Then you will have undergone an experience that shows the Jewish Temple was important 600 years before Muhammad,” Spielman said.

To understand why this is so explosive, you have to understand the geography. Silwan lies in the shadow of some of the holiest sites in the world: Judaism’s Western Wall, and Islam’s Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.

“There’s a feeling of encroachment. The Arab’s feel it,” Stahl remarked.

“There’s no other place in the world that Jews want to live in more than here. The Arabs have Mecca, they have Medina and they may also be interested in Jerusalem. But for the Jews, this is our only home,” Spielman said.

That feeling of Jewish encroachment has been heightened by the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who is doing all he can to make sure East Jerusalem remains under Israeli sovereignty.

“We have to maintain a united Jerusalem,” Barkat told a crowd at a function we attended.

The mayor brought Stahl to a hilltop over Silwan to show her his latest project, called “King’s Garden.”

“This is the most important area in the world,” he said. “And in the valley right there below us is where King’s Garden was.”

He wants to create a Bible-themed garden and turn it into a tourist park adjacent to the City of David. But as with the dig, the local Arabs see this as another attempt to gobble up their side of Jerusalem. Building the mayor’s park requires demolishing 22 Arab homes in Silwan.

“If you began to demolish these houses, it would be explosive, wouldn’t it?” Stahl asked.

“That’s why you have to be very smart and sensitive dealing with an area so important in the city of Jerusalem,” the mayor said.

(CBS)  The mayor says that area is a slum in which the houses were built illegally and his plan will fix that. But the locals want to stay in their homes.

“I heard you wanted to evict people. Where are those houses?” Stahl asked.

“That’s just not true,” Mayor Barkat replied.

“Well, wait, but if you make a park than those houses can’t be there anymore,” she pointed out.

“They mustn’t have been there in the first place,” Barkat argued.

“Yeah, but so you will evict. You will evict,” she said.

“Not evict. When you improve their quality of life, the right word to say is that you’re dealing with improvement of quality of life,” Barkat said.

His park, he says, will upgrade the area, and he’ll allow the people who’ll be evicted to build new houses nearby. But locals told “60 Minutes” the only way to do that would be to build on top of other homes in Silwan.

“The European Union, the United Nations has criticized this plan to get rid of these 22 homes. Public opinion, especially while the peace talks are underway, is looking at this and saying you’re trying to get rid, move Arabs out of Jerusalem,” Stahl said.

“That’s not true,” Barkat replied.

“But that’s the way it looks. And my question is, why not wait until the peace talks are settled?” Stahl asked.

“Lesley, the facts are wrong,” the mayor said. “They, those structures are illegal. They’re sitting on an area that the world the world wants to be part of a city that’s flourishing, that is clean, that is beautiful. So what I’m saying here is get your facts right before you bash Israel, before you bash Jerusalem.”

“But my question was why now? That’s the question,” she replied.

Asked what she meant by “why now,” Stahl said, “Because it’s on the table at the peace talks. That’s why now.”

“I’m committed to bring more tourism to the city of Jerusalem. Now, this plan is a plan that I started a year and a half ago,” Barkat said.

“You say that Jerusalem must never be divided. But most of the rest of the world says that if you want peace, that may be the price that you have to pay,” Stahl said.

“Lesley, it’s not going to work. You have to understand that for a city to be functional, to increase tourism, to be able to see the sites that you’ve seen, it has to be a united city,” he replied.

Meanwhile, in the City of David, the excavations are continuing in full force. You can say they’re digging in.

“Settlements have been a stumbling block in peace negotiations of the past. And what your organization is dedicated to doing could become the stumbling block again,” Stahl told Doron Spielman.

“We are looking, Lesley, to go down and uncover history,” he replied. “If coming back to my home after 3,000 years is a stumbling block to peace then I think that that is not a very good peace.”

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