10/11/2012 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Sifting Through the Settler Politics of East Jerusalem's Archaeological Site

Just a few steps outside of the Old City, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, sits the City of David National Park, one of Israel's most visited tourist attractions. Each year hundreds of thousands of Israelis and foreigners visit to marvel at biblical era archaeological finds including Hezekiah's Tunnel and the Gihon Spring, ancient Jerusalem's main water source. What most visitors don't know, however, is that their price of admission supports Elad, an ideological settler organization.

Thankfully, this situation may change. Just before the Jewish New Year, the Jerusalem District Court accepted a petition against renewing the Israel Nature and Park Authority's contract with the Elad settler organization on the basis that the contract was illegal and thus invalid. The Jerusalem-based human rights organization Ir Amim brought the petition before the court because there has never been a transparent open tender process for awarding the privilege of managing the City of David National Park's daily operations. As a result of the verdict, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority must now either publish a new tender to operate the national park or decide to exempt the process from tender in accordance with procedures outlined by law.

Ir Amim hailed the decision saying it stops a long-running chain of illegal decisions that granted an extremist right-wing organization control of a public site with deep historical and cultural significance for people throughout the world.

On a recent visit to Jerusalem as part of a study tour I led, we studied a text from the third century rabbi, Rabbi Nathan, who taught that there are ten measures of beauty, wisdom and Torah in the world; nine of them are in Jerusalem and one of them in the rest of the world. At the same time, he taught, there are 10 measures of suffering, might and hypocrisy in the world; nine of them are in Jerusalem and one of them in the in the rest of the world.

While my group was in Silwan, we saw first-hand how this concentration of beauty, wisdom, Torah, suffering, might and hypocrisy is on display front and center at the City of David. Out of the gray, garbage-strewn streets of this crowded, poor Palestinian neighborhood, with no open space or trees in sight, a gleaming, new Jerusalem-stone wall rises up, leading to the archaeological park. Inside the park, biblical stories from King David's time are told. Outside is a completely different story.

In this neighborhood of 31,000 people, where residents complain that there is no park or playground for their children to play, banners hang on that Jerusalem-stone wall, advertising fun at the City of David for the whole family, complete with water tunnel and Segway tours. Meanwhile, local Palestinian residents complain that Elad has sealed off their access to public and private spaces their community has used for hundreds of years. On the traffic-clogged streets of Silwan, there are places where the pavement buckles dangerously and cracks and sinkholes have appeared. According to critics, this damage is likely due to Elad's excavation work, which is done without independent oversight or approval. Digging is conducted under roads, schools, mosques and Palestinian homes without consulting or notifying local residents.

Elad's role in Silwan has been highly criticized within Israel and internationally since 1997 when the Israel Land Authority and Elad signed an "authorization contract" for "guardianship and maintenance" of the park without a prior legal tender. Since then Elad has spent millions of dollars, and sometimes has used ethically and legally questionable means to move right-wing Jewish settlers into the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan surrounding the archaeological site.

Human rights organizations, archaeologists, urban planners and local residents have criticized Elad's archaeological practices as harmful to property and public infrastructure. Archeologists and historians have also called out the settler organization for presenting an incomplete and biased historical narrative that predominately uses a biblical lens to emphasize Jewish history at the site, while neglecting to illuminate several layers of historical remains from other cultures and religions.

By combining their settlement activity with archaeology and tourism, Elad has been able to take control of land and property in the neighborhood, legitimize their settlement endeavors in the eyes of the public and restrict Palestinian residents' access to parts of their neighborhood.

The recent court verdict in Jerusalem is a human rights victory. It demonstrates the need to closely scrutinize government-settler partnerships which left unchecked damages the prospects for Jerusalem to truly be an Oasis of Justice, a City of Holiness and a City of Peace.