Have the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality buried treasures from the Second Temple under a giant lavatory? That possibility is just one of the problems cited by opponents of a plan to improve a spring in the city's Ein Karem neighborhood, at one of Israel's most important Christian tourism sites.
The spring is the fourth most important site in the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims, after Jerusalem's Old City, Bethlehem and Nazareth, and about one million people visit it each year. According to Christian tradition, this is the place where Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, and Mary, Jesus' mother, met when both women were pregnant. But for the last two years, these visitors have been greeted by the adjacent sight of a huge, sealed building that, according to the approved plan, is supposed to serve as a public lavatory and a municipal warehouse for gardening tools.
It's hard to see why a combined bathroom and toolshed needs a 314 square meter building, but the plan is to build a large plaza on its roof, as the building is below the level of the road. The plaza would then be linked to the road by filling the intervening wadi with tons of earth.
A year ago, Yossi Havilio - then the city's legal adviser - ordered work on the project be halted after discovering serious violations of the building code. For instance, the building is more than twice the size specified in the approved plan, and was built on a spot 2.2 meters higher than the plan's specified locale. The project is now frozen until the regional planning and building committee's appeals panel decides its future.
Neighborhood residents are convinced the bathroom-cum-toolshed, which they call "the monster," was just a pretext for building an edifice that would some day serve as a restaurant. They note that a plan for a restaurant at the site, which the planning authorities vetoed in the 1990s, had specifications suspiciously similar to those of "the monster."
The municipality and Tourism Ministry, however, say the building is actually much smaller than it appears, because what look like its outside walls are actually just a lot of concrete blocks that will later be used to build the rooftop plaza.
Residents also cite a series of problems with the approval process. For instance, the plan originally submitted by the Israel Government Tourist Corporation presented the project as renovations of an existing building. When this error was discovered, it asked the municipality to view this as a mere "typo" and let it amend the documents, instead of making it start from scratch and resubmit them as a plan to erect a new building. The municipality agreed.
Even more outrageous, opponents claim, the company used correction fluid to change the boundaries of the building's area on the plan to retroactively legalize its excess size. The correction fluid is clearly visible on the documents.
But perhaps worst of all was the handling of the site's archaeological relics. A salvage dig conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered ancient water systems that carried water from the spring to terraces on the wadi. This led the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, to call a meeting in November 2009 to discuss how these relics could be preserved. The meeting, attended by Tourism Ministry and Antiquities Authority representatives, decided to freeze construction of the building and look into building an archaeological park there instead.
But on the very day the meeting was held, the tourist corporation's vice president, David Mingelgreen, sent the municipality a letter saying that, for reasons unknown, all the archaeological findings had been buried under tons of earth the day before. Thus, by the time the meeting occurred, there was nothing left to salvage.
From his letter, Mingelgreen appeared to view the findings as a nuisance. "The goal is to refrain as far as possible from work that will require archaeological digs," he wrote.
But Ron Havilio, a neighborhood resident and leading opponent of the project who has researched Ein Karem's history extensively, believes the archaeological loss may have been even greater. There is a well-known legend about a Palestinian treasure being buried in one of the neighborhood's houses during the War of Independence in 1948, and Havilio - who is distantly related to Yossi Havilio - claims this legendary treasury may actually have comprised treasures from the Second Temple.
His source for this claim is the Copper Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1952. The scroll, which was written on metal, details the places where the Second Temple's treasures were hidden after its destruction in 70 C.E. Among other things it says: "At the ashuach in Beit Hakerem, when you go 10 cubits to the left, are 62 talents of silver."
The accepted view is that "ashuach" signifies a reservoir and that the ancient Beit Hakerem is the modern-day neighborhood of Ein Karem. The only question, Havilio argued, is the location of the ancient pool referred to in the scroll - and analyses of the area's former geography indicate that one possible answer is right under the giant lavatory.
"There is a chance, even if only a small one, that an exciting discovery could be made at Ein Karem, one of the most important discoveries in Israel of the last 100 years," he said.
The city responded that all of the allegations are now being considered by the appeals panel and the courts. As for the decision to bury the archaeological findings, "this stemmed from the municipality's inability to conclude the project because of the costs of preserving it."
Unofficially, city officials also voiced frustration with the Ein Karem residents, saying that even if mistakes were made, their behavior now is preventing a swift solution.
The Tourism Ministry denied any violations of the approved plan. It also said the tourist corporation has worked closely with neighborhood residents and accepted their suggestions more than once.
However, it added, the discovery of the ancient water system made it impossible to make the bathroom wheelchair-accessible, as required by law, and therefore a decision was made to seal the building. It denied any plans to turn the building into a restaurant.