A right-wing organization that was granted use yesterday of an ancient East Jerusalem spring said the move would keep Haredi men from bothering the tourists by taking illicit dips in the nude. But opponents say the zoning board decision is just another way of imposing Israeli control over Palestinian resources.
Gihon Spring in Silwan is already a pilgrimage site for religious Jewish men, most of them ultra-Orthodox, seeking to benefit from the waters thought to impart blessings to those who take a ritual dip, which can be done only when fully unclothed. Yesterday the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee granted Elad, an organization that seeks to boost the Jewish presence in predominantly Arab parts of Jerusalem, the right to designate a 1.5 meter by 1.5 meters section of the spring as an "immersion pit."
"There have been several times when embarrassing situations arise at the site," said Elad spokesman Udi Ragones. "The idea is to regularize the immersion pit."
The pit is similar to a mikveh, but is smaller than most ritual baths and is not enclosed. It is also open to the public, said Elad director David Be'eri - but, he added, those who use it "must come naked."
The immersion pit is part of a larger construction project the planning committee approved yesterday for the area that includes Beit Hama'ayan, a large building that overlooks the mouth of Gihon Spring. As part of the plan, Elad was granted the right to build a large tourist center with an observation deck above the spring and the archaeological remains that have been discovered over the years.
The project is being funded by the municipality and the national government, and is being carried out in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Silwan is built on the City of David, considered to be the site where King David established his kingdom.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the construction project, of course.
"It's another phase in the settlers' takeover process," said archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi. "Unfortunately, Israel's planning authorities see archaeological excavations as Israeli asests that must be preserved in closed complexes.
"It's clear that the mikveh is not intended for the Palestinian residents," said Mizrahi. He noted that the spring was shut down for excavations in 1995 and has not been easily accessible to residents since then.
According to one Jewish tradition, the spring is considered to be the spot where Adam went after his sin in the Garden of Eden. Some also say the Holy Temple priests occasionally immersed in the Gihon.
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