The Elad association has far-reaching administrative powers in Jerusalem's City of David national park, according to an agreement, publicized here for the first time, between that organization and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The agreement is at the center of a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice by the Ir Amim association against Elad and the INPA. Ir Amim, a nonprofit that seeks to make life in Jerusalem more equitable for Arab and Jewish residents, claims that the agreement is illegal and ostensibly privatizes one of Israel's most important tourism and archaeological sites.

With the petition scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday, Knesset members are continuing efforts to enact a law that would "bypass" the High Court and allow the INPA to privatize national parks.

The City of David park, located in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, is one of the country's most popular tourism sites, attracting some 450,000 visitors a year. Since the late 1990s, in keeping with an agreement with the INPA, the site has been administered by Elad, a right-wing association involved in the acqusition of properties and settlement of Jews in the area. By law, the INPA can transfer management of national parks to private entities provided that ultimate administrative powers remain in the hands of the state.

According to the petitioners - Ir Amim, academics and public figures - the INPA has passed on those administrative powers to Elad, in contravention of the law. The petitioners also charge that the park's management by Elad could lead to a conflict of interest due to the association's other activities and political ideology.

Elad and the INPA will argue in their response to the High Court that the association is not administering the site, but is merely in charge of its day-to-day operations. The agreement between them that has come to light, however, shows that Elad has sweeping powers vis-a-vis the administration of the site.

For example, the agreement provides for the establishment of a steering group that includes representatives from Elad, the Jerusalem Municipality and the INPA. This team deals with long-term plans for the site, budgets and other issues that must be approved unanimously. This, the petitioners argue, essentially provides Elad with veto power over all decisions related to the management of the City of David.

In addition, the agreement also gives Elad sweeping powers with regard to guiding in the City of David: Elad is authorized to set up instruction centers and to train tour guides to work at the site. The agreement also allows Elad to close off extensive parts of the park on the Sabbath, which is not allowed at other national parks around the country.

"The agreement gives Elad veto power over everything in the City of David," said a source from the Ir Amim association. "If the parks authority wants to decide on an archaelogical dig or the establishment of a venue for events, it has to request approval from Elad. Under the law, these are powers that are supposed to be exclusively in the hands of the INPA."

Ahead of the High Court debate, the petitioners have been somewhat encouraged by the state's response to the petition via the Environmental Protection Ministry. According to the ministry, the agreement is indeed legal and the petition should be rejected - but there are certain stipulations that must be amended.

"There is a need to ensure that the presence of an INPA representative on the steering team is not an effort to detract from the authority's status as the public entity responsible for the overal administration of the national park," says the ministry's response to the High Court.

The ministry also expresses its dissatsifaction with the clauses of the agreement pertaining to instruction and tour-guiding services at the site. Elad, the ministry says, must ensure that the instruction is conducted "without political bias that does not suit the national character of the park."

In its response to the petition, Elad, represented by former Justice Minister Prof. David Libai, argues that the areas of responsibility the association received from the INPA are "technical and logistical" only. Elad and the INPA also note a clause in the agreement that explicitly states that management of the site "will be conducted by the [parks] authority only."

Elad says that the steering group does not administer the park per se, but serves only to resolve matters under dispute, and asserts that the City of David has not been privatized. The organization claims that it owns a significant portion of the land in the area of the park, has invested vast sums of money in its development, and thus cannot be ignored.

If required to do so, Elad adds, it will find a way to operate the park on the Sabbath too.

In its response to the High Court, the INPA also claims that the agreement is legal and places only technical matters concerning the site in the hands of Elad.