Israel will give its highest civilian honor to the director of the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, which works to settle Jews in East Jerusalem and operates controversial archaeological projects outside the Old City, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Thursday.
David Be'eri, Elad's director, will be awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement along with Zvi Levy, who has mobilized support for soldiers who enlist in the Israel Defense Forces from abroad and have no family in Israel - lone soldiers, as they are called in Israel.
Be'eri founded Elad in the late 1980s. At first the organization tried unsuccessfully to build 200 housing units for Jews in the City of David area. It then worked to move Jews into the adjacent predominantly Palestinian Silwan neighborhood, in part using controversial means to evict Palestinians living there. In recent years, the organization has used Palestinian middlemen and straw companies registered abroad to acquire homes in the neighborhood. The organization also seeks to settle Jews in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, such as Ras al-Amud, Abu Tur, and A-Tur.
The group also runs the City of David National Park, an archaeological dig in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, where Jerusalem had its earliest origins. It is thought to be one of the wealthiest non-profits in the country and has strong ties with Jerusalem city hall.
In making the announcement, Bennett accepted the recommendations of the prize nominating committees. He congratulated Levy for his efforts on behalf of lone soldiers and Be'eri for turning the City of David into a heritage, education and tourist site of major importance.
In selecting Be'eri for the Israel Prize, the country's most prestigious, the committee said he was chosen for his contribution to the country and particularly for founding the City of David project.
"The prize is being given to him fifty years after the reunification of the city [Jerusalem]. He initiated, established, led and leads this praiseworthy effort," the prize jury said. "The City of David is the historic seed from which Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish people and the focus of the Book of Books, grew."
Bennett added: "Fifty years since the reunification of Jerusalem is an excellent opportunity to thank David Be'eri, one of the great builders of Jerusalem in modern times. For many years, we dreamed, prayed and yearned to return to the city in which David settled and to rebuild it." Be'eri, Bennett said, has realized that dream and by virtue of his efforts "millions of soldiers and student are being exposed to Jerusalem's history in a way that they never could before."
Be'eri was an officer in the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal commando unit and in the elite Duvdevan special operations unit, Bennett said, calling him "both a man of the book and a soldier."
Bennett called the other prize recipient, Zvi Levy, "an exemplary figure of Zionist and above all Dad to thousands of male and female soldiers who found him as an address. He is Dad and Mom to them, an attentive ear, a friend and a brother."
The prize jury noted that Levy, who is from Kibbutz Yifat in the Jezreel Valley, made a decisive contribution to the country through his efforts on behalf of lone soldiers over a period of decades.
Commenting on the decision to award Be'eri the Israel Prize, left-wing Meretz Knesset member Tamar Zandberg said: "If there is one party that is responsible most clearly and in the most organized manner for driving a wedge in East Jerusalem, for destroying our joint future and destroying any prospect for a diplomatic solution [of the conflict with the Palestinians], it's Elad, which single-handedly is leading the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and the settlement and Judaization of Silwan, and which nevertheless is receiving hundreds of millions in contributions from companies registers in tax havens. But it's symbolic that in the 50th year of the occupation, this is the message that the government is conveying."
Referring to Be'eri by his nickname, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said: "Davideleh is a loyal and leading partner in the building of Jerusalem, a man of vision just as he is a man of deeds, uncovering layers of Jewish history and building a solid future for in the eternal city on these foundations. On the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, there is no one more worthy!"