Digging Into Jerusalem

Daniel Luria likes to refer to himself as a "holy real-estate agent." As a fund-raiser for Israel's right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization, he considers it his mission to persuade Jews to settle in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. As he walks with a NEWSWEEK reporter through the Muslim quarter of the Old City, he turns a corner and the glittering gold Dome of the Rock rises into view. "This is a drawcard street," he says, gesturing down the corridor. "It's always a winner." He stops at a bustling, Jewish-owned construction site just steps from the Islamic prayer house, peers past a coil of barbed wire, and points to a dark cavity below the building's floor. Underneath, he explains, archeologists hired by the owner have unearthed stretches of a late-Roman street and parts of an Ottoman bathhouse. "If you can expose your roots, why shouldn't you go down to the bedrock?" he asks. "From a Jewish ideological perspective, it's a must."

In the apartment next door, however, Fatma Asala doesn't share Luria's enthusiasm for archeology. The 33-year-old Muslim schoolteacher points to a web of cracks in her bedroom ceiling and complains that the rumble of the compressors next door shakes the whole house. Sometimes, she insists, it sounds as if the clang and whirr of the power tools is coming from directly beneath her floor. Occasionally she wakes up and finds her face covered with a thin layer of concrete dust and flecks of white paint that have fallen from her ceiling. (She calls it her "morning makeup.") For now, she explains, the excavation is a mere inconvenience. Yet she knows from experience that even a perceived threat to the nearby holy sites can ignite riots among the young Muslim men in her neighborhood, as it did in 2000 when Ariel Sharon's visit played a key role in touching off the second intifada. If the excavation continues, she predicts, "I expect shooting. I expect a real war."

A conflict in the Old City is the last thing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needs right now. For the first time since the failure of the Camp David plan to divide Jerusalem in 2000, policymakers have begun to talk seriously again about a compromise on the city, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. Last month Haim Ramon, a close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, floated the notion that a division of the city might be possible —a concession that was once unmentionable in the Jewish state. Yet even as Rice, Olmert and Arab leaders talk in Annapolis, Maryland, Jerusalem's potentially destabilizing excavation boom goes on. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), there are roughly twice as many digs in and around the Old City as there were two years ago, including at least three adjacent to the holy sites. "Archeology is being turned into a bastardized ideological tool of national struggle, and the timing could not be worse," says Jerusalem rights lawyer Danny Seidemann. "This is precisely the kind of thing that causes Jerusalem to ignite."

Archeology has long been a key battleground for two peoples searching for ammunition in a war of national narratives. Yet as the city expands, it has also become a commercial imperative. Most new building projects in or near the Old City require a "salvage excavation" to ensure that construction work won't damage buried artifacts. New owners, in some cases right-wing trusts linked to Ateret Cohanim and other settler organizations, can choose to hire archeologists from the IAA to complete the actual dig. "In the last year there's been a huge amount of work around the Old City," says Jon Seligman, the IAA's Jerusalem regional archeologist, who adds that the proliferation of digs is the result of "a series of projects that reached fruition at the same time." Seidemann speculates that the archeology boom might be the result of a concerted effort by Israeli ideologues to tighten their hold on the city and its history. "They're using archeology, parks and government authority to establish their particular brand of hegemony in and around the Old City," he says.

Israeli hawks are unapologetic about the new digs. "Every time you put a shovel in the ground, you discover another synagogue," says former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes dividing Jerusalem. "Archeological truths are uncomfortable, like other truths." Yet even some archeologists are concerned that all the new "salvage operations" risk politicizing the science. Prominent Israeli archeologist Shimon Gibson says that there has been only one excavation that had "academic motives" in the past 20 years. "Clearly, there's a lot of money going into these excavations that comes from Jewish sources," Gibson says. "Perhaps the time has come to put a hold on these salvage operations and their dubious funding."

Other archeologists argue that some Muslim-controlled digs are just as problematic. Eilat Mazar, of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, complains that a new dig by the Islamic Waqf, which manages the site of the Dome of the Rock, risks damaging relics on what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. She bemoans the fact that heavy equipment like tractors was used in the recent dig. "I'm really astonished at their stupidity," she says. For their part, the site's custodians refuse to even consider the criticisms of Israeli archeologists. "This is a mosque," says Yussef Natsheh, an art historian whose Old City office is adjacent to the dome. "Archeological laws do not apply to our site." Among God's real-estate agents, it seems, there is no monopoly on self-righteousness.