EAST JERUSALEM SPECIAL
Redefining the Holy City's past
By Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Jerusalem
Source: Al Jazeera
At the foot of Al Aqsa mosque, Israel is redefining history.
Archaeologists are digging at several sites around the Old City with a clear agenda: to uncover evidence that would strengthen Israel's claim to Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
Using archaeology to serve political interests is controversial, which may explain why an excavation site in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan is closed off with corrugated iron fences.
We were refused permission to film there and the Israeli Antiquities Authority declined to give us an interview.
"This characterises this present stage of archaeology here in Silwan, which is archaeology behind fences and it seems they want to keep things under wraps, to prevent people from peering in," says Raphael Greenberg, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University.
"I can't get into any of these sites. I'm barred from visiting them. It seems that the Antiquities Authority doesn't want criticism of their work."
One reason why the Antiquities Authority may be sensitive is because it has handed over some of the sites to El Ad, a private, right-wing organisation run by Israeli settlers.
So it is the settlers who collect the entrance fees and it is the settlers who put their spin on what is displayed inside.
The main site is called the City of David. Once inside, the visitor is fed a very narrow view of the history of Jerusalem.
Tour guides claim that the biblical King David built his capital in Silwan, although independent archaeologists dispute that.
The message is clear: the Jews were here first, so Jerusalem belongs to the Jews.
So the settlers have hijacked ancient history and they are trying to take over modern day Jerusalem too.
At the same time as managing the tourist sites, the El Ad organisation is buying up Palestinian property in Silwan.
"They are the ones who are developers, entrepreneurs, the ones who want to build here. At the same time, they also have a contract to manage the archaeological site," says Greenberg.
"So there's a definite conflict of interest here between their role as stewards of the ancient heritage and their role as settlers, and as people who actually want to dispossess the Palestinians in Silwan."
Local people are suspicious of the settlers and worried about the digging, some of which goes directly under their homes.
They have complained to the Jerusalem municipality, but officials say they are not responsible for the project.
"I'm not sure I'm too pleased with the involvement of private NGOs and individuals in national assets," says Yakir Segev, a Jerusalem city council official.
"But they were the ones who, I think, brought and raised the money to dig in this particular park that you are talking about. And so they have a say in it. But really, it's not a matter for the municipality."
This emphasis on the past has a strong bearing on the present.
Through their control of these archaeological sites, the settlers are re-educating a nation into their way of thinking: that Jerusalem always was and always will be Jewish – and must never be divided.
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