Update Paper: The new government’s resolutions on Jerusalem, the place of archeology in these plans, and ministerial responsibility for the Israel Antiquities Authority

At its second session, the new government (the 34th government of Israel, headed by Netanyahu) has taken a number of decisions to strengthen Jerusalem’s economy and its status as the capital of Israel. The decisions continue the familiar policy of the last decade, establishing a five-year plan (2020-2016) for the development of Jerusalem. The current plan focuses on the area of the Western Wall and the Western Wall tunnels. The Prime Minister’s Office website posted the following:

“A five-year, 2016-2020, plan will be formulated on upgrading infrastructures and encouraging visits to the Western Wall plaza including continued development of the Western Wall plaza and tunnels, the preservation [and exposure][of archaeological finds, upgrading transportation infrastructure, and expanded educational activity for students and soldiers. The full plan will be submitted for Cabinet approval within two weeks.” (Emphasis added)

To our understanding, the five-year plan’s inclusion of the Western Wall tunnels and its focus on exposing and preserving archaeological finds indicate the ways in which the government intends to strengthen Jerusalem’s political status as the capital of Israel. We assume that the intention is to continue the investment of millions of shekels in excavating the Western Wall tunnels, which today encompass hundreds of square meters beneath the Muslim Quarter. [1] The purpose of the underground tunnels is connect the village of Silwan to the Western Wall, and then proceed to excavate northward to the “Zedekiah’s Cave,” located near the Damascus Gate (See map below).[2]

“The continued development of the Western Wall plaza” refers to construction plans of Beit Haliba, installing an elevator connecting the Western Wall to the Jewish Quarter, [3] and possibly promoting a program to excavate the entire Western Wall plaza and to create an underground level, which would combine archaeological remains with a prayer area. [4] Another major project that aims to strengthen the Western Wall area is the Kedem Center, planned at the entrance to the village of Silwan just few dozen meters away. It is located near a trail used for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. The Kedem Center is set to include the “Bible Shrine” as well as a plaza for Bar Mitzvah celebrations. In addition, the Center will link to the Old City via the Western Wall Tunnels.[5]

The planned investment in the education of students and soldiers probably involves increasing government funding to bring visitors to the City of David in Silwan, to the Western Wall, and to the Western Wall tunnels. In each of these sites the main story is the connection of the Israeli people to Jerusalem and/or to the temple. These focused tours reinforce the feeling that Jerusalem is a place that belongs solely or mainly to the people of Israel.

The government’s decisions are consistent with statements by Netanyahu that Jerusalem will always remain the capital of Israel and a united city. We estimate that Netanyahu intends to promote this statement in every way possible, and the phrase ‘excavation and conservation of archaeological finds’ means the continued promotion of projects in the Historic (Holy) Basin of Jerusalem (including the Old City, Silwan, and environs).

The New Minister of Culture and Sport

Miri Regev, who was appointed Minister of Culture and Sport in the new government, is responsible for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Regev is known for wanting to change the status quo on the Temple Mount for some years now. As chairwoman of the outgoing Knesset’s Interior Committee she held many discussions on the subject, and has initiated a bill to allow Jewish prayer on the Mount.

The IAA is one of the most important bodies in the Historic Basin and can approve, oppose or promote any construction, development or excavation in the area. Regev’s responsibility for the IAA will give her great influence on ancient Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The IAA is also perceived as a professional and apolitical body, but its legal status allows the Minister of Culture and Sport to promote far-reaching political changes in the area. In the last decade, settler organizations together with the IAA are undertaking among the largest archaeological excavations ever seen in the country. They are creating a new ancient upper city and an underground city, allowing settlers to strengthen their hold on the village of Silwan, the Muslim Quarter and the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif. The IAA is also involved in promoting the plan for the “Bible Museum” in Kedem Center, planned atop the largest excavation in the Historic Basin, as well as in digging tunnels in the Muslim Quarter and more.

Until now, the IAA has worked very carefully on the Haram al-Sharif. With the appointment of the new Culture and Sport Minister, Israeli practices may change.

For years the settlers have been pressing the IAA to impose its authority and to prevent any development on the compound (including, for example, electrical installation), based on the IAA’s mandate to prevent damage to antiquities, and on what they say is the Muslim Waqf’s destruction of archaeological remains. Without getting into the question of whether the settlers’ claims are correct or not, the IAA can, under the Antiquities Act, have a major impact on all development work on the Temple Mount and it can strengthen the already existing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

National parks in East Jerusalem

As part of the coalition agreement it was decided to transfer many powers to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Among other things, it was decided to change the National Parks Act, allowing the Minister to declare new national parks or to cancel previous ones. [6]Kahlon is an enthusiastic supporter of the Elad organization and of its development of the ‘City of David’ park in Silwan. Given all this, we expect to see the promotion of ‘Mount Scopus Slopes’ national park. As we recall, the park’s development was halted by the previous government when then-Environment Minister Amir Peretz acted to reduce the area of the park. The government’s decision and ministers’ political profile and past statements indicate that Jerusalem will be the center of events.

During this term of office, it is possible that instead of (or in addition to) announcing broad construction projects in East Jerusalem, the fourth Netanyahu government will focus on developing the Historic Basin in a way that is presented as serving religious-tourist purposes, such as Western Wall projects, but has a major political impact.

remaking map2

[1] Emek Shaveh, Jerusalem Underground: The excavation of tunnels, channels, and underground spaces in the Historic Basin, April 2011.

[2 Idem.

[3] יעל פרידסון, “רכבל ומעלית לכותל: הפרויקטים שישנו את י-ם“, NRG, 17 במאי 2015.

[4] עמרי מניב, “התוכנית להוספת מפלס מתחת לכותל יוצאת לדרך” NRG, 1 לספטמבר 2010

[5]Emek Shaveh, Petition to transfer management of Silwan-Western Wall tunnel from Elad to the State, April 12, 2015

[6] אורי תובל ואמיתי גזית, “הממשלה החדשה החליטה: גבאי לא יישב בקבינט הדיור, כחלון יוכל לבטל שמורות טבע“, כלכליסט, 20 במאי 2015.


Back to top