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On a Sunday, during the intermediate days of Pesach, Jerusalem was quite empty. Maybe the sudden rain kept the tourists away. In the city center, next to the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, one could easily find a parking space, which is usually just about impossible. But to the east, in Silwan, the place was crowded with hikers.

To be more precise, not in all of Silwan. The crowds were present only in the first few meters of the road that descends from Dung Gate in the direction of Silwan, a Palestinian village that was annexed to Jerusalem in 1967 and has become a poor neighborhood of 40,000 people, right next to the southern wall of the Old City.

The thousands of hikers exited from Dung Gate, marched up to the recently built magnificent gate bearing the words "City of David," entered and, probably without being aware of it, joined the battle for Jerusalem.

The battle for Jerusalem, or in effect the battle over the Judaization of the city, has been waged with ups and downs since East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel. Recently, it has reached a higher plane. One aspect of it is apparent and understood by everyone: the battle over assets. During the past three weeks, the association Elad, through legal acquisition, as it claims, or through violent invasion, according to the Palestinians, has taken over about 15 apartments in three different buildings, and another four houses in two Palestinian neighborhoods, Silwan and A-Tur. In A-Tur, the entry of the settlers ended in clashes with the local residents, and the murder of a Palestinian who was suspected of selling assets to Jews. The first casualty in a renewed battle for the city.

But this battle for Jerusalem has another, less known side: the battle for public opinion. In recent weeks, a public relations campaign has been waged on Internet sites, over the radio and on television, calling on Israeli citizens to come and visit "ancient Jerusalem." Ostensibly, this is an advertising campaign to encourage tourists to come and visit the national park in the City of David, with the impressive antiquities found there, and the Shiloah Tunnel. In fact, this is a kind of advertising campaign for Elad, which operates the national park according to an agreement with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, and charges an entry fee of NIS 23. This is the same association that seized the assets in East Jerusalem and - in the belief of Palestinian residents - is about to enter additional homes in Silwan immediately after Pesach.

Story of a man

Elad is to a great extent the story of one man. David Beeri, who is known to everyone as Davideleh, who first worked in Ateret Cohanim and then, in the early 1980s, cast his eye on Silwan. The City of David is not populated, he told his wife Michal (according to her testimony, which can be found in the Elad archive) - we have to do something. Beeri discovered that some of the village land belonged to Jewish institutions before the 1948 War of Independence. He turned to the Jewish National Fund, asking it to authorize him to remove the Palestinian residents from that land. The JNF agreed. And Elad took over other assets by means of a very dubious implementation of the Absentee Property Law. The attorney general at the time, Meir Shamgar, instructed that this law not be used in East Jerusalem as a main instrument for taking control of assets.

Michal Beeri tells - in the same conversation that is documented in the archive - about one of those shady tricks. Beeri had his eye on the home of the Abbasi family, which is located near the Shiloah Pool. He thought it might be possible to declare it an absentee property, and then to confiscate it and to transfer it to the state.

"Davideleh took a tour guide's card from his friend, placed his photo on it, put on the hat and the tag, and for a long time would take imaginary tourists for tours," said Beeri. "Slowly but surely he became friendly with Abbasi. At some stage Abbasi began to invite him, and that was what he [Davideleh - M.R.] wanted."

The trick succeeded. In the early 1990s, the Custodian of Absentee Property declared the Abbasi home absentee property, perhaps also relying on information he received from Elad. The asset was transferred to Elad, and Abbasi found Davideleh, the imaginary tour guide and imaginary friend, settling in his house while he, Abbasi, was evicted.

Later on, when the issue blew up, it turned out in the Klugman Committee (a committee headed by the then-director general of the Ministry of Justice) that the attorneys of Elad and of Ateret Cohanim were the ones who had brought the custodian the declarations testifying to the fact that certain assets were absentee property - and that some of the declarations were false. In the discussion of a petition to the High Court of Justice, three justices decided that the activities of the custodian in the matter of the Abbasi home "were tainted by extreme lack of good faith."

That was the beginning. Later on, Elad received several more assets in Silwan through the Custodian for Absentee Property. There are still legal disputes regarding some of them. Additional assets were acquired over the years from their Palestinian owners, in return for full payment. The association does the construction by itself, sometimes even without a permit. The Jerusalem Municipality is aware of at least two criminal indictments for illegal construction that were filed against the association; two of them ended up somehow in the conviction of a Palestinian mediator.

An administrative demolition order was carried out against another of the association's buildings, and the expansion of a visitors' center was carried out without a permit. But all these offences did not prevent the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority from transferring control over the administration of the antiquities site in the City of David to the association. An area of 24 dunams, many times the size of everything that Elad has managed to take over on its own. Now Elad has become the real master of the area. Simply put, the government gave a private association, with a clear political bent, control over one of the most sensitive sites in Israel, if not in the entire Middle East.

It costs

Elad did in fact take over the area. The area was cleaned and developed, a visitors' center was built, and the visitors began to return. Not free of charge. In order to walk through the Shiloah Tunnel, visitors today must pay NIS 23, which are transferred to Elad's coffers. The guided tours are also conducted almost solely by Elad guides. The spirit of the tours reflects their worldview. "The people from the NNPPA are only advisers, the people from the visitors' center run the show," says someone who worked in the NNPPA. "The focus of the tours is on the Temple, on King David. At the end of the tour, the guides tell how they redeemed the neighborhood, how Davideleh lives there alone. Stories of heroism."

The main feature of the compound is the huge archaeological dig. The Antiquities Authority digs, Elad pays, also with the help of the government. The findings are definitely impressive. On the slope of the hill, stairs from the Second Temple period were found; in another place, ancient seals (bullae) from the beginning of the First Temple period. Ayelet Mazar, who is digging independently, claims that she has found vestiges of David's palace. Most of the archaeologists in Israel are doubtful about this finding, but there is no question that it suits the spirit of Elad: to prove that King David walked in this very place. All the other periods don't really interest them. In a list of dates that appears on the City of David Web site, the time line jumps from the year 70 CE, the destruction of the Second Temple, to 1882, the beginning of immigration to the Land of Israel in modern times. For Elad, during the 1,800 years that passed between these dates, nothing happened on this hill.

Elad tried to market its ideas with its most recent campaign. This is not a matter of a desire for income. Elad lost almost NIS 1 million on the visitors' center in 2004. This is something else: "It was important to them that the names "City of David" and "Mount of Olives" enter people's awareness, and replace the names "Silwan" or "Ras al Amud," says one person who was involved in the campaign. Another such person says that the goal was much more political. "The City of David, with its amazing findings, is 200 meters from the Old City," says the man, who is not suspected of being overly fond of the settlers. "They want the people of Israel to become accustomed to the idea that the City of David is among the places that cannot be given up, even in the context of a final status agreement."

In this context, one can understand Elad's latest moves. These moves are meant to reinforce its control in Silwan, and to start building in new Palestinian neighborhoods surrounding the Old City, such as A-Tur, which is located on the Mt. of Olives and overlooks the Temple Mount. Thus 30 members of the Gozlan family found themselves outside their compound in Silwan. The father of the family, Haj Gozlan, saved Jews from a pogrom in 1920. He even received a letter of appreciation for his act. "In West Jerusalem they plant an avenue named after such a person," says attorney Danny Seidman of the Ir Amim association, who represented the family. In East Jerusalem, three weeks ago they evacuated Gozlan's descendants from the four houses in which they lived, near the City of David compound.

The family asked to stay

The legal story is complicated, and went on for years, but the bottom line is that the High Court of Justice ruled seven years ago that the land belongs to the JNF. The family asked to remain in the area as protected residents. The JNF refused. Now it has become clear why. The Israel Lands Administration, which received the area from the JNF about three years ago, told Haaretz that even before it transferred the land to the ILA, the JNF signed a protected tenant agreement with Elad, and therefore Elad can enter the area without going through the tender process. Seidman says that there is a question about the legality of the move, since even the JNF cannot transfer its assets to whomever it pleases, without a tender, in addition to the fact that during the legal proceedings the JNF did not mention that it had signed a protected residency agreement with Elad. "They, from Elad, who didn't live here for a single day, are protected residents," says Ahmed Gozlan. "And we, who have been living here since 1966, are not considered protected residents? Is that logical?" The JNF did not respond to the claims "because of the Pesach holiday."

The feeling among the Palestinians is that Elad is the real ruler in Silwan. There is some truth to this. A few months ago, tractors began work on a plot of land at the bottom of the hill, near the Gihon Spring square. The Palestinian landowners rushed to the place, and managed to stop the work, partly by force and partly with the help of a stop-work court injunction. The Jerusalem Municipality said later that the area had been declared expropriated for public needs, but the work itself was not carried out by the municipality, but by a contractor working on the construction of a parking lot for the Ministry of Transportation and for Elad.

The attorneys of the landowners claim that the expropriation procedure was not carried out, but in any case, they ask, how is it that a private group like Elad is carrying out work on an area that even according to the municipality does not belong to it? Fahri Abu-Diab, the chair of the neighborhood committee of nearby Al Bustan - a neighborhood all of whose 90 houses the municipality threatened to demolish last year - says that he was recently invited to a discussion in city hall about the future of the neighborhood, together with senior city officials, and with the "Jewish mukhtar" of the City of David. Abu-Diab refused to come. What connection is there between the people from Elad and the future of my houses, he asked.

In East Jerusalem they claim that even the police are on the side of the settlers. This perception is reinforced by the manner in which the buildings in A-Tur have been seized. What is involved are two buildings and a sing le apartment in an adjacent third building. Elad claims that it acquired them legally. The Palestinian residents claim that this is squatting.

Attorney Menahem Blum, who represents the Abu al-Hawa family, says that two brothers from the family, Mohammed and Khalil, sold a building that was not registered in their name. Mohammed Abu al-Hawa was murdered last week in Jericho. His brother Khalil has fled to Jordan.

But the police, says attorney Blum, did not try to clarify these details. They burst into the building together with the settlers the day after the elections. "I have experience with evictions in East Jerusalem," says Blum. "There is no chance that the police will ever evict a tenant for you. You have to take a bailiff's contractor, which costs you at least NIS 100,000. In any case, the police cannot operate without a file in the bailiff's office. I don't know about the opening of any such file."

Rafi Strauss, a judge in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, came to a conclusion similar to Blum's regarding the apartment the settlers entered in A-Tur. The entry, a day before Seder night, was carried out by force. Policemen accompanied by private guards of Elad evicted the Hijazi family from an apartment it was renting. The dispute reached the courts, and the police really did not succeed in convincing Judge Strauss. "The behavior of the respondent [the Jerusalem police - M.R.] does not accord with the existence of the basic condition for police intervention in a civil dispute," wrote Strauss, and instructed the police to evict the settlers from the apartment that they had broken into by force, under protection of the police and the security guards. The matter of the security guards is interesting in itself. A committee established by former housing minister Isaac Herzog recommended that the guarding of the settlers in East Jerusalem, which cost NIS 40 million annually, and is funded by the ministry, be transferred to the police. The associations were not happy. "It's convenient for them with the private firms," says someone who was involved in the work of the committee. "The security guards transport the children to school. No police force will do that." The recommendation of the committee is stuck in the Justice Ministry at the moment.

Plenty of money

There is no question about the fact that Elad has money. They paid at least $925,000 for the building of the Abu al-Hawa family alone. And that is only one of two buildings they acquired. Advertising people estimate that the City of David campaign, which included television commercials, also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Palestinians in Silwan tell of many attempts to buy, for cash, which have greatly intensified over the past year. Such sums are even greater than Elad's very tidy budget, which in 2004 was NIS 11.5 million. Elad boasts of its tremendous fund-raising, which in 2004 netted NIS 8.5 million - NIS 1.5 million from government sources and the rest from the revenues from the national park.

But for Elad's projects, even such a sum is insufficient. About two months ago, when a new park was dedicated at the visitors' center, the ceremony was attended by Lev Leviev and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, accompanied by David Beeri and Natan Sharansky. Leviev's office said that he was a "guest" at the event, and is not a contributor to the association. It was impossible to get a response from Abramovich. Does the presence of the two billionaire friends hint at another, new channel for donations? Perhaps.

The map of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem leaves no room for doubt. The Shepherd Hotel near Mt. Scopus, the hotels at the Jaffa Gate, two houses in Abu Dis, a new neighborhood in Jabal Mukhaber - these are only part of the "conquests" of the settlers in the past year or two. Adi Mintz, a member of the Elad administration, told Haaretz immediately after taking over the assets in A-Tur and Silwan about three weeks ago that this was a "significant achievement." The goal of Elad is clear, says Mintz: "To get a foothold in East Jerusalem and to create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City."

Seidman, as usual, was more apocalyptic. "The battle for the holy basin is at its height," he says. "There is an unholy alliance here between the settlers and the fundamentalist Christians who support it, who want Jerusalem to turn into the arena of Armageddon. They want this battle to turn our conflict from a national to a religious one. That is the thing that should concern us."

Asset No. 36

A document prepared by architect Gideon Harlap for the settlers' associations in the early 1990s may indicate that Seidman is right. Harlap mapped the Jewish and state-owned assets for the settlers; these are assets that can be used to build new Jewish neighborhoods. Alongside each asset, Harlap notes the type of ownership and the number of housing units that can be built on it. There are several dozen assets listed there. Asset No. 36 is especially interesting. Harlap writes that the waqf (the Muslim religious trust) wanted to own this asset, but the British Mandatory government refused to grant it to them. The name of the asset is "the Temple Mount." The space for the number of housing units on the Temple Mount is empty. For the time being.

Elad refused to answer the detailed questions sent to them. "People at Haaretz are trying, and not for the first time, to attack the City of David and those working to develop it, for ideological-political reasons," they wrote in the reply sent to the newspaper. "The Elad association has been working for 20 years to promote the development and flourishing of the historical City of David, a site of national importance and a top-priority, international issue. The association initiates and funds archaeological digs, and invests in audio-visual presentations, development of infrastructure and widespread advertising. These resources are paid for by donations alone.... The Elad association operates to strengthen the link of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, and for the continuation of the return of the Jewish people to visit and live in the City of David.... In the past decade, the City of David has constituted a unique model, which combines old and new, Jews and Arabs, who conduct a cooperative fabric of life characterized by mutual respect, personal and economic ties and mutual assistance."