City of David
The entrance to the City of David archaeological park in East Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Knesset yesterday approved a preliminary reading of an amendment to the Nature Reserves and National Parks Law allowing nonprofit associations to manage national parks.

The amendment now goes to the Interior and Environment Committee to be prepared for a first reading.

The nonprofits defined by it can be privately held corporations, if they have among their goals, the amendment says, "the memorialization of values with historical, archaeological, architectural or natural importance."

The amendment, approved earlier in the week by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, has drawn fire from environmental and human rights organizations, who say it's intended to give legal status to the activities of the City of David Foundation (also known as the Elad Association ), which runs the City of David National Park outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who represented the government during yesterday's plenum debate, said the government had agreed to back the amendment on condition there would be restrictions on the ability of organizations to run such parks.

"We're talking only about an organization that has rights to a significant portion of the national park, which were given to it before the amendment goes into effect, when the areas at issue are crucial to the park's operation," Neeman said.

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) vehemently attacked the amendment, saying it reflected a trend of privatization and commercialization of Israel's national heritage and landscapes.

"There are MKs here who call themselves the 'national camp,' but this camp has not only lost its democratic values, but its national values as well," Khenin said.

"What does this bill suggest? It suggests transferring the management of national parks to private associations. In simple Hebrew, this is called privatization," he added.

The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense has also sharply attacked the amendment process for endangering public assets and leading to the commercialization of national parks.

"At a time when open areas are shrinking and the public is vulnerable to heavy pressure, we must vigorously oppose any further privatization of natural public resources," said the group's director, attorney Amit Bracha.

The Israel Parks and Nature Authority recently warned in a legal opinion against transferring national parks to the management of bodies which are not owned by the government. The group cautioned that its office does not have the means to supervise such management by private organizations. Many left-wing organizations, meanwhile, say the amendment is political, that giving the City of David Foundation official control of the park, a large part of which is located in the Arab village of Silwan, will enable it to increase the Jewish presence there.

The amendment is seen as undermining steps taken by the Ir Amim organization, which petitioned the High Court of Justice against the City of David group, arguing that the foundation is acting mainly to increase the Jewish presence in Arab neighborhoods. The park also allows the foundation to participate in planning processes in the area, as well as draw heavily from budgets and contributions.

Left-wing groups say the City of David national park has in practice increased the Jewish presence in Silwan. A dense security system and hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, Israelis and foreigners, have turned the City of David group into the most important official entity in the village.

The City of David Foundation, for its part, points to its success in turning the park, which received only 10,000 visitors a year a decade ago, into one of the most popular national parks in Israel, hosting about a half million people each year.

Israel Hasson (Kadima ), sponsor of the legislation, denied yesterday that it aims to empower any particular group.

"We've put the amendment forth in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry, which seeks to insure that it will not be abused," Hasson said. "I also do not want any group to abuse the amendment."

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has been strangely silent during the debate over the amendment, which contrasts with his frequent and vocal defense of national parks and nature reserves threatened by various construction plans.

Erdan's office said yesterday that he had objected to the original wording of the amendment, because of the implications it would have for the management of public assets, and thus a future version would include the restrictions cited by Neeman in the Knesset.