Rightist NGO Operating Tunnel Dug Illegally Near Western Wall, Say Petitioners

Archaeologists ask court to bar rightist NGO from Old City tunnel.

Emil Salman

The right-wing NGO Elad is managing and using a tunnel dug illegally under the Davidson Archaeological Park near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, according to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice on Sunday.

The petition was submitted by Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists and community activists who protest the political use of archaeology. The petition concerns a tunnel that was dug over the past eight years by the Israel Antiquities Authority and funded by Elad. Part of the tunnel was a street during the time of King Herod and another part was a drainage channel dug under that street in the same period. The tunnel leads from the Pool of Siloam at the bottom of the City of David, via the Givati parking lot, between the entrance to the City of David excavations and the Dung Gate, and ends at the Davidson Archaeological Park.

There is an exit from the tunnel in the Davidson Archeological Park, but it continues to a point very close to the women’s section of the Western Wall. The tunnel has been operating for a number of years as part of the City of David tourism complex, which is operated by Elad. Tickets to traverse the tunnel must be purchased at the City of David.

Over the past year the state has been waging a legal battle against Elad and the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, which is a government company. The state is demanding the nullification of an agreement between the Jewish Quarter development company and Elad, which gave Elad authority to run the Davidson Archaeological Park.

The state claims that giving Elad the right to run the archaeological park could damage Israel’s international relations and put at risk the chance of reaching an agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements to establish a pluralistic prayer site within the archaeological park. The state is also arguing that it should be in full charge of the site, given its political, religious and public significance.

Last September the court accepted the state’s position and nullified the agreement between Elad and the Jewish Quarter development company. The petition to the High Court claims that in light the state’s position in the case and in light of the lower court’s decision, control of the tunnel should also be taken out of Elad’s hands.

“If the state has prohibited full or partial operation and administration of the David Center above ground [by Elad] then management and/or operation [by Elad] of the complex below ground should also be prohibited,” reads the petition. Any attempt to distinguish between the above-ground and below-ground portions is disingenuous, the petition notes.

The petition also states that Elad started to administer the tunnel and bring tourists through it before any decision was made on the matter. Elad also funded the excavation of the tunnel, headed by Prof. Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, and implemented by the Israel Antiquities Authority. An Elad employee stands at the entrance to the tunnel to ensure that all visitors to it have tickets to go through it toward the Davidson Center.

In correspondence between attorney Eitay Mack, representing Emek Shaveh, and senior prosecutor Danny Horin, Horin wrote that the state’s position is that the administration of the tunnel is not comparable to the administration of the archaeological park, but conceded that Emek Shaveh’s petition “raises questions that justify legal and factual clarification.”

Elad responded: “When the petition is received it will be studied by the association and its response will be delivered to the court.”