The right-wing Elad settlement organization is refusing to vacate an area in the Jerusalem Peace Forest that had been promised to the special education organization Hadvir Hahadash.
The Jewish National Fund signed an agreement in 2004 with Hadvir, which wants to build a boarding school for young people over 21 with profound developmental disabilities, but has since avoided ratifying the deal.
Elad, which aims to settle Jews in East Jerusalem, has been very active in recent years in the Peace Forest, located between Abu Tor and the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The group operates tours from the forest to various East Jerusalem sites, and conducts archaeological activity there in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
"Now I understand how a settlement gets established," says the director of Hadvir Hahadash, Lia Natan-Martziano. "Elad erects a shack and then another shack, while eyes are averted and the various authorities provide support."
Under its agreement with the JNF, Hadvir was to get five dunams of land in the Peace Forest. However, the contract stipulated that if all the requisite permits were not obtained by the end of 2004, Elad would be allowed to rent the area for one year from the JNF. Since then, the rental agreement has been renewed annually.
According to Natan-Martziano, "our agreement with the JNF explicitly states that Elad is operating in the Peace Forest temporarily, and is not allowed to interfere with our developing the area. But in practice, Elad has refused to let us bring in donors or a surveyor, as part of obtaining the permits."
About a year ago, Hadvir was preparing to sign an agreement with the Israel Lands Administration, after receiving permission from the Social Affairs Ministry to open the boarding school's first house, and after raising the necessary funds through donations. ILA sought confirmation from JNF that the contract with Hadvir was valid. Since then, say sources familiar with the case, "the JNF has procrastinated on handling this simple request in a bid to buy time, until it finally emerged that Elad's demands were behind the delay."
At a meeting six weeks ago with Natan-Martziano and JNF chairman Effi Stenzler, Elad head David Beeri said they would be willing to vacate the building only if given another legal building in the Peace Forest. Stenzler backed Beeri's position.
Elad and JNF have a long history of working together - unofficially. Beeri took credit for helping JNF track down its properties in East Jerusalem; JNF subsequently leased these properties to Elad.
Natan-Martziano says that JNF's concession on Elad's vacating the building means "postponing for years our entry into the Peace Forest." According to the Jerusalem municipality, the Peace Forest is public space, so it is unlikely that permits for new buildings will be granted.
Indeed, Elad's current activity on the site is possibly illegal. Next to the main building, Elad set up two huts and a tent - without municipal permits, and nor does have it authorization for using the main building as "an educational-tourism center" and military academy.
JNF said in response that it did not renege on the contract it signed in 2004, but cannot provide Hadvir Hahadash with a letter of reference to the ILA unless it can prove the "viability and realistic possibility" of building a boarding school in the forest.
A statement from Elad said: "The organization is not a party to the dispute or the demand to build a boarding school for children with special needs on the site. The organization operates there by legal permit."
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