Israel digs in over past

Share this article

AS CRANES help dig the foundations for new apartments in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, archaeologists at the City of David site in annexed East Jerusalem are also digging away.

In both cases, the earthworks deepen Israel's hold on territory it captured during the 1967 Middle East war – the same land on which the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, hopes to establish an independent state.

In recent years, Israel has transformed the City of David digs into a national park under the supervision of a right-wing settler group, Elad. And in Israel, archaeology is politics.

The message of the highly popular tours given at the site is straightforward: the past here belongs primarily to King David and other biblical figures, so present dominance in the area should also belong to Jews: this is irrespective of the fact that some 40,000 people live in the lower-income Palestinian Silwan area, where the digging is going on.

In a softly-lit subterranean passage that is part of the national park, Hila Levinger, a 21-year-old guide, reads from the Bible: 2 Samuel 5, an account of how King David captured the area before establishing his capital there. "It is possible he captured it through this conduit," she tells a group of about 30 Israeli tourists – some 350,000 people take the City of David tour each year.

But, despite its popularity, not everyone is spellbound. For the first time, a small group of Israeli archaeologists is challenging the story as told by Ms Levinger, the settlers and the state, saying it misrepresents the past.

"There are many layers in this land," says Yoni Mizrachi, who was an archaeologist in East Jerusalem for the antiquities authority from 2003 to 2005.

"This site was settled before Jews arrived and also after the second temple was destroyed (AD 70)," he said.

He hands out a timeline showing the Canaanites established a village in 3000 BC and a city with a water system in 1700 BC, before the period ascribed to King David, in about 1000 BC.

If Ms Levinger's tour is any indication, the Byzantine Christian period, as well as Islamic periods, are ignored in the dominant narrative.

During her tour, she points to a wall of stones unearthed by archeologists two years ago. "The supposition is strengthening that this is a support wall from King David's palace," she says. But later, she drops the ambiguity and says simply that King David's palace "is here, where the support wall is situated".

Rafi Greenberg, a Tel Aviv University archeologist, takes issue with that, saying the wall is "certainly not something that can be tied directly to David".

Mr Mizrachi says there are not only doubts over whether it was David's palace but also whether David was anything more than a mythical figure. "Archaeology should not be a political tool," he says. "The past also belongs to those who live here now."


AFTER two days immersed in the intense world of Middle-East peacemaking, George Bush, the president of the United States, yesterday toured holy sites, listening as robed clerics read him biblical passages about Jesus's days of ministry there centuries ago.

Mr Bush visited Capernaum, where Jesus is said to have performed miracles.

He also toured churches and the site of an ancient synagogue and gazed across the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

Mr Bush held hands with nuns outside the Church of the Beatitudes, the site where Jesus delivered his famed Sermon on the Mount.

Asked how it felt to walk in Jesus' footsteps, Mr Bush replied: "Amazing experience."

During the visit, he was given a crystal statue inscribed with words from the sermon, recounted in 5 Matthew: "Blessed are those who are peacemakers for they will be called children of God."

Archbishop Elias Shakur, a Greek Catholic clergyman who showed Mr Bush around the site, said he asked him: "Did you come as a politician, as a leader of state, or as a pilgrim?"

"I came as a pilgrim," Mr Bush said, according to the archbishop. Earlier in the day, Mr Bush toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The president first visited the memorial in 1998 when he was governor of Texas.

Yesterday, he was wearing a yarmulke as he rekindled an eternal flame and placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps.

Mr Bush called the memorial a "sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil, we must resist it".