Israeli-Government-Funded Group Wages Lawfare on Anti-Occupation Activists

Israeli-Government-Funded Group Wages Lawfare on Anti-Occupation Activists

Silwan, a Palestinian village directly across the Kidron Valley, across from the City of David, in which high-profile settler organization Elad may have used suspect methods to acquire land. (Photo: luzer)

In May 2011, the high-profile settler organization Elad sued 15 political activists for distributing what it called libelous leaflets outside of the archaeological site it manages, the “City of David” in East Jerusalem.

Before the 15 activists, Elad also sued the Israeli nonprofit Ir Amim after it released an investigative report that revealed the suspect methods by which Elad acquired land in Silwan, the Palestinian village in which the City of David is located.

And before Ir Amim, it was Emek Shaveh – a group of professional archaeologists who published a critique of Elad's supervision of the archaeological site.

Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, is an ultranationalist Jewish-Israeli organization that, in 1994, became the first and only private organization to maintain an Israeli national park – the City of David, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most contentious, archaeological sites in Israel.

In what ironically but inevitably calls to mind the match between David and Goliath, the powerful Elad utilizes legal warfare against those who might undermine its legitimacy by exposing who it really is and what it is doing.

Elad spokesman Udi Ragones told Israeli media in May that, “We are ready to take this path every time we see someone spreading lies.”

And they mean it: Elad has also filed a suit against a single activist for remarks she made into a bullhorn.

But why does a government-supported organization need to swat at flies with a sledgehammer?

Since Elad was awarded management of the park by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, it has succeeded in transforming what was once a purely archaeological project into what is now primarily a tourist destination that works in tandem with displacing Palestinians and settling Jews in occupied East Jerusalem.

Rafi Greenberg, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Tel Aviv University, worked on the site during the early phases of excavation. According to Greenberg, the former archaeological team had kept the work “strictly academic in conception and execution,” thereby ensuring it escaped the touristy route that had informed the development of other national parks surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem.

Greenberg notes that Elad has excluded all viewpoints that deviate from its official line – that the excavation site is literally where King David's city once thrived. In fact, archaeologists are far from reaching concurrence on this point.

Renowned archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, while supportive of the current archaeological undertakings, insists that no physical evidence from the tenth century BCE – when King David lived – has been unearthed by the project's fieldwork.

Elad's narrow interpretation serves to fortify Jewish proprietary rights to the land. This in turn handily serves Elad's other goal: restoring Jewish residency in the area. In an email interview with Truthout, Greenberg writes, “The results of [the excavations] have been recruited to enhance the presentation of Jewish continuity.”

Tangential to managing the City of David, Elad has actively helped to settle some 350 Jewish families in Silwan. Current estimates reckon Elad has control over 25 percent of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood in Silwan.

Maintaining an Illusion

Elad's ideological and political agenda, however, is deliberately blurred through its marketing and presentation.

“They've been very successful because nobody knows what they are doing; scores of people would come to the City of David, and nobody thought anything was wrong with it,” said Assaf Sharon, one of the Israeli activists who form Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity (SJS),the latest target of Elad's legal offensive.

SJS is a two-years-old movement initiated by a small but growing group of Israeli leftists who are dedicated to equality between Arab and Jews within Israel and the end of the occupation of Palestine.

The City of David's visitors' center is cleverly designed to omit any odor of religious fundamentalism that might turn off the average, apolitical or secular tourist. Lush grape vines adorn the open-air center, while mellifluous music is piped into the lobby, providing the patrons with a pleasant distraction from the dozen security guards manning the entrance.

In addition to guided tours, Elad offers visitors a full menu of ways to explore Jerusalem and its ancient past, from a 3D presentation of the City of David to a “Jerusalem Safari.”

Daytime visitors to the site would not know that the City of David is located in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, where the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem manifests itself most violently. Nightly clashes between Israeli forces and the local population have become a regular occurrence since one of the settlers' security guards shot and killed 32-year-old Samer Sarhan in September 2010. Most families are intimately familiar with arbitrary house raids and arrests. On May 13, 2011, young Milad Ayyash, 17, was slain by, possibly, another security guard in Ras al-Amoud, another neighborhood of Silwan.

Moreover, Silwan has seen an alarming uptick in the arrests and detention of children – some as young as seven years old – on suspicion of stone throwing. Most of the 1,200 children arrested in East Jerusalem in 2010 were from Silwan.

Jawad Siyam, Palestinian activist and director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, said, “For us, Elad's a criminal association. It's a mafia that controls the police and the municipality. They don't accept other opinions – whether it's us or other Israeli organizations.”

Targeting Elad's Tourists

The reality of life for Palestinians in Silwan is slowly coming into public consciousness. Sixty Minutes aired an interview with Elad, and the UK's Guardian recently published six video diaries that document daily life for various East Jerusalem residents.

Nevertheless, Elad's message still dominates the attention of most Jerusalem tourists. Clocking 450,000 visitors last year, Elad's version of history reached an impressive portion of the 3.5 million pilgrims and vacationers who flocked to the holy city in 2010.

Passover, which fell on April 18 in 2011, is one of the biggest days for Jerusalem, and specifically, the City of David; this year, the site attracted 8,000 people on Passover weekend alone.

With this in mind, SJS decided to target the City of David's greatest asset: tourists. “We wanted to politicize it because they have been so good at depoliticizing the park; we wanted to tell the story that tourists don't hear,” said Sharon.

So, the group devised a two-pronged strategy that Hillel Ben Sasson, the media coordinator for SJS, said was aimed at, “lifting the veil of ignorance that hangs over the hundreds of thousands of tourists that frequent the City of David.”

A few days before Passover, members of SJS sent a complaint to the popular travel guide, Lonely Planet, because its presentation of the City of David omits any acknowledgement of the controversy that surrounds the archaeological park.

Additionally, SJS drew up the flyer, “5 Facts about the City of David you might not hear from your tour guide” to pass out to the buses of tourists filing into the park. The leaflet discusses Elad's agenda and the bedeviling impact it has on Silwan.

On the first day SJS began distributing the flyer, the Jerusalem police promptly arrived and began monitoring the activists, taking their pictures and writing down their identification numbers.

A month later, 15 of the activists from the day's demonstration were served notification of the lawsuit
by Elad, which seeks 500,000 new Israeli shekels, or NIS, (around $143,000 USD) in damages.

Sharon said he recalls seeing the police write down the names of the activists and give them to the settler security guards. While Ben Sasson said he did not see as much, he remarked on the apparent collaboration between Elad and the Jerusalem police: “We find it hard to understand how [Elad] received our names any other way.”

The lawsuit revolves around one allegation: Elad claims that the SJS activists falsely impute the actions of the private security guards to Elad.

Israel's Ministry of Construction and Housing pays for the security guards (allotting a total of 54 Million NIS in 2010 to the security firm Modi'in Ezrahi). In Elad's eyes, that means the security guards' actions cannot be pinned on them.

Ben Sasson explains that SJS, in fact, does not make such an assertion. However, he nevertheless argues that even if Elad does not officially employ the guards, they unofficially instruct them.

Despite the mounting legal costs for the entirely volunteer-run group, SJS will argue its case in court, as both Ir Amim and Emek Shaveh (and the others) are doing. As of yet, the Israeli courts have not reached a verdict on any of Elad's libel claims.

“We are confident of the truth of what we said, and we would like to use the opportunity to go to court to open up these issues regarding Elad,” Ben Sasson said.

Elad is still powerful. Nevertheless, it's unclear whether the slew of lawsuits is a display of its muscle or an indication of its fear.

Yonatin Mizrahi, an archaeologist from Emek Shaveh, told Truthout that Elad's reputation has become increasingly tarnished in the last few years. “I must tell you, since we have been involved, more organizations since 2007 have joined, and the issues of Elad have become much more known in the public. For them, this is a problem.”

So, while Goliath may not be ready to fall, the Davids it faces appear to be growing in strength and number. Apparently, they are capturing the attention and concern of the mighty one and putting him on the defensive.