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A quest to recreate Davidic Jerusalem carves a valley of shadow Palestinians

Backed by the state, the Ir David Foundation’s activities in the Hinnom Valley are expanding into Arab olive groves to chisel out a view of history driven by ideology, critics say

The educational farm in the Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem. (Nurit Malkin/Zman Yisrael)
The educational farm in the Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem. (Nurit Malkin/Zman Yisrael)

One of Jerusalem’s newest attractions is an educational farm where visitors can learn about traditional agriculture. Guests to the site, on land controlled by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), can walk amid the farm’s newly built terraces nestled into the Hinnom Valley, checking out models of early irrigation systems, a winepress, and a stone mechanism used for squeezing oil out of olives.

Many of the olive groves, however, that dapple the valley just south of Mount Zion and the Old City are not part of the fenced-off farm. Rather, they are cultivated by Palestinian families from the adjacent neighborhoods of Abu Tor and Silwan. Critics say the landscape the families have been tending for generations is being replaced by a right-wing Jewish version of the very agricultural traditions they practice.

“The infuriating thing about what’s happening in the Hinnom Valley is that in the name of development that masquerades as an ancient agricultural landscape, they are displacing the traditional Palestinian agriculture that has preserved the historic character of the place,” said Uri Ehrlich, spokesperson for the left-wing Emek Shaveh organization, which campaigns against the politicization of ancient sites.

The farm was opened in August by the INPA, together with the Ir David (City of David) Foundation, a right-wing organization  — called Elad in Hebrew — accused of attempting to “Judaize” the ultra-sensitive Holy Basin outside the Old City.

The nonprofit operates the City of David archaeological site and other state properties with an overt Jewish nationalist bent, and settles Jewish families in the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

At a recent festival at the farm to celebrate its opening, guides held workshops on ancient crafts like perfume-making, stone-carving, and weaving, amid a surfeit of biblical allusions. Barefoot children stomped on grapes, and others took photos in faux biblical garb. Security guards stood sentinel.

Visitors to an educational farm at the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem, dressing up in biblical garb. (Nurit Malkin/ Zman Yisrael)

Down in the valley, much of which is part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park, INPA workers and some who identified themselves as belonging to the Ir David Foundation were laying paths, building low walls to support new terrace agriculture, and planting trees with drip irrigation systems.

The Palestinian homes on either side of the valley were just another part of the surrounding scenery.

How green was my valley

In 1974, Israel declared the area around the walls of the Old City a national park. The demarcation included the Hinnom Valley, also sometimes called the Ben Hinnom Valley, which had been under partial Jordanian control until 1967. The area, credited with inspiring some Christian conceptions of Hell, is known to Christians as “Gehenna,” a place of burning, and in the Jewish Bible, it is identified as a place of cultic child sacrifice by fire.

The national park status did not change the original ownership of the land, but imposed various restrictions on it where building is concerned. The INPA says that it may carry out development-related work anywhere in the Hinnom Valley in order to preserve the area ​​and make it accessible to visitors.

A 2009 report on the park prepared for the INPA described the Hinnom Valley as “an area without any traditional ownership, presenting an attraction for hazards.”

Old olive trees grow in the Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem. (Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The INPA still sees the land in the same way. “Unfortunately, many areas in the east of the city, such as the Hinnom Valley area, have become waste sites that have suffered from arson every summer, to this day,” it said in a statement to The Times of Israel recently. “The INPA sees it as a duty to rehabilitate damaged areas and develop them for the benefit of visitors and the residents of the area.”

But Palestinians say the hillsides below the Old City and Abu Tor are not untamed or unclaimed.

“We are the landowners and we clean up this land and pick the olives that are here every year,” said Ahmed Somrin, whose family owns property in Abu Tor and Silwan.

Somrin claims that tracts of land on both sides of the road running through the glen down to where it meets Silwan and the Kidron Valley have been farmed by his family going back generations. But now one of the plots on a slope below Abu Tor has been subject to a so-called landscaping order.

A map created by left-leaning NGO Peace Now showing the status of properties in Hinnom Valley. The Green areas are under a Jerusalem municipal temporary landscaping order, orange areas are under the custodianship for absentee Palestinian property, the red and yellow areas are a former potter’s field.

As the INPA itself acknowledges, it must obtain consent before working on private property. But proving ownership is usually complicated in East Jerusalem because the land there is not catalogued in the official land registry.

To circumvent the Pandora’s box of ownership issues, the INPA has been using ordinances that allow local governments to temporarily landscape or tend land deemed “empty.”

Landowners are prohibited from interfering with the “temporary gardening,” though they may go to court to appeal changes made to their land. The orders are good for five years, but can be extended.

Whether the valley is really empty and the works being carried out by the INPA and Ir David Foundation are indeed temporary depends on whom you ask.

The Hinnom Valley, seen from Mount Zion, Jerusalem on November 14, 2005. (Joe Freeman, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

A visit to Somrin’s olive grove shows that the land is well maintained, even if dried out and scorched yellow by the burning sun.

Olive trees do not need frequent visits by their owners to tend them. They are irrigated by the rain and produce fruit in the fall. When the rains stop falling in late spring, the shrubland swiftly dries out and loses its verdant vibrancy, though the trees are remain productive.

But a court that heard an appeal by several landowners against landscaping orders took the INPA’s side and ruled that even if some plots were well kept, most of the areas subject to the landscaping order nevertheless suffered from accumulated garbage and weeds.

Edible plants grow in part of an educational farm in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. (Nurit Malkin/Zman Yisrael)

After an appeal, the court ruled that the INPA could not prune any of the olive trees, but that it could enter the land to clean it up as a fire-prevention measure.

While land officially zoned for agriculture is exempt from the so-called temporary gardening orders, no tracts in the Hinnom Valley have any such designation, which means that they, along with the rest of the valley, are potentially subject to the attempts of the INPA and Ir David to recreate biblical history.

“This area, in the Old City Basin, is the most sensitive in Jerusalem, historically and scenically. It must not be changed, but rather preserved as much as possible in its existing format,” said Israel Kimche, an urban planner and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “All previous plans, from the time of the British Mandate to the last outline plan for the city, unequivocally determined limits to development in this area and the need to preserve it. It would be right to follow these guidelines to the letter.”

Part of a new wall built to support a new terrace with drip-irrigated trees in the Hinnom Valley beneath Jerusalem’s Old City walls. (Emek Shaveh)

The Jerusalem Municipality refused to provide details about the landscaping orders issued in the Hinnom Valley. Instead, it touted the “unprecedented development” taking place in the Hinnom Valley. It said everything was taking place “in accordance with the required approvals and approved plans.”

On the basis of the court decision, the INPA recently entered Somrin’s property beneath Abu Tor, breaking through a wall to do so.

The INPA broke a wall to gain access to Ahmad Somrin’s olive grove. (Ahmad Somrin)

On the other side of the valley road, close to where the Somrin family also grows olive trees, landscaping orders were not needed. There, more extensive and apparently permanent work has been carried out, including new terraces supported by new walls decorated with niches whose function is not immediately clear. The work was done with the approval of the Custodian of Absentee Property, a government department that regulates the treatment of absentee Palestinians’ property, though there is also an appeal pending.

“The Nature and Parks Authority built walls there and turned over the earth and put down red dirt and planted centuries-old trees from who knows where,” Somrin said. “They want to change the face of it to make it look not like Arab land but like Jewish nature.”

Recently a fence was put up around the farm, complete with a gate that can be shut.

While the educational farm’s land is mainly owned by the Israel Lands Administration, the fenced off area extends into private Palestinian property, which can restrict access when the farm is closed.

The INPA rejected Emek Shaveh’s claim that the fence and gate were put up without building permits. The parks authority said it consulted with the competent authorities at the Jerusalem Municipality, and added that the facility is open to all, without exception, subject to a security check.

A fence erected around the educational farm in the Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem. (Emek Shaveh)

“The farm is open to all,” the authority said in a statement. “We meet the locals from Abu Tor and Silwan and get praise from them for turning a neglected and uninviting area into a pleasant and well-kept place.”

The fencing, it added, was necessary “for safety and security.” The farm would be opened up for the owners on request, it said.

It insisted that all of its activities were backed by the law and relevant court rulings.

“The INPA is a professional body. The heritage areas in the Old City Basin are of first-rate national and international importance. The INPA respects the rights of landowners and has not expropriated any part of the entire area,” it said in a statement.

It did not respond to a request for comment on the breaking of Ahmad Somrin’s wall.

David’s conquests

The Hinnom Valley is only the latest area within the Holy Basin to come under control of the Ir David Foundation, with the help of state authorities, among them the INPA.

The parks authority awarded the contract to Ir David to develop the farm without going through a bidding process, exempting it on the basis of rules which allow joint ventures without a tender in fields such as education, culture, and religion.

The INPA said that it did advertise the project, though the rules only required it to do so on its own website for two weeks. It noted that all of its activities related to the Ir David Foundation were carried out in accordance with the law.

Other INPA projects run by Ir David include the City of David archaeological site just outside of the Old City’s Dung Gate, which includes Warren’s Shaft, part of a Bronze Age water system; educational excavations on Mount Zion; and the archeological dirt sifting project on the slopes of Mount Scopus.

Then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) speaks during the opening of an ancient road at the City of David archaeological and tourist site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, in east Jerusalem on June 30, 2019. (Tsafrir Abayov/AFP)

Between the City of David site and the Dung Gate, over an archaeological dig beneath the former Givati parking lot, Ir David and the INPA are planning on building a four-story, 172,000-square-foot visitors’ center to be known as the Kedem complex. Among other things, the center will host the terminus of a controversial cable car designed to whisk visitors from the First Station food and entertainment complex in Talbiya over the Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion and then on to the Old City. Plans are in place to string a rope bridge across the valley, connecting the building to Mount Zion on its northern side.

On the southern side of the Hinnom Valley, Ir David has opened an event hall for weddings and other functions. Advertising for Beit BaGay (the House in the Valley) places it “adjacent to City of David National Park, which is adjacent to the Western Wall,” with no mention of the fact that the building is steps away from Palestinian homes in Abu Tor.

Ir David is also active further south, where it is slated to operate another visitors center, being built on the Haas Promenade near the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The organization already controls access to a Hasmonean aqueduct close by.

An Israeli security guard (background) looks away as a Jewish resident sits on the roof of Beit Yonatan, a building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, February 8, 2010. (Flash90/Kobi Gideon/File)

Inside the neighborhood of Silwan abutting the City of David site, the foundation is one of a number of groups that have obtained homes to settle dozens of Jewish families, who live under heavy security among their Palestinian neighbors.

A statement from the Friends of Ir David rejected any notion that “the acquisition of land in Jerusalem — the capital of the State of Israel — by Jews is in any way inappropriate.” Nobody would argue that Muslims and Christians should not be allowed to obtain land in Jerusalem, it said.

Valley of the dollars

Critics have noted that the INPA appears to be steering sites of key national importance into the hands of Ir David, despite the organization’s overt political bent, allowing it to control the narrative and purge contesting viewpoints.

“All the work carried out by bodies with a clear political hue and the desire to Judaize the area at all costs [is] undesirable to say the least,” said Kimche, the urban planner. “This is not just my personal opinion, it is shared by many architects and planners who fear for the future of this sensitive area.”

A 2016 state comptroller’s report detailed the way many important archaeological sites in Jerusalem were subcontracted to the foundation without tenders, and rapped the INPA and the Israel Lands Authority, among others, for having inadequate oversight over how the areas were being run after they were effectively handed over.

Relevant documents show that the INPA invests NIS 100,000 ($31,000) annually in the Hinnom Valley farm project alone, a pittance compared to the amount the Ir David Foundation is pumping in: as much as NIS 5 million (more than $1.5 million).

The City of David Foundation’s symbol on the gate of an educational farm in the Hinnom Valley below Jerusalem’s Old City. (Emek Shaveh)

Most of the foundation’s money comes from abroad, specifically the Friends of Ir David Foundation, registered in New York. In 2019, the American fundraising arm transferred nearly $30 million to the Israeli organization, a fairly large sum for an Israeli non-profit, given that it is neither a hospital or university.

Tax filings for 2019 show that it received $15 million from a single donor, while there were five others donations of $500,000 to $1.5 million.

Under Israeli law, sources of large donations must be disclosed, but because Friends of Ir David is registered in the US as a 501(c)(3) charity, it is exempt from disclosing who its donors are under US law, meaning the foundation is operating public heritage sites with money from sources largely unknown to the Israeli public.

Separate tax documents reveal the names of at least some of the donors or charitable trusts that supported the Ir David Foundation in 2019 through its US fundraising arm. They include late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, who gave $3,333,334, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, who donated $3 million, and dozens of others who gave smaller contributions, from a slew of Jewish federations to late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and his wife Jean.

The board of Friends of Ir David is tasked with making sure that the money given to the Israeli mothership is used for the purposes intended by donors and in accordance with US guidelines for charitable giving; in its tax filings the organization’s board lays out a detailed plan for doing so, from demanding that grantees open their books to personally checking on the progress of projects.

In the case of Ir David, this oversight essentially amounts to the fox guarding the henhouse: two members of the seven-person board are actually the grantees receiving the money — David Be’eri, who directs the  Ir David Foundation in Israel, and Yehuda Maly, another leader of the organization.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, then education minister, with Ir David Foundation head David Be’eri during the Israel prize ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem, May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

In the UK, where another fundraising arm operates with smaller reported donations, Be’eri and Maly made up two-thirds of the board until July, when Be’eri resigned and was replaced by Ir David Foundation vice president Doron Spielman and another person.

In a statement, the Friends of Ir David said that its donors were fully informed of how their money was being used and called itself “one of the best examples of proper governance of a non-profit.”

“Friend of Ir David strictly complies with US tax rules, through our board of directors and the proper procedures we carry out. Our successful works for some 21 years are the best proof of our healthy business practices,” it said.

The Ir David Foundation said in a statement that the “generous donations” from its foreign fundraising bodies are legally reported, and have helped rehabilitate the area.

“An area that has suffered from neglect and deprivation for years has in recent years benefited from government, municipal, and private investments,” it said. “The hills below Mount Zion that were desolate are turning green and agricultural land is yielding its fruits.”

This article is based on an original in Hebrew published by The Times of Israel’s sister paper, Zman Israel.

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