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Israel’s Archeology Park Plan to Boost Arab Tourism and Sell Abraham Accords



JERUSALEM—Israel has a plan to attract more Emirati tourists, part of a push to cement Arab-Israeli ties after the Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. But the decision to include on the tourist itinerary a controversial archeological park in East Jerusalem run by far-right Jewish settlers is stoking tensions in the region and drawing criticism from both Israeli and Palestinian experts.

The City of David National Park is one of Israel’s most popular—and controversial—tourist attractions. It’s popular in part because of its setting beneath the old city walls where guides say King David ruled and where key events of Jewish history unfolded. Proponents of the park, a favorite stop-off for right-wing politicians, argue that learning about the history of David and Solomon, important figures in Judaism as well as Islam, will be attractive to Muslim visitors.

“This is history, the foundations of Jerusalem. It’s something very meaningful for the Muslim world,” said Arie Parnis, an independent guide who used to work for the Ir David Foundation, the far-right settler organization that runs the park and is known by the Hebrew abbreviation Elad. “This is the most interesting place in Jerusalem. Everything started there. Prophets and kings were there.” The park is on the itinerary prepared for hopeful Emirati and Bahraini tourists by the Israeli tourism ministry.

JERUSALEM—Israel has a plan to attract more Emirati tourists, part of a push to cement Arab-Israeli ties after the Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. But the decision to include on the tourist itinerary a controversial archeological park in East Jerusalem run by far-right Jewish settlers is stoking tensions in the region and drawing criticism from both Israeli and Palestinian experts.

The City of David National Park is one of Israel’s most popular—and controversial—tourist attractions. It’s popular in part because of its setting beneath the old city walls where guides say King David ruled and where key events of Jewish history unfolded. Proponents of the park, a favorite stop-off for right-wing politicians, argue that learning about the history of David and Solomon, important figures in Judaism as well as Islam, will be attractive to Muslim visitors.

“This is history, the foundations of Jerusalem. It’s something very meaningful for the Muslim world,” said Arie Parnis, an independent guide who used to work for the Ir David Foundation, the far-right settler organization that runs the park and is known by the Hebrew abbreviation Elad. “This is the most interesting place in Jerusalem. Everything started there. Prophets and kings were there.” The park is on the itinerary prepared for hopeful Emirati and Bahraini tourists by the Israeli tourism ministry.

The problem, many locals and critics say, is that the park is more a vehicle for Jewish settler expansion into East Jerusalem than serious history. 

It’s “a propaganda site to tell the tourists a narrative that most Israeli archeologists and historians don’t believe. It is not only the Arabs who will be cheated there, it’s everyone who visits,” said Nazmi Jubeh, a historian at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “It is a site with a very wrong narrative. They are kicking the ass of science.”

Locals say the park provides a rationale for making Palestinians outsiders in their own city and implicitly justifies their eviction.

“They shouldn’t visit a place where history is falsified, and they shouldn’t legitimize the settlers,” said 57-year-old Awadallah al-Mukhtar, standing outside his home on the main street of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood where the park is situated.

To some Palestinians in Wadi Hilweh, if Emiratis visit the settler park, it will be a betrayal, deepening the wound many feel the United Arab Emirates caused by normalizing relations with Israel. The agreement overturned the traditional formula that held that Arab countries would normalize relations with Israel only if it ended its occupation of lands captured during the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. 

In several East Jerusalem neighborhoods, things now look especially bleak for Palestinians. Settlers are aiming to encroach on an unprecedented scale, according to the dovish Peace Now movement. In the Batn al-Hawa neighborhood, a short walk from Wadi Hilweh, 78 Palestinian families face possible eviction to make way for settlers on the grounds that their properties were owned by Jews more than a century ago, according to Peace Now.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, settlement activity is proceeding rapidly, with expansion of settlements deep in the heartland of the area in which Palestinians hope to establish their future state. The UAE, while officially supporting a Palestinian state, has not joined the United States and European Union in condemning the settlement activity, which most of the international community considers illegal.

The archeological park did not end up on the Emirati itinerary by chance, said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv and a specialist on Jerusalem. “They are trying to use Emirati tourists to get Arab approval for the official Israeli narrative on Jerusalem, which is the same as the settler narrative,” he said.

Israeli archeologists who challenge the official line have called for the park to be shut down or at least taken out of the hands of Elad, which they say has warped an important archeological site to fit its political agenda. 

Rafi Greenberg, a Tel Aviv University archeologist, cast doubt on Elad’s suggestion that one of the structures highlighted on the tour is likely King David’s palace. “These organizations are using archeology to whitewash what they are doing. The general presentation of the site as an archeological site is intended to make the present people appear as intruders, as something extraneous, as an imposition on the site,” Greenberg said. “It’s a way of making the present inhabitants of the site illegitimate.”

Elad’s tours of the City of David seem to promote the idea that Palestinian parts of the city, including Wadi Hilweh, are actually Jewish. That notion is at loggerheads with the two-state compromise favored by most of the international community, but which Israel rejects, considering Jerusalem its “eternal, undivided capital.” 

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, viewing the occupation as a liberation. The Israeli army’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War touched off a nationalistic euphoria and a sense of entitlement to biblically resonant Palestinian areas. There is a Messianic overtone to the version of history taught on the tour, one that’s very similar to the narrative propagated by settlers themselves. Part of that has to do with the Jewish Second Temple, which once stood near the end of the modern park tour but which was torn down by the Romans in A.D. 70 during the Jewish uprising. Some Israelis believe a third Jewish temple will be built where Islam’s third-holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, now stands. And they see expanded settlements as part of that process.

Noa Yahav, an 18-year-old guide giving the tour as part of her state-supported national service, said that the 1967 war was part of the process of “redemption” of the Jewish people, a common belief of ideological settlers who view their own actions as facilitating the coming of a Messianic age even today. “We today are part of the redemption, of the turning over,” she said.

Reut Wilf, a spokesperson for Elad, did not respond to most questions Foreign Policy asked. But she issued a statement: “Elad works in accordance with the law in developing Ancient Jerusalem, giving access to millions of visitors—from Israel and around the world—of all faiths and backgrounds. We oppose all efforts by political organizations who make cynical use of the history and heritage of Jerusalem, one of the world’s most important cities, for political ends.”

Neither the UAE Embassy in Tel Aviv nor the UAE foreign ministry responded to requests for comment. 

Settler penetration is not Mukhtar’s only reason for resentment against Israel. On June 10, 1967, right after Israel captured East Jerusalem, Israeli bulldozers destroyed the eight-century-old Arab Mughrabi quarter in the Old City in order to create a plaza for the Western Wall, believed to be the perimeter of the Second Temple. 

There was one fatality. Mukhtar’s grandmother, Rasmia Tabaki, a resident of the quarter, was pulled semiconscious from her partially destroyed house and died later, according to the account of the Israeli journalist Uzi Benziman. Fifty-four years later, Mukhtar said he feels under pressure from settlers and Israeli authorities who now call his street “King David’s Ascent,” and the whole neighborhood “City of David.” Approximately 500 settlers live among some 6,000 lower-income Palestinians in Wadi Hilweh.

“The strategy of the settlers is to restore the biblical kingdom around the Old City,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nongovernmental organization that supports arrangements in the city that are part of a two-state solution.

“They have done that by house-to-house combat, taking over houses by legal, quasi-legal, and blatantly illegal means, and they have engaged in the displacement of Palestinians to transform [Wadi Hilweh] into what they say will be an extension of the Jewish quarter” of the Old City, Seidemann said. Elad counters that all of its actions are lawful.

Palestinians say they feel pressured to leave the neighborhood. “I feel the neighborhood is changing from Arab to Jewish,” said Hisham Siam, a 63-year-old auto mechanic. “The park and archeology are part of an attempt to remove Arabs here so they can say it’s the City of David.” He, like many residents, pointed to cracks in the wall of his home that he said were caused by archeological tunneling underneath it. 

Klein, the Jerusalem specialist at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that for Israel, pointing Emirati tourists to the City of David is a way to get Emirati citizens to buy into the marginalization of Palestinians the same way their government did. 

“Normalization was approved by the UAE and Bahrain although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not settled,” Klein said. “Israel saw that as an expression of the Arab will to sideline the Palestinian issue.”

Now, Klein said, Israel wants to push its narrative on Jerusalem to Emirati tourists. “It’s not only between governments. They want to expand it to the Emirati people, to those who visit. They want to shape the minds of Emirati citizens,” he said.



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