Palestinian neighborhoods of Silwan and the Mount of Olives above


Lior Mizrahi via Getty Images

Feature Story

Israeli Government Pumping Millions into Rebranding the Holy Basin, Erasing Palestinian Heritage


In December 2023, the Israeli government finalized a multi-million dollar allocation for a project that will further Judaize the so-called Holy Basin of Jerusalem—the Old City and the mostly Palestinian areas around it.

In December 2023, the Israeli government finalized the allocation of NIS 72 million ($19 million) for the “Jerusalem and Heritage” program, which experts say seeks to rebrand Jerusalem as a Judeo-centric historical site, erasing the city’s multicultural and especially Palestinian heritage.1

The approved budget includes:

  • NIS 33 million ($8.8 million) for a project entitled “Strengthening and Branding of Jerusalem’s Historical Basin”2
  • NIS 16 million ($4.25 million) for Shalem Plan C, focusing on archaeological endeavors in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan just south of the Old City
  • NIS 5 million ($1.45 million) to upgrade tourism infrastructure in the Western Wall plaza3
The center of Silwan with the Old City visible at the top

A view of the center of Silwan, the expansive and congested Palestinian neighborhood just south of the Old City, December 10, 2022. The Dome of Rock and Old City wall are visible at the top of the photo.


Hagai Agmon Snir via Wikipedia

But these projects are not new; they are budgetary additions to an ongoing, long-term project in the Old City and the largely Palestinian areas surrounding it, including Silwan and the Mount of Olives, in which over NIS 1 billion has already been invested. Many of these projects, coordinated by the Development Authority, are spearheaded and funded by right-wing settler organizations like Elad and Ateret Cohanim that facilitate the appropriation of Palestinian properties, thereby expelling Palestinian residents in an effort to replace them with Jewish settlers. Aviv Tatarsky, researcher at Jerusalem-focused nonprofit Ir Amim, described the recent government allocation as “a codename for all of the Elad projects in the area of Silwan . . . how to turn Silwan from a Palestinian neighborhood to an Israeli settlement.”4 Elad, also known as the City of David Foundation, is an Israeli settler organization that uses archaeology and archaeological/biblical tourism as a tool for Palestinian displacement and erasure.

Feature Story Israel’s Disneyfication of Jerusalem Seeks to Erase Palestinians’ Historic Presence

Israel’s tourist projects ringing Jerusalem’s Old City threaten to diminish the area and transform it into a Disneyfied tourist space serving Jews and their narrative.

Israeli security outpost and archaeological field office set up in Silwan

An Israeli security outpost and archaeological field office, pictured here in December 2023, was built without necessary permits for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The structure is located between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Wadi Hilweh and al-Bustan in Silwan, a few meters away from an Elad and IAA excavation site for the Pool of Siloam, a project which resulted in the eviction of the Palestinian Sumarin family from their land.


Emek Shaveh

“It’s not based only on a takeover of homes and bringing in settlers,” Tatarsky explained, “but very much on . . . taking over public space and using it for so-called Jewish heritage projects.”

Jerusalem’s Holy Basin

The term Holy Basin was coined in 2000 during the Camp David II Accords by Israeli negotiators seeking to separate Jerusalem’s holy sites from the rest of the city. In practice, this has translated into increased Israeli control over Palestinian land in Jerusalem under the guise of actualizing the city’s biblical landscape. 

Daniel Seidemann, executive director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli nonprofit tracking political developments in Jerusalem, explained that the Holy Basin is the target area of right-wing extremist settlers.

“These are areas that the settlers view, more often than not correctly, as places that resonate with biblical history,” Seidemann said.5 “What this amounts to . . . [is putting] the public domain under the authority of the Government of Israel, but almost always by means of its proxies, such as Elad.”

The budgetary language for the “Jerusalem and Heritage” program is vague and lacks transparency, making it difficult to track the money. In the past, this money has gone to fund projects including the excavation work that allegedly uncovered a first-century Roman stepped street named the “Pilgrim Road,” as well as a network of ancient pools, the Pool of Siloam, that were then connected to the Western Wall via a tunnel. All of these projects lie underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh in Silwan. Elad, in collaboration with the IAA, is carrying out the excavations.6

Elad is also developing a seven-story visitors’ center, the Kedem Compound, which will stand at Silwan’s entrance and serve as the final stop of a cable car being planned since 2011. The cable car would traverse the Old City and above Silwan residents’ homes.

In addition to the cable car, which is meant to give the illusion of continuity between Jewish West Jerusalem and occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, other similar endeavors include a suspension bridge and zipline hovering over the Wadi Rababa neighborhood of Silwan, the neighborhood closest to West Jerusalem.

The cable car, bridge, and zip line all share a common feature: They would enable tourists to cross the city far above the densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods below, rendering them "out of sight, out of mind."

Cable car route over Palestinian homes in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan, in East Jerusalem
Feature Story Controversial Cable Car Project Sparks Outcry as City Orders Land Expropriation from Silwan Residents

The city notifies Silwan residents of its planned confiscation of private lands as cable car project gets underway.

New suspension bridge completed over Wadi Rababa

The first leg of the new suspension bridge, part of several Elad-sponsored projects, was completed and opened to the public in July 2023. It is pictured here on May 28, 2023, with pedestrians crossing directly over Wadi Rababa, a Palestinian neighborhood in Silwan.


Mays Shkerat for Jerusalem Story 

Tatarsky explained that these projects are “intended to connect those touristic settlement compounds to West Jerusalem, to integrate them into West Jerusalem,” so that Israelis and tourists “feel like it’s a normal part of West Jerusalem, an Israeli area and territory.” But these projects come at the expense of the Palestinians living in these areas.

“This is a plan that fragments Palestinian East Jerusalem and its neighborhoods,” Seidemann explained. “It fragments it geographically, socially, culturally, and economically.”

“This is a plan that fragments Palestinian East Jerusalem and its neighborhoods.”

Daniel Seidemann, Executive Director of Terrestrial Jerusalem

In addition to fragmenting Palestinian spaces in Jerusalem, Palestinians are excluded from playing any role in the projects that upend their lives. Alon Arad, executive director of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to counter the politicization of archaeology in Jerusalem, explained that extremist settler organizations determine the fate of any given Palestinian neighborhood if it is found to be a biblical site. “But why aren’t the Palestinians the ones managing this space? It’s their neighborhood. They should be able to enjoy it and decide if they want to open it to the public.”7

Restricting Palestinians and Erasing Their Heritage

According to Silwan spokesperson Fakhri Abu Diab, the ongoing excavations under Silwan have affected more than 122 Palestinian homes,8 with residents reporting structural damage like large cracks and sunken floors.9 The excavation work has also closed down roads in Silwan, with Elad guards patrolling the area, according to Abu Diab.

Israeli excavation and construction in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, Jerusalem

A new Israeli excavation and construction site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan just south of the Old City, December 6, 2023, amid the war on Gaza


Spencer Platt via Getty Images

“When we approach the municipal courts,” Abu Diab said, “instead of them ruling to stop the excavations, they rule that these houses are now dangerous and unlivable in the current conditions, encouraging people to leave their houses.” Abu Diab elaborated that residents refuse to leave their homes, because they know they will then be taken over by settlers.10

Beyond the damage, Silwan residents have been excluded from any involvement in or ownership over the archaeological discoveries, another way in which they are denied autonomy over their land.

“We have asked repeatedly for independent committees to examine and understand what’s happening in these tunnels and these excavations as locals, but we haven’t received any response,” Abu Diab said.

Abu Diab explained that many of the projects initiated by the Jerusalem Municipality and settler organizations in Silwan, including parks, playgrounds, and streets, are situated on privately owned Palestinian land. However, the Palestinian residents are subsequently banned from entering these spaces once they are completed, and no compensation is given to the landowners. “Even UNESCO is banned from entering these excavation sites,” he added.

“For example, an area between al-Bustan and Wadi Hilweh in Silwan had a nursery, a clinic, and a mosque,” Abu Diab explained. “The municipality and the settler organization closed the road under the pretext that they were doing repairs for a maximum of 180 days—6 months—but the street has been closed for more than 10 years. There are many projects like these.”

The settler-led projects in Silwan are meant to transform Jerusalem from a city known for its multicultural and multireligious character to one seen as strictly Israeli and Jewish. Abu Diab said that organizations like Elad “try to attribute all of history” to their ideologies, which means they only dig up evidence to tell a certain story, despite the land telling many. 

Seidemann explained that Jerusalem’s Christian presence is also threatened by the new program. Plans are underway to expand an existing national park that would include the Mount of Olives, home to a number of Christian sites, and place it under the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.11

“That means what we’re witnessing here—and there’s a good deal of protest over it—is not only the fragmentation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, it is the marginalization or dilution of the city’s Christian presence and Christian sites,” Seidemann said. “The biblical ideologies of the settler organizations are being carved into the landscape.”

In addition to fragmenting Palestinian spaces in Jerusalem, Palestinians are excluded from playing any role in the projects that upend their lives.

“What we’re witnessing . . . is not only the fragmentation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, it is the marginalization or dilution of the city’s Christian presence and Christian sites.”

Daniel Seidemann, Executive Director of Terrestrial Jerusalem

Abu Diab described the recent budget allocations as part of “continuous attempts to impose a history and a culture on us Palestinians that doesn’t look like our history, that doesn’t look like our heritage and civilization.”

As Elad presses forward with cultivating Jewish heritage in Jerusalem, Abu Diab elaborated how street names in Silwan, including the one he lives on, have been changed from Arabic to Hebrew. Israeli authorities have also shuttered more than 36 Palestinians clubs and organizations, including one where Abu Diab used to work, just for promoting Palestinian heritage.12

Since the October 7 war, demolition orders have increased massively in Silwan, Abu Diab elaborated, including self-demolition orders under the force of police. “I don’t have the exact figures, but I know that demolition orders have increased at least by twice the amount since the war.” Throughout 2023, he went on, “185 demolitions were carried out across all of East Jerusalem, with most taking place in Silwan—54 demolitions. And since the war, about 13 demolition incidents occurred in Silwan, either by municipality bulldozers or municipality-ordered self-demolition.”

Israeli authorities demolish a Palestinian home in Silwan during the 2023 war on Gaza.

Israeli authorities demolish the home of Hayri Alkam, a Palestinian resident of Silwan just south of the Old City, during a raid of the neighborhood on November 15, 2023, amid the 2023 war on Gaza. They planted explosives to bring down the structure in the densely populated, congested neighborhood.


Mostafa Alkharouf via Getty images

Even something as technical as a budget approval thereby carries a deeper connotation.13

“We are being banned and prevented from showing our identity, our culture, and our real history, even though we pay taxes to the municipality,” Abu Diab said. “It’s a matter of politics. Israel is trying to change the demography of Silwan.”

“Israel is trying to change the demography of Silwan.”

Fakhri Abu Diab



Settlement & Annexation Report: January 12, 2024,” Foundation for Middle East Peace, January 12, 2024.


Both “Holy Basin” and “Historical Basin” are used in Israeli discourse, though this piece uses the former.


Implementation of Coalition Agreements in Fiscal Year 2023—Amendment of Government Decisions” [in Hebrew], Prime Minister’s Office, November 27, 2023.


Interview by the author, January 25, 2024. All subsequent quotes by Aviv Tatarsky are from this interview.


Interview by the author, January 25, 2024. All subsequent quotes by Daniel Seidemann are from this interview. 


Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim, and Peace Now, “Wartime Developments in Old City Basin Carry Grave Implications for Palestinian Rights and the Political Future of Jerusalem,” Emek Shaveh, December 20, 2023.


Interview by the author, January 28, 2024.


Interview by the author, January 28, 2024.


Times of Israel Staff, “Archaeologists Briefly Pause Jerusalem Dig in Fear of Damage to Ancient Road,” Times of Israel, June 16, 2020.


Interview by the author, January 28, 2024. All subsequent quotes from Fakhri Abu Diab are from this interview.


Judith Sudilovsky, “The New National Park Threatening Jerusalem’s Christian Community,” +972 Magazine, January 23, 2023.


Data shared by Fakhri Abu Diab during an interview by the author, January 28, 2024.


Based on an interview conducted with Fakhri Abu Diab by the author, January 28, 2024.

Load More Load Less