The establishment of national parks in East Jerusalem may sound like a nice idea that fosters the preservation of natural reserves – but in reality, it is a crafty method the Israeli government and its institutions have found to keep East Jerusalem under Israeli control and prohibit Palestinian territorial contiguity, rights and independence.
By Zvi Benninga
Since 1967, the overarching objective of the state of Israel regarding Jerusalem has been to secure it as a Jewish city. The borders of the city, which demarcate an area a bit bigger than the city of Paris, were drawn in order to control the most land with the least number of Palestinians. But, alas, the Palestinians were there to stay and over the years the population has increased over 300,000, nearly 40% of the city’s residents.
Israel has since instituted policies aimed at repressing the Palestinian residents of the city, curtailing the natural growth of their neighborhoods and ensuring Jewish demographic majority and dominance throughout the city. They have done this by building mega settlement-neighborhoods beyond the Green Line such as Gilo and Har Homa; by revoking the residency of thousands; by supporting extremist settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods (complete with gun-toting state-funded private security); by failing to formulate master plans in East Jerusalem, withholding building permits and then demolishing houses which are declared illegally-built. All of these policies ensure Jewish territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank while eliminating any chance for Palestinian territorial contiguity that would allow an independent and viable Palestinian state.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Israel always comes up with new ideas for how to implement its strategy. An increasingly common method in recent years is the creation of new national parks. It seems there are already five of these parks in East Jerusalem and more on the way, while West Jerusalem does not have even one. These parks, operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), a governmental body, enables the state to appropriate private Palestinian land while avoiding the international rebukes which overt settlement building brings about. Under Israeli law the state does not even have to compensate the owners for land on which national parks are built. A real bargain: “steal one, get one free.” The INPA is headed by a number of high-profile settlers including its general manager, Saul Goldstein, who was previously the head of the Gush Etzion regional council, and Evyatar Cohen, placed in charge of the Jerusalem branch of the INPA and formerly employed by Elad, the settler organization which runs the “City of David” National Park in the middle of the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem.
The Mount Scopus Slopes ‘National Park’
Within a week, yet another political “national park” is to be established – this time on land of the residents of Issawiya (Mount Scopus, where Hebrew University is located) and A-Tur (on the Mount of Olives). The INPA and the Jerusalem Municipality have already begun work on what is called the “Mount Scopus Slopes” park, which is being built directly on land belonging to Palestinian residents of A-Tur and Issawiya, and may even entail the demolition of approximately 50 Palestinian homes and structures. Over the past decade, the residents of A-Tur and Issawiya sought, with the help of the Israeli planning rights organization, Bimkom, to submit development plans to the Israeli courts. These plans – which seek recognition of the rights of Palestinian residents in these two neighborhoods to initiate their own building and development plans in cooperation with the authorities- were neither accepted nor rejected by the courts. Despite the extensive resources and research that went into them, they were never even discussed.
The Mount Scopus Slopes park is strategically located such that it will create Israeli territorial contiguity between the Old City and the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim in what is known as the area of E1.
The US government has consistently opposed Israeli building in E1, since it will permanently seal off any chance for a Palestinian state in the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem – which means the end of the two-state solution. The US government’s opposition to Israeli activity in E1 has been unequivocal, not only under the Obama administration, but under the previous Bush administration as well. In October 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated: “We have told the Israelis in no uncertain terms that [settlement in the E1 area] would contravene American policy.” Building a “national park” in E1 is the Israeli government’s ill-disguised attempt to circumvent clear-cut American opposition to settlement in E1. It is apparent that the goals of this park are political and not ecological.
According to many planners and urban development experts there is no special ecological interest in these areas, which are located in the middle of two Palestinian villages. Indeed, according to a member of Jerusalem’s city council, Meir Margalit, “This national park is a farce. There’s nothing there but rocks and thorns, certainly nothing to justify a national park. The only reason for such a plan is to seize lands and hold them as a reserve for a future settlement, while suffocating the Palestinian neighborhoods.”
More than just suffocating Palestinian growth, the specific placement of this “national park” corresponds neatly with the agenda of some of leaders of the settlement movement and the government: the creation of facts on the ground. Although the project is still pending final approval Jerusalem municipality tractors, trucks and bulldozers have begun construction work on the project.
The residents of Issawiya and A-Tur have decided to fight for their right to live on and develop their land. The joint struggle against this expulsion is not only a moral duty but also a chance to strengthen genuine partnership between Israelis and Palestinians who are working for a free civil society in our area. Please Join us in supporting them:
For more information,see Bimkom’s in-depth report about National Parks in East Jerusalem
Zvi Benninga is an activist in the Solidarity movement and a medical student at Hebrew University.