Residents of east Jerusalem and Israeli activists are slamming the plan for a
new national park there.
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A plan to create a national park in the steep
hills between the Arab neighborhoods of Isawiya and a-Tur was deposited for
public review last month.
The 73.2-hectare (181-acre) park, called the
Slopes of Mount Scopus, is part of a larger project from the Jerusalem
Development Authority to create a network of green areas around the old city to
preserve the few open spaces that are left in the crowded region.
semi-public company associated with the Jerusalem Municipality, is working to
build a network of bike paths and hiking paths that will eventually enable
tourists and residents to enjoy a serene and uninterrupted jaunt from Mount
Scopus to the pools of Shiloah in Silwan, at the City of David archeological
But residents and activists charge that the plan to create a
national park is a thinly-veiled land grab that will cut off Arab neighborhoods
from access to other parts of east Jerusalem.
“The area is full of stones
and thorns, there is nothing there that justifies a national park,” said City
Councilor Meir Margalit (Meretz), who holds the portfolio for east Jerusalem.
“The only reason this national park exists is to take lands and to keep these as
a reservoir for future settlements... They are taking land from two villages
that need the land to expand and telling them the national park is more
important than building houses for their kids.”
Margalit compared the
plan to the mayor’s pet project, creating a biblical garden park in the
al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan, a project that will demolish and move 22 homes
to create green areas.
“This is another way to control land,” he said,
calling the Slopes of Mount Scopus park a “green settlement.”
“It is a
cynical use of the word ‘nature,’” he said.
Most of the land in the
73.2-hectare area, a steep and rocky embankment that is visible from Highway 1
before entering the Mount Scopus tunnels, is privately held land that belongs to
Arab residents from the neighborhoods of Isawiya and a-Tur. With the
establishment of a national park, the owners will not be compensated for their
land, but the park will be managing the land and all changes will need to be
approved by the National Parks Authority.
Elad Kandl, the director of the
Old City at the Jerusalem Development Authority who is overseeing the parks
project in east Jerusalem, said the establishment of a national park
accomplished three goals: preserving the area’s last open areas, protecting them
from vandalism and illegal building, and developing tourism. He also defended
the park as a way to stop the relentless march of development until a more
effective plan for the area could be undertaken.
“When you make it a
national park, you keep the status quo so that you can’t damage the area,” he
said. “Now, when it’s not inhabited, we’re going to freeze the area. There are
commercial interests that want to build there that are not thinking about what’s
good for the residents,” he said.
Essentially freezing development means
that a future government can come in and change the national park to a
residential area if they so desire, Kandl added.
“If it’s not a national
park, no one will be able to do that because it’ll be a mishmash. In a
few years someone could decide something totally different, but if we don’t
create a park now we’ll lose that option,” said Kandl.
argue that designating the land as a national park, rather than a municipal
park, makes it almost impossible to change because of the bureaucratic process
associated with changing national parklands to residential
Efrat Cohen-Bar, an architect with Bimkom: Planners for
Planning Rights, has been working with residents in Isawiya since 2004 to create
an updated master plan for the neighborhood that would allow the incredibly
dense neighborhood to legally expand onto parts of the surrounding land, which
will now be national parkland.
“If [the national park] becomes official,
there’s no hope for Isawiya,” said Cohen-Bar.
After the idea for a park
in that area was first floated in 2005, the residents, supported by Bimkom,
entered into negotiations with NPA to try to shrink the park, allowing them to
expand on part of the land and keep part of the land designated open
Those negotiations were ignored in the current plan for the park,
which was approved by the Local Building and Planning Committee and is waiting
for approval from the Interior Ministry.
“This was years of activism, and
we were finally able to get some faith from the residents to work with
municipality, to believe in the system and to work within it,” said Cohen-Bar.
“And they got the national park. This was a slap in the face to the
Cohen said she was pessimistic the plan for the national park
would be rejected, but she hoped that negotiations would be possible with NPA to
reduce the size of the park to allow residents to legally build homes. She
called the park a “death sentence” for their attempts to work with the residents
on legal ways to build and improve their neighborhood.
The plan for the
national park is currently undergoing a two-month public comment period, before
it can be discussed by the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Building
Committee. If it is approved by the Interior Ministry, it could become a park in
as little as six months to a year. Bimkom has joined Ir Amim and Emek Shaveh and
the resident’s committees to file multiple objections to the
Cohen-Bar added that she would rather the municipality create a
city park, which would not only compensate the residents for the land, but also
be much easier to change in the future.
Kandl argued that the only way to
preserve the land was with a national government body. The NPA has more
experience in maintaining and developing parks and would be much more effective
than the municipality, which is more easily swayed by local politics, at
preserving the area, he said. “We needed a government body that had