Israei Rightist Group Stopped From Building Permanent Campsite in East Jerusalem

Planning committee nixes right-wing organization’s plan to build permanent facility between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.

Emil Salman

The Jerusalem District Planning Appeals Committee has canceled a plan by the Elad Association to set up a camping facility in the Peace Forest in East Jerusalem. The panel also reprimanded the municipality for not demolishing illegal structures the association had erected at the site and for approving a development project for the forest that contravenes the master plan for the area.

The committee did, however, allow Elad to apply retroactively for permits for some of the structures that were built, and to submit a new plan for developing the campsite.

The Peace Forest is located between the neighborhoods of Silwan, Abu Tor and Armon Hanatziv, and was planted by the Jewish National Fund after the Six-Day War. In recent years Elad, which runs the City of David National Park and works to settle Jews in Silwan, has been conducting extensive leisure activities in the forest that include Segway tours and a paintball compound.

Two years ago the municipality issued a demolition order for a number of structures Elad had built in the forest without permits. The orders were issued under Section 212 of the Planning Law, which is considered an “emergency” clause, utilized in cases of serious violations of building and planning regulations. But the city never carried out the demolitions; on the contrary, it approved a broad plan submitted by Elad to expand its activities in the forest. For example, the association asked to set up a permanent tent of 610 square meters, and a 190-sq. m. structure for staff lodging. The municipality approved those plans based on clauses in the master plan that allows building sports and leisure facilities in the forest.

But the committee, at a hearing on Tuesday, rejected the city’s interpretation of those clauses and criticized the fact that work had already been done without a permit. “At issue is permanent construction in the forest of more than 800 sq.m. Aside from the construction, the lodging facility will require development work involving harm to natural areas (…)

“The picture was also clarified for us during our visit to the area, where it seems that the work to level the ground for the large campsite has already been done, with the area flat and level, with no trees. With this and other actions carried out without permits over the years, part of the forest is now covered in concrete, asphalt and leveled land, with no trees. Some of the area has for all practical purposes been altered from open public space to built-up, tourism facilities.”

During the same visit the committee members evaluated the illegal construction at the site. Of the “temporary tent” that Elad had set up for “creative and recycling activities,” they wrote: “After visiting the site we are doubtful that that is why the tent was erected. We’re talking about a large permanent structure that’s called a tent but in reality is partially a plaster structure and partially a permanent tent with wood foundations and steel connections (…) The structure looks as if it’s meant to be used as a small banquet hall.”

The committee also criticized the city’s apparent change of heart regarding the structures in the forest originally slated for demolition, noting that no explanation had been given for this change.

The appeal against these municipal decisions was filed by opposition city councilor Yosef “Pepe” Alalu of Meretz, together with Peace Now. During the hearing, the Tourism Ministry director general and a senior figure from the Education Ministry both testified in support of Elad.

“The local [building and planning] committee was on their side, without even checking what was at issue,” said Alalu on Tuesday. “They knew that if it’s Elad, it has to be approved, without even agreeing to hear my arguments, which, it turns out today, were justified. Elad’s objectives are political; they aren’t developing the forest because they love the residents in the eastern part of the city but to take control of the area. The decision by the appeals committee is a courage decision. The path is open toward rehabilitating the city for the use of the entire public.”

“The decision requires the Jerusalem municipality to do some internal checking,” added attorney Ishay Shneydor, who represented Peace Now in the appeal. “The municipality made an incredible U-turn here without even trying to explain it. Only two years ago it took measures against Elad’s construction using an exceptional procedure meant for egregious illegal building and within a year it suddenly came to the conclusion that the construction matched the [master] plans. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the political powers operating in the Jerusalem municipality to advance Elad’s interests are managing to enlist the local [planning] committee on behalf of improper moves, and in this case blatantly illegal ones.”

Attorney Rafi Ettinger, who represented the Elad Association, responded, “Elad is pleased that the appeals committee expressed support for a camping and sports site on the proposed land. The committee stressed the importance of conducting activities there to “liven up the forest” and to attract visitors and hikers there. The association will operate in accordance with the committee’s decision to realize its vision for developing the area.”

The Jerusalem municipality said, “The municipality will study the details of the decision regarding the campsite and proceeding accordingly.”