Plans for massive new visitor center in East Jerusalem have pitted local Palestinian residents and Israeli public intellectuals against a government-backed, right-wing organization.
The project is spearheaded by Elad, a right wing organization that administers the City of David archaeological park outside the Old City. The group's presence in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan – and the fact it recruits Jews to live near there – has already drawn the ire of locals.
The visitor center is slated for a site about 20 meters from the Old City walls and about 100 meters from the site of the Western Wall. The 16,600 square meter center will include a museum, an auditorium and an entryway to the City of David archaeological site.
Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, has appeared personally in front of the regional planning board to defend the project. He says the growth in tourism to the Old City demands a new visitor center.
However, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his support for Elad's plans, it became clear the center is a chip in a larger game.
Netanyahu's support came in October following the release of Palestinian prisoners as an Israeli gesture in the peace process. By practice, even if not by policy, each time a prisoner release happens, Israel announces construction beyond the Green Line in the West Bank of Jerusalem area, seemingly to appease the hardliners in government.
As soon as Netanyahu threw his support behind the visitor center, the planning process shifted into high gear.
The complex will include an entire floor to display antiquities from the City of David digs, including some of the most ancient Jewish artifacts unearthed in Jerusalem. It will come complete with classrooms, exhibition halls, an auditorium, a gift shop, a restaurant and a 250-car garage. The structure will provide access to the ancient underground street dating the time of King Herod that runs between the City of David and the Western Wall plaza .
Opponents of the plan, including architects, archaeologists, writers, academics and public figures, say that the project would alter cityscape – and character – around the iconic Old City walls. They are also wary of Elad's involvement in the project. The organization already administers the dig, though under the mandate of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The opponents say a private entity should not be handed the reins when an archaeological site of supreme scientific importance hangs in the balance.
UNESCO, the United Nations arm in charge of preserving world heritage, has joined the chorus of voices criticizing the visitor center, even though the agency's local representative developed the plans: Architect Arieh Rachmimov of UNESCO's Israeli National Commission is the one who drew up the blue prints.
Four legal petitions now hope to put a spoke in the wheels of the project: One headlined by Architects Haim Yacobi and David Kroyanke, novelist David Grossman, and Meron Benvenisti Jerusalem's former deputy mayor; a second by a group of archaeologists; a third by 43 Palestinians from Silwan' and lastly, Ir Amim, a left-wing non-profit.
Elad is reviewing the objections and has yet to respond and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority says project will not harm the archaeological remains lying underneath.
“The Israel Antiquities Authority has been digging at the site for more than eight years in order to understand and carry out archaeological research [and] to enable the building to be integrated with the antiquities," the parks authority said in a statement. "The building was planned in a manner that fully relates to archaeological finds discovered [there]. In addition, the plan for the building particularly and meticulously relates to the Old City walls so as not to harm the landscape’s sight lines and the majesty of the Old City walls. The building does not rise more than one story higher than the road separating the building and the [Old City] walls.”
The parks authority also said the plan does not ignore the needs of the local residents since it is a public building open to everyone, and passageways on roof of the center will facilitate traffic in and out of the area.
The Jerusalem municipality said the planning board offers an avenue for public comment and criticism that will be taken into account before a decision is made.
Rachmimov, the project’s architect, asked to defer a response until he had studied the objections filed by the four groups, but said that the project had gotten the initial support of the local and regional planning committee and the relevant preservation committee. “Up to now, we have only heard warm words about the plan,” he said. “It relates to all of the aspects of the area and has undergone all of the examinations, including the visual aspect. The plan will contribute a lot to the area."
The group of public figures and academics, however, say the project would negatively affect the cityscape landscape and violate of preservation principles that have to the area around the Old City walls since the British Mandate. The planned center, they said in their petition, is just meters away from the Temple Mount, which they described as “an area at the heart of the [Arab-Israeli] conflict” and potential source of major tension.
“[Silwan] is a crowded and neglected Palestinian residential area where more than 30,000 residents live. The neighborhood residents desperately need kindergartens, parks, playgrounds and other facilities," the petition says. "In the necessary balance between the desire for heritage preservation and the setting for the plan, responsiveness to the needs of the residents is necessary and not a building of immense proportions.”