National park in east Jerusalem stirs controversy

Activists call it a "green settlement," Jerusalem Development Authority says park is the only way to save open areas.

Proposed site of a national park in east Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Proposed site of a national park in east Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Residents of east Jerusalem and Israeli activists are slamming the plan for a new national park there.
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.
RELATED:Ministry ‘tampering’ with Jerusalem master plan
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.
JDA, a 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 park.
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.
But activists 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 neighborhoods.
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 space.
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 residents.”
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 project.
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 teeth.”