Co-authored by Shir Alon
On Tuesday the Israel Antiquities Authority was about to make the announcement, accompanied by a heartfelt video, that it had completed digging and revealing an underground tunnel extending from the Pool of Siloam, underneath the houses and streets of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, coming out near the Western Wall plaza inside the Old City walls. Soon enough, Israeli media reported that the police increased its presence throughout East Jerusalem, fearing Palestinian riots over the dig.The Arab media warned of a tunnel to the Temple Mount, towards al-Aqsa, and of violation of the sites most holy to Islam.
The Antiquities Authority hastened to claim that the tunnel steers clear of the Temple Mount and that the matter has nothing to do with politics. But when watching the video that the Antiquities Authority released only recently, one gets quite a different impression. The archeologist in charge of the dig affectively describes how the revealed tunnel runs underneath the street which used to lead to the Temple Mount, straight to the Holy Temple, and in the video he demonstrates climbing up the steps to the Temple itself.
It is no news that Jerusalem evokes deep religious and national sentiments on both sides, and that any kind of activity there can cause a new crisis. Tunnels dug underground, hidden from the public eye, are bound to give rise to rumors and fears. The residents of Silwan, who have been hearing the excavation works carried out under their homes day and night, didn’t know what was being dug under them and how. When they brought this matter in front of the Supreme Court, the digging was stopped for a short while, but eventually the court decided that revealing the past carried more importance than the residents’ right to private property.
In recent years, the Israel Antiquities Authority has come to function as an executive contractor for the settlers around Silwan and the Old City. Many of the largest digs in Jerusalem are initiated and funded by right wing organizations. In many cases these are underground digs, lacking transparency and hidden from the public, which spawn harsh professional criticism from many archeologists.
The revealed tunnel is a particularly significant step in the process of settlement tourism striking roots in Silwan. The tunnel’s Western Wall entrance is still closed, but once it is opened a new route will be available: The visitors to the “City of David” site, which is managed by settlers, would enter the tunnel by the Siloam Pool in the slopes of the Silwan neighborhood, pass underneath the Palestinian streets and houses, and come out again next to the Western Wall plaza within the walls of the Old City. This would be a tour of purely Jewish history, cut off from the present and hiding from the visitors the reality of the Palestinian neighborhood existing on the ground above them.
“For the first time, I can touch the destruction [of the Temple],” says Eli Shukrun, the archeologist in charge of the project, in the dramatic video produced by the Antiquities Authority. He has no idea how truthful his words are—the excavation of the tunnel represents another step towards Jewish settlements taking a stronghold in East Jerusalem, and can lead to the destruction of any possibility of compromise in the city.