Bowing to pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu,
US State Department and the international community, Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, has cut back on plans
to remove 88 illegal Arab buildings from a rich archeological park in the Kidron Valley adjacent to the City of David, the ancient city of Jerusalem.
According to plans announced Tuesday, Barkat proposed relocating only about 20 families in the disputed area, while giving legal status retroactively to the rest. The entire area would be renovated and restored as a garden and world-class tourist site, with an Arab residential neighborhood, shops and restaurants, including sports and healthcare centers. Arabs claim that these plans threaten their property and their way of life.
The city claims it will improve the quality of life; Arabs are opposed, saying it is "Judaizing" the area.
The city contends that Arabs have built on public land in an archeological area and they are enforcing "the rule of law;" Arabs decry the lack of building permits.
There are an estimated 10,000-20,000 illegal Arab buildings in Jerusalem alone.
Arabs claim they own the land, but are unable to provide any proof. Assisted by a number of Israeli NGOs, like Peace Now, Ir Amim and Bimkom - recipients of funds from the New Israel Fund, European governments and the EU - they have protested archeological work in the area, insisting that the entire area is "Palestinian."
City Attorney, Yossi Havillo, and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador oppose the destruction of Arab homes; they insist that a nearby Jewish-owned home built without permits be demolished.
According to aerial photographs, the area was uninhabited until the early 1990s, when archeological excavations in the City of David began to attract millions of tourists, and artifacts could be found scattered throughout the area. Under Mayor Barkat's predecessors, Ehud Olmert
and Uri Lupolianski, Arabs built extensively throughout the area.
The King's Garden, or al-Bustan (The Garden in Arabic), a reference to Biblical times when it was a source of spices used in perfumes and incense, is located just below the City of David, where the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys meet. Water flowed to this area from the Gihon Spring, the ancient city's sole water source, mentioned in Kings I, 1:39, where King Solomon was anointed.
The prophet Isaiah called this "…the waters of Shiloah that flow softly" (VIII,6), which were channeled into a pool, then into the King's Garden, and from there down the Kidron Valley into the Judean Desert.
During King Hezekiah's reign (727-698 B.C.E.), a tunnel was cut from the Gihon Spring, through the mountain, beneath the city, to bring water into the city. (II Kings XX, 20).
The King's Garden is mentioned as the escape route for King Zedekiah (Jeremiah XXXIX,4); in Nehemiah (II,14); in Song of Songs (IV, 15); in Ecclesiastes (II,5) and many other Biblical and Talmudic sources.
The modern Arab village of Silwan (an Arabized version of the Hebrew, Shiloah) is located in and around what was the ancient Jewish cemetery of Mt of Olives, on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley, opposite the City of David.
Across from the Gihon Spring is the tomb of Rabbi Ovadiah Ben Avraham, from the Italian city of Bartinoro, known as "The Bartenura," who died in Jerusalem in about 1500. He traveled extensively in the Land of Israel, wrote letters about Jewish communities in Bethlehem, Hebron, and Gaza, wrote a famous commentary on the Mishna, and was the spiritual and communal leader of Jews in Jerusalem, many of whom had escaped the expulsion from Spain in 1492.
A few hundred meters north in the Kidron Valley, at the foot of the Mount of Olives cemetery, are monumental tombs from the Second Temple Period. This is called the Valley of Jehoshaphat (God has judged) where, according to Joel IV,2,12, Jewish and Christian tradition, the nations of the world will be judged.
Arab riots and international condemnations of Israel, led by the US administration, over the designation of Jewish heritage sites, archeological excavations and environmental restoration bring basic question into sharp focus: Where are our roots?
The struggle over who can build in the King's Garden is not only about physical location, and civil rights, but the protection of archeological sites, the meaning of sovereignty and Jewish historical claims to the Land of Israel. That is, after all, the bedrock of Zionist ethos and purpose, and our collective consciousness.
The author, a licensed tour guide and former assistant professor of History, is a writer and journalist