Conservation architect warns of imminent demise of Jerusalem’s Old City

Sunday 14/08/2016
The hall dug up by Israeli authorities below the Muslim quarter in the old city of Jerusalem.

London - It may be too late to preserve Jerusalem’s cultural heritage and social fabric, which is being systematically endangered by Israel’s underground excava­tions and international apathy, said Shadia Touqan, director of the Old City of Jerusalem Revitalisation Pro­gramme (OCJRP).

“There is an (Israeli) occupation above ground and underground” is the message that Touqan conveyed during a presentation, Conflict City Jerusalem, in London’s Mosaic Rooms, reminding the audience of the importance of architectural and cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem. It has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1981 and on its list of endangered heritage since 1982.

Touqan decried what she de­scribed as “extensive excavations” by Israeli authorities to create a subterranean Jewish city under the Old City and particularly the Haram al‑Sharif compound in defiance of international laws and conventions.

“One of the tunnels recently ex­cavated is 700 metres long and 7.5 metres wide. The Israeli Antiquities Authorities is digging a metro-size tunnel from the south of the Old City and Haram al‑Sharif in the middle of Silwan to the Buraq wall of al-Aqsa. The underground city consists of lecture halls, prayer halls, libraries and meeting spaces,” said Touqan, an architect and conservationist.

Excavations around and under Haram al‑Sharif began more than 100 years ago by British and Jewish archaeologists. They were restarted in earnest after the Israeli occupa­tion of the city in 1967. The prac­tice continues until today, she said, supporting her lecture with slides showing maps and photos of Israeli actions.

Touqan emphasised that the construction of the subterranean city had been well documented since the 1990s, including by Israeli sources. The foundations and struc­tural stability of the buildings above ground have been weakened and se­vere cracks have appeared on walls and ceilings. In the Haram al‑Sharif compound, trees are falling and res­idents of the Old City report hearing digging noises under their houses throughout the night.

“This is the slow death of the city of Jerusalem and it will be unfor­givable if it is allowed to continue without any political will to inter­vene and prevent further damage,” Touqan said.

She complained that the inter­national community was so over­whelmed by conflicts and turmoil in the region that it was paying little attention to what was going on in Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian community in East Jerusalem lives in fear of be­ing kicked out and dread that their Israeli-issued ID (which allows them residency in the city) will be confis­cated for any reason to reduce the number of Palestinians residents, as the occupation authorities aim to create a demographic advantage of Israeli citizens,” Touqan warned.

When the separation wall was built isolating Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, many Pales­tinians found their houses were on the wrong side of the wall, which would affect their access to Jerusa­lem. Consequently, many moved into the Old City even though it often meant sharing a room with seven or eight people. As a result, there was a sharp increase in the population of the Old City to 40,000 residents in an area of 870,000 sq. metres.

The Old City of Jerusalem Revi­talisation Programme, directed by Touqan since 1997, has rehabilitated and restored 700 houses from 1994 when it was launched by the Wel­fare Association (WA), an independ­ent non-profit organisation. It was established in 1983 by Palestinian businessmen and intellectual fig­ures to provide development assis­tance to Palestinians.

In 2007, a programme was devel­oped to establish an Institute for Heritage Preservation in partner­ship with UNESCO, under which international experts would provide training for local professionals, in­cluding architects, engineers and contractors, in the field of conserva­tion.

Touqan said Jerusalem was a city for all humanity and its preservation is an international responsibility.

“The international community does not have the luxury of keeping quiet about the ethnic and cultural cleansing that has been going for decades of usurpation and uproot­ing,” she said, calling for the crea­tion of an international professional committee that has the support and backing of the international com­munity and relevant organisations in heritage preservation.

“This committee should regu­larly examine the state of conser­vation in the Old City according to international laws and conventions for World Heritage sites and moni­tor the actions that are carried out above and below ground to stop any further damage to this most valu­able holy city — the city for all hu­manity,” Touqan said.