Settler Group Wins Right to Run Jerusalem Archaeology Park After Appeal

Court rules against state, allows Elad to operate site adjacent to Western Wall.

Emil Salman

The right-wing City of David Foundation, better known as Elad, will be allowed to operate the Jerusalem Archaeological Park adjacent to the Western Wall, after the Jerusalem District Court on Monday overturned a lower court ruling that had voided the agreement enabling it to do so.

The court accepted Elad’s appeal of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruling in its entirety, reinstating the agreement the NGO had signed with the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter to manage the park and the adjacent Davidson Center, both major tourist attractions located south of the Western Wall plaza.

Elad manages the City of David National Park, just outside the Old City, and is also involved in settling Jews in the adjacent, predominantly Arab village of Silwan. The City of David National Park is connected to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park via a Second Temple-era drainage tunnel whose excavation was completed in 2012.

For decades the archaeological park had been under the control of East Jerusalem Development Corporation, a government company. After a lengthy legal dispute, the area was transferred to the Jewish Quarter development company, which assigned Elad the right to operate the site.

When news of the agreement was published in Haaretz in early 2014, it was harshly attacked both by left-wing organizations, which oppose Elad’s activity, and by pluralistic Jewish organizations, because the site includes the wooden deck at Robinson’s Arch that was built for the Women of the Wall and other egalitarian prayer services. The leaders of the pluralistic groups had been promised by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who had negotiated the establishment of the third plaza with them, that Elad would not administer the site.

Shortly afterward, the State Prosecutor’s Office petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court against the agreement. That court accepted the state’s arguments and canceled the agreement on grounds that the government company needed the government’s approval before transferring the site to the NGO.

Elad appealed the ruling in November, and on Monday judges Moshe Drori, David Cheshin and Oded Shaham ruled in its favor. The judges rejected the state’s argument that transferring the site to Elad’s control would harm state security, citing the testimony of the David precinct commander who praised Elad for its cooperation with police.

The judges also rejected the argument that transferring the site to the right-wing group would generate incitement by Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, who heads the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. “It’s hard to understand how the state chooses to rely on Salah’s ‘expertise,’ when the state itself, less than a year ago, filed a criminal appeal against Salah who incited to racism,” Drori wrote.

Similarly, the court rejected the claim that the agreement would harm Israel’s foreign relations, particularly ties with Jordan, and the claim that the agreement would undermine the government’s negotiations with the pluralistic Jewish groups, saying these arguments were insufficient to cancel the agreement. However, during the hearings Elad agreed to relinquish control of the section of the park closest to the Western Wall, where the egalitarian prayer area is located.