Israel Archaeological Park plans to boost Arab tourism, sell Abraham’s accords

JERUSALEM — Israel has a plan to attract more Emirati tourists, as part of an attempt to cement Israeli-Arab relations after Abraham’s accords normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. But the decision to include a controversial archaeological park in East Jerusalem run by far-right Jewish settlers on the tourist route is fueling tensions in the region and drawing criticism from Israeli and Palestinian experts.

The City of David National Park is one of Israel’s most popular and controversial tourist attractions. It is popular in part because of its location under the walls of the Old City where guides say King David reigned and where key events in Jewish history took place. Supporters of the park, a favorite stopover for right-wing politicians, argue that learning about the history of David and Solomon, important figures in Judaism as well as Islam, will be appealing to Muslim visitors.

“This is history, the foundations of Jerusalem. This is something very meaningful to the Muslim world, ”said Arie Parnis, a freelance guide who worked for the Ir David Foundation, the far-right settler organization that runs the park and is known by the abbreviation Hebrew Elad. “It is the most interesting place in Jerusalem. It all started there. The prophets and the kings were there. The park is part of the itinerary prepared by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for hopeful Emirati and Bahraini tourists.

JERUSALEM — Israel has a plan to attract more Emirati tourists, as part of an attempt to cement Israeli-Arab relations after Abraham’s accords normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. But the decision to include a controversial archaeological park in East Jerusalem run by far-right Jewish settlers on the tourist route is fueling tensions in the region and drawing criticism from Israeli and Palestinian experts.

The City of David National Park is one of Israel’s most popular and controversial tourist attractions. It is popular in part because of its location under the walls of the Old City where guides say King David reigned and where key events in Jewish history took place. Supporters of the park, a favorite stopover for right-wing politicians, argue that learning about the history of David and Solomon, important figures in Judaism as well as Islam, will be appealing to Muslim visitors.

“This is history, the foundations of Jerusalem. This is something very meaningful to the Muslim world, ”said Arie Parnis, a freelance guide who worked for the Ir David Foundation, the far-right settler organization that runs the park and is known by the abbreviation Hebrew Elad. “It is the most interesting place in Jerusalem. It all started there. The prophets and the kings were there. The park is part of the itinerary prepared by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for hopeful Emirati and Bahraini tourists.

The problem, according to many locals and critics, is that the park is more of a vehicle for the expansion of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem than a serious story.

It is “a propaganda site for telling tourists a story that most Israeli archaeologists and historians do not believe.” It is not only the Arabs who will be deceived there, it is everyone who visits, ”said Nazmi Jubeh, historian at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “It’s a site with a very bogus narrative. They kick science’s ass.

Locals say the park provides a justification for making Palestinians strangers in their own city and implicitly justifies their expulsion.

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

For some Palestinians in Wadi Hilweh, if the Emiratis visit the settler park, it will be a betrayal, compounding the hurt many feel in the UAE as relations with Israel normalize. The deal overturned the traditional formula that Arab countries would only normalize their relations with Israel if it ended its occupation of land captured during the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem.

In several areas of East Jerusalem, things now seem particularly bleak for Palestinians. Settlers aim to encroach on an unprecedented scale, according to the peace movement Peace Now. In the Batn al-Hawa neighborhood, a few steps from Wadi Hilweh, 78 Palestinian families face eviction to make way for settlers on the grounds that their properties belonged to Jews more than a century ago, according to Peace Now .

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

The archaeological park did not end up on the Emirates route by chance, said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv and a specialist in 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 settlers’ narrative,” he said.

Israeli archaeologists who challenge the official line have called for the park to be closed or at least removed from the hands of Elad, who they say has distorted an important archaeological site to fit his political agenda.

Rafi Greenberg, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, questioned Elad’s suggestion that one of the structures highlighted during the visit is likely King David’s Palace. “These organizations use archeology to whitewash what they do. The general presentation of the site as an archaeological site aims to make those present appear to be intruders, as something foreign, as an imposition on the site, ”said Greenberg. “It’s a way of making the current inhabitants of the site illegitimate.

Elad’s visits to the City of David appear to promote the idea that Palestinian parts of the city, including Wadi Hilweh, are in fact Jewish. This notion is at odds with the two-state compromise favored by most of the international community, but which Israel rejects, seeing Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided capital”.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, viewing the occupation as liberation. The Israeli military’s resounding victory in the Six Day War sparked nationalist euphoria and a sense of entitlement to biblically sounding Palestinian areas. There is a messianic connotation to the version of history taught on the tour, which is very similar to the narrative spread by the settlers themselves. Part of this has to do with the Jewish Second Temple, which once stood near the end of the modern park tour, but was demolished by the Romans in AD 70 during the Jewish uprising. Some Israelis believe that a third Jewish temple will be built where the third holiest site in Islam is currently located, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And they see the enlarged settlements as part of this process.

Noa Yahav, an 18-year-old guide who organizes the tour as part of her state-supported national service, said the 1967 war was part of the process of “redemption” of the Jewish people, a common belief among ideological settlers who view their own actions as facilitating the advent of a messianic age even today. “Today we are part of the redemption, of the turning around,” she said.

Elad spokesperson Reut Wilf did not answer most questions Foreign police demand. But she released a statement: “Elad is working according to the law in the development of ancient Jerusalem, providing access to millions of visitors – from Israel and around the world – of all faiths and backgrounds. We oppose all efforts of political organizations that cynically use the history and heritage of Jerusalem, one of the most important cities in the world, for political ends.

Neither the UAE Embassy in Tel Aviv nor the UAE Foreign Ministry responded to requests for comment.

The penetration of settlers is not the only reason for Mukhtar’s resentment against Israel. On June 10, 1967, just after Israel took East Jerusalem, Israeli bulldozers destroyed the eight-century-old Mughrabi Arab Quarter in the Old City to create a place for the Western Wall, which would be the perimeter of the Second Temple.

There was one death. Mukhtar’s grandmother, Rasmia Tabaki, a resident of the neighborhood, was dragged half-unconscious from her partially destroyed house and later died, according to the account of Israeli journalist Uzi Benziman. Fifty-four years later, Mukhtar said he felt pressured by settlers and Israeli authorities who now call his street “the ascension of King David” and the entire neighborhood “City of David”. About 500 settlers live among some 6,000 low-income Palestinians in Wadi Hilweh.

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

“They did it by fighting house to house, seizing houses by legal, quasi-legal and clearly illegal means, and they engaged in the displacement of Palestinians to transform [Wadi Hilweh] in what they say is an extension of the Jewish Quarter “of the Old Town, Seidemann said. Elad retorts that all of his actions are legal.

Palestinians say they feel compelled to leave the neighborhood. “I feel like the neighborhood is changing from Arabic to Jewish,” said Hisham Siam, a 63-year-old auto mechanic. “The park and the archeology are part of an attempt to expel the Arabs here so they can say it is the City of David.” Like many residents, he reported cracks in the wall of his house which he said were caused by archaeological tunnels below.

Klein, the Jerusalem scholar at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that for Israel, directing Emirati tourists to the City of David is a way to get Emirati citizens to accept the marginalization of Palestinians in the same way as their government did.

“Normalization has been approved by the UAE and Bahrain although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved,” Klein said. “Israel saw this as an expression of the Arab will to put aside the Palestinian issue. “

Now, Klein said, Israel wants to convey its story of Jerusalem to Emirati tourists. “It’s not just between governments. They want to extend it to the Emirati people, to those who visit. They want to shape the minds of Emirati citizens, ”he said.

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