Jerusalem to Finance Jewish Museum in Arab Neighborhood

The Tourism Ministry joins investment of NIS 2 million in project run by Elad, a Jewish group that buys property in East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipality and the Tourism Ministry will invest NIS 2 million in a project run by the Elad organization that buys property for Jews in East Jerusalem's largely Arab Silwan neighborhood.

Elad house Silwan
Emil Salman

Last week, the municipality's finance committee confirmed that it would transfer NIS 1.025 million to the Spring House museum, a development project in the City of David National Park.

Elad plans to use the house to build a visitors' center or a museum on the history of the Siloam Spring, the main water source for ancient Jerusalem.

The museum is supposed to be set up in a large house belonging to Elad. The house was originally owned by a man named Musa al-Abassi, who was declared absentee after the Six-Day War.

In 1988, the house was nationalized under the Absentee Property Law, following extensive lobbying by Elad. Three years later, the house was rented out to the organization at only NIS 23.73 per month. In July 2006, the organization acquired a long-term lease on the property. As reported in Haaretz two months ago, Elad paid NIS 382,000 to lease the house for 49 years.

Two years later, the public security minister at the time, Avi Dichter, was recorded while touring the house; the tour was given by Elad's director, David Be'eri. Be'eri can be heard on the tape describing how he misled the Antiquities Authority in a bid to expand the property.

"We bought two rooms," he told Dichter. "This room and the room below. I decided to build a visitors' center. What can you do in two rooms? Nothing. So I said, let's break this wall, and we broke a wall into the side of the mountain.

"I went to the Antiquities Authority and said, 'we're making repairs - and way up there is this terrace [a terraced plot of agricultural land]. We'll repair up to that terrace.' We began digging up to the terrace, and at night I'd move the terrace away. In the morning they would say, something here doesn't look right, but there's the terrace."

When Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem councilwoman for Meretz, said she opposed the financing motion at the finance committee meeting, chairman and deputy mayor David Hadari told her the project had no connection to Elad.

The same claim was made in official statements by the municipality and the Tourism Ministry. But Haaretz found that not only does Elad operate the national park around the structure, and not only does it own the building, but the organization and Be'eri himself had submitted and signed the building plan that went to City Hall.

Wharton also protested that this budget item was not on the meeting's agenda and was added very late, minutes before the meeting was adjourned. After the meeting, the municipality's legal adviser Yossi Havilio issued a legal opinion saying the motion had to be annulled because it wasn't put on the agenda early enough.

Hadari wrote in response that the decision was "bewildering and disappointing," and castigated Havilio for obeying the municipality's stance. "Can you look the lovers of this city straight in the eye and explain why issues connected to the unity and wholeness of Jerusalem are treated to such legal 'scrutiny'", Hadari wrote.

Wharton told Haaretz: "I can think of many other much more deserving targets for municipal funding. It's very regrettable that elected officials in this city stray from proper administration to create provocations that hurt the city, the public peace and the character of the capital."

The municipality insisted that "no budget was transferred to Elad. This is a joint project by the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, aimed at promoting tourism in the city. Money is transferred to the Antiquities Authority for tourism development, including conservation in the Pool of Siloam and planning the Spring House museum. Elad is not a partner in this development agreement."

The municipality added that all committee members present acknowledged and approved items that were added to the agenda during the meeting. It said the vote was monitored by representatives of the legal adviser and the municipal comptroller.

The Tourism Ministry said it has been working for years to develop the City of David National Park, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, the Antiquities Authority and the Jerusalem municipality. "The Tourism Ministry has no connection with the Spring House museum project or with the Elad organization," it said.