Touristification, displacement and erasure in Jerusalem amidst the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Following the six-day Arab-Israeli war in June 1967 Israel annexed East Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule, together with an additional 60km2 of land in surrounding areas of the West Bank (henceforth ‘East Jerusalem’). The annexation significantly expanded the municipal borders of the city. Most of the confiscated land had previously been under private Palestinian ownership but Israel froze the land régularisation and registration processes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank which had been established under Jordanian rule (Ir-Amim, 2015). This freeze related solely to non-Jewish property owners; in the new neighbourhoods built on confiscated land, the registration of land in the name of the new (Jewish) owners was implemented in full. As of 2015, approximately one-half of the land in East Jerusalem was not registered in any form (Ir-Amim, 2015). Palestinian residents face various challenges regarding their rights to residence and construction of homes, including the need to prove landownership, complex processes of obtaining building permits and the expansion of Jewish neighbourhoods (Ir-Amim, 2012). This legal situation provides the backdrop for a long-standing conflict involving tourism, heritage, settlement and land rights in the village of Silwan.

The village of Silwan has a population of about 40,000 Palestinians and is located only a few hundred metres from the walls ofjerusalem’s Old City and the Temple Mount (known among Muslims as Haram al—Sharif). Residents of the Al-Bustan neighbourhood have been involved in a decades-long struggle that began in the 1970s with the Israeli government’s plan of building a national park in the area (Laskin, 2013; Ma’an, 2017). Since 1997 - when the area was designated as an ‘open public area’ (despite a proliferation of private housing) — no building permits have been issued in Al-Bustan (Ir-Amim, 2012).

The municipality began issuing demolition orders and indictments to Palestinian households in Al-Bustan in 2005 as part of the Israeli authorities’ plan to establish an archaeological touristic park called ‘The King’s Valley’ in Silwan and around the ‘Holy Basin’ which includes several Christian and Muslim holy sites (Bronner, 2008; Ir-Amim, 2012; Ma’an, 2017). The first two homes in Al-Bustan were destroyed later that year (Gadzo, 2017). Yet the planned evictions of some 100 Palestinian families met international criticism which contributed to temporarily stalling the process (Ma’an, 2017). An alternative plan for the neighbourhood developed by the residents of Al-Bustan with the help of local architects and planners was rejected by the District Committee in 2009 (Ir-Amim, 2012).

In the same year, the Jerusalem Municipality announced a plan to demolish 88 homes in Al-Bustan, which would have resulted in the displacement of some 1,500 residents (Ma’an, 2017). The plan was lobbied by the controversial settler organisation Ir-David Foundation which in the 1990s was mandated to manage the City of David’s national park and lead archaeological excavations in the Holy Basin (Bronner, 2008; Ir-Amim, 2012). Subsequently, they started to pursue their self-proclaimed goal of taking control of Silwan, considered an important historical site, and strengthen its Jewish character (Freedman, 2008; Landy, 2017). After the residents’ appeals to the relocation plan were rejected, the Jerusalem Municipality proposed that they voluntarily move to another Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, in northern East Jerusalem, but the residents refused (Ma’an, 2017).

In early 2010, the municipality unveiled a new plan for a ‘King’s Garden’ in Al-Bustan, which designated the neighbourhood as a mixed tourism-housing area, whereby 22 residential properties would be evicted, while other parts would be developed into hotels, restaurants, art shops and a park area (Ma’an, 2017; Gadzo, 2017). Despite allegations by NGOs and residents that 56 buildings — rather than 22 — were slated for demolition, the plan was subsequently approved by the planning authorities (Ir-Amim, 2012).

Since then, Israeli forces have regularly raided the Al-Bustan neighbourhoods and issued various demolition orders to residents (Ma’an, 2017). According to Ir-Amim (2012), a range of strategies have been employed to transfer ownership of properties in Silwan, including:

  • • seizure of houses declared to be “absentee property” (based on a broad interpretation of the absentee property' law generally opposed by attorneys in the past);
  • • the transfer of properties claimed to have been owned by Jews before 1948;
  • • purchase of properties in convoluted transactions; and
  • • the massive transfer of public properties and land to the exclusive control of Elad with no proper or transparent administrative process.
  • (pp. 14-15)

At the end of 2011, the planning authorities recommended additional building projects in Silwan involving the Ir David Foundation, namely a visitor centre, a museum and additional excavation sites (Ir-Amim, 2012). In 2015, the Ir David Foundation together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority began to close off large areas of the archaeological park with fences and gates, making it impossible for Silwan residents to enter the area after 5pm and on weekends and holidays (Hasson, 2017). In November 2017, Israel’s High Gourt of Justice ruled that the authorities and the Ir David Foundation must first find alternative areas for the Palestinian residents, before denying passage into and through the enclosed sites (ibid.). One month earlier, international media reported that eleven homes had already been destroyed to make way for the park since the first demolitions in 2005 (Gadzo, 2017).

Israeli authorities and the Ir David Foundation ensure that tourist experiences in the ‘City of David’ area are not ‘disturbed’ by Palestinian residents. While previously tour groups visiting the archaeological sites had to return to the Old City through the Wadi Hilweh Street (a Palestinian residential zone), Ir David built an alternative uphill walkway that passes through well-maintained settler Jewish homes (Landy, 2017). Underground tunnels are also excavated to guarantee a ‘Palestinian-free’ passage, which in several cases have shaken the foundations of Palestinian houses and caused some of them to collapse (Miller, 2013; Terrestrial Jerusalem, 2018).

The village of Silwan is not the only battleground on which Palestinian residents clash with expansionist tourism and settlement plans ofjewish Israelis. Sheikh Jarrah is another contentious Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, which is culturally and touristically significant because of its proximity to the tomb of Simeon the Just, a Jewish High Priest during the time of the Second Temple. In the early 1970s, Israel’s Custodian General re-allocated the properties to two Jewish trusts, thereby forcing the Palestinian residents who had earlier been promised ownership to pay rent to Israeli landlords instead (Miller, 2013).

Another contentious issue is the planned Jerusalem cable car project, a government initiative promoted by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) and the Ministry of Tourism which declared “the project a ‘national priority’, a category usually reserved for advancing massive infrastructure and road construction projects” (Ezrahi and Mizrachi, 2020, p. 140). The project was approved by the Israeli Cabinet in early 2019, aiming to connect West Jerusalem with the Old City and the Mount of Olives by 2021 (Hayun, 2019; Kimmelman, 2019). The US$60 million project was innocuously presented as a ‘green solution’ to address problems of traffic congestion and accessibility but opponents have argued that it is another attempt to present a one-sided narrative of Jerusalem and advance Israeli ownership claims over Palestinian parts of the city (Kimmelman, 2019; Scammell, 2020). The planned route would pass over cemeteries, ancient churches and Palestinian homes in the Silwan neighbourhood and end on the rooftop of Ir David Foundation’s planned visitor centre (Schonberg, 2019). In an early planning phase of the controversial project, then Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat was quoted by Israeli media saying that the cable care will “bring the wider world to understand who really owns this city” (Hasson, 2016, n.p.). The project has not only drawn strong criticism from Palestinian advocacy groups, but also from Israeli environmentalists, archaeologists and urban planners who are concerned about the ‘Disneyfication’ of the city’s cultural heritage (Kimmelman, 2019; Ezrahi and Mizrachi, 2020). The Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh joined forces with Silwan residents and submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the hearings on the cable car plans had been flawed, the approval by an interim government had been illegitimate and the proponents of the project had downplayed “the serious harm it would cause to Jerusalem’s cultural and historical heritage” (Schonberg, 2019, n.p.).

Hence, it seems obvious that the planning of archaeological parks and tourism facilities by the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality in collusion with right-wing settler organisations such as the Ir David Foundation does not primarily serve to protect people’s rights to cultural heritage assets but pursues the broader political goal of limiting the development of the Palestinian population, appropriating their land and bolstering Israeli occupation. This goal is also reflected in the production of promotional tourism material. A critical and self-reflective exhibition ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’ in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, in December 2018 showed a former city map of Jerusalem that had been produced by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism in 2016 (Figure 6.1). The 57 touristic sites depicted in the map include only one Muslim and five Christian places of interest. The area to the east of the Old City Wall is presented as an uninhabited, lush green hillside area, despite being a densely populated area, including the village of Silwan. The Israeli opposition criticised the map as a deliberate show of disrespect toward Palestinian, Muslim and Christian Jerusalem. A massive protest by churches and Palestinian organisations led to the publication of a revised edition (Figure 6.2).

In 2017, Israel’s Minister of Tourism had to defend government plans to bar tour operators from taking visitors to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The Jerusalem Post quoted him saying:

Map of Old City of Jerusalem (produced in 2016)

Figure 6.1 Map of Old City of Jerusalem (produced in 2016)

Map of Old City of Jerusalem (revised edition)

Figure 6.2 Map of Old City of Jerusalem (revised edition)

We are not preventing anything. But, of course, we give incentives and encourage those who sell Israel, not those who sell other products ... We’re responsible for bringing tourists to Israel, not to other places. And I do believe that the overall tourist experience for people staying in Israel is much better regarding every' aspect, from nightlife to the quality of service to the personal security.

(Schindler, 2017, n.p.)

In sum, the Israeli authorities not only annexed significant archaeological sites and monuments and encroached on Palestinian cultural heritage in the name of tourism, thereby depriving Palestinians of potential benefits from foreign visitors (cf. Kassis, 2013). They have also instrumentalised international and domestic tourism to erase Palestinian presence at these sites, while presenting Israel as the sole guarantor of an authentic and secure visiting experience.

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