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Israel’s ‘Bible Trail’: Demolishing Palestinian homes to make national parks

Thousands in East Jerusalem caught in planning trap, with critics accusing officials of using heritage and tourism to pave way for settler land grab

Middle East Eye – 9 April 2016

On the planning map of Jerusalem, the aerial view of Aref Totanji’s home is obscured by green ink, part of a swath of colour besieging the walls of the Old City on every side.

Over the past decade, these coloured zones have spread over the map of East Jerusalem, creating a patchwork that engulfs ever more Palestinian neighbourhoods close to the Old City.

The green ink may look innocuous on paper, but for 50-year-old Totanji it signals the impending arrival of bulldozers to demolish his one-storey house, leaving the family of 16 – including a seven-month-old granddaughter – homeless.

As Israeli authorities declare “national parks” over residential areas, thousands of Palestinians living in overcrowded neighbourhoods close by Jerusalem’s Old City are being trapped in a similar planning nightmare.

Planners and human-rights group accuse Israel of increasingly using such parks as a tool to grab control of Palestinian land and demolish homes, under the guise of archaeological preservation and tourism development.

Enass Masri, a field researcher for Bimkom, a group of planning experts helping Palestinians negotiate Israel’s labyrinthine planning system, said the goal of national parks in Israel was to protect green spaces and heritage sites but in Jerusalem the policy had been subverted.

“Uniquely in East Jerusalem, the national parks include residential areas,” she told Middle East Eye. “They are a monster making these families’ lives a misery.”

Nowhere to go

A court order written in Hebrew – a language Totanji does not understand – demands that the family vacate their four-room house by 10 April. He lost an appeal last month.

“It’s not just a house that is being destroyed but my whole life,” he told MEE.

“When the soldiers came recently to warn me to move my belongings out before they begin work on the demolition, I asked them: ‘Where am I supposed to move them to? We have nowhere else to go’.”

The Jerusalem municipality, said Bimkom, had been seeking to transfer control over a growing number of Palestinian neighbourhoods to an ostensibly environmental agency called the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The consequences for Palestinians living in these parks was devastating, said Masri, because this process made demolitions easier to secure. In addition, the loss of open land in East Jerusalem to the national parks was stripping Palestinians of any hope of developing housing for the next generation.

Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, told MEE: “The national parks are a great way for Israel to conceal its real agenda. They are seen as a good thing – ecological and benign.

“It’s much less easy to understand that they constrict Palestinian development, fragment Palestinian living space, and justify house demolitions.”

Clearing way for ‘Bible Trail’

Some 14 families live in the Sawaneh district, next to the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz. They discovered only two years ago that they were living in the Jerusalem City Walls Park, even though it was officially established four decades ago.

It was the first park to be declared after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, in violation of international law, in 1967.

But only in the past year have the residents noticed Israeli officials taking any interest in their neighbourhood. Regular surveys have been carried out and inspectors have issued clean-up orders.

Totanji’s neighbours, Nureddin and Sharif Amro – two brothers who are blind – had parts of their homes demolished last year, including a kitchen, sitting area, garden wall, and chicken coop. Electricity cables and sewage pipes were also damaged.

All the families have been warned that they are in the way of a planned “Bible Trail”, running along the eastern edge of the Jerusalem City Walls Park.

The land on which the homes is built is privately owned by two Palestinian families.

No suggestion has been made that there are archaeological remains, under either the homes in Sawaneh or in a large green space close by that also falls within the national park.

The families suspect that the authorities may be targeting their area now because it includes the last large parking space within walking distance of the Old City. The space is used by coaches that bring thousands of Palestinians to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque on Fridays.

Nureddin Amro, principal of a school for the blind in Jerusalem, said the Parks Authority appeared to be more interested in developing what he termed “settler tourism” at Sawaneh.

“The authorities are preparing to create a network of paths and tourism centres here to connect between the settlements and the Old City,” he said. “The settlers are keen to get this area.”

He noted that extremist settler groups had expressed a desire to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque, inside the Old City, and replace it with a Jewish temple.

Takeover of homes

The homes in Sawaneh are located in a valley below the Mount of Olives, at the northern end of the Valley of Gethsemane, where Jesus supposedly prayed with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.

Tourism projects proposed by the residents, including the construction of a hotel at the site, have been summarily rejected, according to the families.

“It’s not really about tourism. It’s about the kind of tourism that forces us out of our homes,” said Amro.

The residents live only a short distance from the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, in the same Jerusalem City Walls Park. There settlers have been given licence to take over homes and excavate an archaeological park, called the City of David, under and around the houses.

Silwan has become a flashpoint, with regular clashes between Palestinian residents, on the one hand, and settler groups and the Israeli police, on the other.

Silwan’s residents say the Israeli authorities are keen to take over the area because their homes reach to the walls below the al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Hidden agenda

The Parks Authority’s goal, according to its website, is “to protect nature and heritage sites and care for them for the benefit of the public”.

In a 2012 report, Bimkom noted that the declaration of a national park was “an extreme measure [that] should be applied only in unequivocal cases in which natural heritage considerations take absolute priority”.

But Masri said the Jerusalem municipality had preferred to transfer its green spaces and Palestinian residential areas to the Parks Authority as a way to bypass normal planning rules.

As a national body, the Parks Authority is not required to take into account the welfare of East Jerusalem’s residents in its decisions.

It also has the power to evict Palestinians without confiscating their land, thereby avoiding court challenges over ownership and demands for compensation.

The use of environmental or touristic justifications for demolishing Palestinian homes or limiting development was also less likely to attract censure from the international community.

Samer Ersheid, a lawyer representing the Sawaneh families, said Palestinian areas of Jerusalem were denied master plans, making it all but impossible to gain building permits. But the families inside the national parks were in a particularly difficult situation.

“The Parks Authority is pushing aggressively for these homes to be destroyed and the chance of delaying or reversing the demolition orders is much harder,” he told MEE.

Ties to settlers

Close ties between the Parks Authority and leading settler groups are an open secret.

Shaul Goldstein, who was formerly the head of the large Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank, has been the head of the organisation since 2011.

The head of the Park Authority’s Jerusalem office is Evyatar Cohen, who was previously a senior official in Elad, the main settler organisation active in Silwan.

“Under this arrangement, the settlers become agents of the Parks Authority and that gives them all sorts of extra powers, independently of the government, municipality and police,” said Halper.

He added: “The creation of tourism projects in these national parks is also a very effective way to bring Jews from Israel and from overseas to help legitimate the settlers’ activities.”

Neither the Parks Authority nor the Jerusalem municipality was available for comment.

In a lecture in 2006, Cohen stated that the goal of East Jerusalem’s national parks was to prevent the obliteration of the city’s landscape and its flora, and restore its “former glory”.

However, other official statements have suggested a different rationale.

At a meeting of the National Parks Council in 2003, Jerusalem’s city engineer, Uri Shitrit, admitted that the use of national parks was likely to create “constant confrontation” with local residents. However, he added that they were helpful in areas that were “inhabited by a hostile population, which is continually growing” – a reference to the city’s Palestinians.

When Jerusalem’s outline was agreed a year later, in 2004, Israeli officials observed that “massive governmental intervention” would be needed if planning objectives were to guarantee a strong Jewish majority of 60 percent in the city.

According to Bimkom, the national parks are playing a key role in meeting that demographic target.

Encircling the Old City

Areas like Sawaneh, said Halper, were also the final territorial pieces creating a belt of Jewish control encircling the Old City.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group noted that this belt was intended to create a “firewall … preventing a withdrawal [by Israel] from the city’s core” in the event of a peace agreement.

East Jerusalem has long been claimed by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state. But Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and claims it as its “united and eternal capital”.

Efrat Cohen-Bar, a planner with Bimkom, said Israel had so far declared two national parks in East Jerusalem, and had another large one awaiting approval on Mount Scopus.

The new park, which is on Palestinian land, would block any future development of the neighbourhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur, she said.

But Bimkom has also seen a version of the Jerusalem master-plan showing another three national parks close to the Old City that were not included on the officially published map.

“From the activities we see on the ground, we strongly suspect that these areas are being prepared for a time in the future when they will be declared national parks,” she told MEE.

Cohen-Bar cited the destruction last week by the Parks Authority of a privately owned playground in Silwan just outside the existing Jerusalem Walls national park. The original master-plan, she said, indicated that the area where the playground was built would eventually be included in an extension to the park.

The US State Department expressed concern last week at what it called “a damaging trend of demolitions, displacement and land confiscation” in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Forced out again

For East Jerusalem’s families, who have resisted waves of Israeli expansion, fears are high that the growth of the national parks could see them lose the battle for good.

Nureddin Amro, of Sawaneh, pointed out that it would not be the first time his family – and many of the others – had been displaced.

“These homes were built long before Israel came here or the national park was declared,” he said.

“Israel forced us out of our original homes and we rebuilt our lives here in East Jerusalem. Now Israel is hounding us out of our homes all over again.”

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