(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
The United States admitted this week for the first time that it accidentally helped fund the illegal construction of a Palestinian building in a park located on the edge of the former Shadma military base in the West Bank's Gush Etzion region.
In 2007, the nearby Beit Sahour Municipality constructed the park with funding from abroad, in an area which Palestinians call Oush Ghrab (crow's nest).
The park, which is used by Beit Sahour residents, hosts a building with a small kiosk for events, a stone terrace, a soccer field, a playground and the largest wooden rock climbing tower in the area.
Some $281,000 was provided for the park by the United States Agency for International Development, an independent federal agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance world-wide.
A large white sign stating that USAID contributed to the "Peace Park" hangs on the gate at the entryway to the complex.
A spokesperson for the US Consulate in east Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that American funding was given to the project in two installments, the first in November 2007 and the second in August 2008.
The spokesperson did not know how much of the money went toward the stone building in the park, which was built illegally. When the funds were given, USAID believed that all the necessary permits had been obtained for the structure.
It realized its error several months ago and has been working with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to see a solution.
The issue was brought to the media's attention by MK Arye Eldad (National Union), who visited Shadma earlier this week in his capacity as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
"It is impossible that the US government that protests and demands that Israel will stop what they call illegal building will be involved in funding illegal building," said Eldad.
He wrote a letter to the US ambassador to protest the funding.
Right wing MKs, activists and settlers have fought for the last three years to keep the Israeli government from ceding to a request from the Palestinian Authority to allow Beit Sahour to use the stone and dirt hilltop that overlooks the new Nokdim and Tekoa road. The Beit Sahour Municipality would like to construct a new hospital at the site.
In advance of any resolution as to jurisdiction of the site, the Beit Sahour Municipality constructed the park on the back slope of the hill, away from the Nokdim and Tekoa Road.
On Wednesday, as workers heated coals and dusted off a soda bar for a night time party for teens, Johnny Badra of the Beit Sahour Municipality, who runs the park told The Jerusalem Post that the former military base stood on land that had belonged to Beit Sahour before the Six-Day War.
He pointed to the nearby apartment buildings: "The only buildings you can see here belong to Beit Sahour." Badra admitted that construction had started on the structure without a permit, but when the civil order came and issued a stop work order, the municipality ceased building, he said.
As a result, he said, the parking lot had yet to be paved, the open air theater was still unfinished and there was a section of the building right under the roof, where one could still see the construction beams because there was no wall.
Among the organizations which use the facility is an American-based non-governmental group, Paidia International Development, which runs leadership training programs there for Palestinian teens.
A spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told the Post that some sections of the park were legal, while others still needed permits.
The Beit Sahour Municipality, he said, was still in the process of obtaining the necessary permits for the park, including for the building. He added that the municipality was also in dialogue with his office over a permit for the hospital.
Settlers and right wing activists have objected to any Palestinian development on the site for both security and historical reasons.
Activists, including the group Women in Green, hold weekly protest activities at the site on Fridays.
"We will fight for every piece of land that belongs to us," said Nadia Matar of Women in Green.
But this hilltop, which overlooks the road leading into Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood, had particular strategic significance, she said.
In the past settlers have told the Post they feared that if a hospital were built on the site, terrorists would be able to shoot at passing cars.
Matar added that Israel should have learned from the 2005 Gaza withdrawal about the dangers of giving away land.