Potentially the Most Political Park in the World: Mt. Scopus Slopes

New demolitions in East Jerusalem’s A-Tor are occurring because they are in the path of the planned Mt. Scopus Slopes Park, which opponents say will bisect West Bank.

Just down the hill from Hebrew University, in the A-Tor neighborhood, Bassam Id-Dieha and his family built a home and moved in nine months ago.

One morning last week, just before the start of the school year, a contingent of Israeli border police and officials from the municipality knocked on the door and told them to get out. The forces then moved out the key pieces of furniture, and proceeded to demolish the house.

Now, the family lives – part-time anyway – out of a tent donated to them by a local aid group, alongside a jumble of rubble and metal that was their home. Two of Dieha’s sons, hanging around in the sunbaked tent in the afternoon while their parents are away at work, say the demolition was a complete surprise to them.

“It was 9:30 or 10 in the morning,” says Khader, 15. “We heard a knock on the door and saw that the house was surrounded by military forces. They told us to go out. What choice did we have?” Their father started to shout, he said, but family members held him back, fearing that he would be arrested.

Home demolitions in Jerusalem have been happening with increasing frequency this year, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to “an equitable and stable Jerusalem with a negotiated political future.” It says that in the first half of this year, demolitions were conducted at twice the pace of total demolitions executed in 2012. So far this year, according to spokeswoman Betty Herschman, there were 67 demolitions.

The numbers may be up, but the key arguments in this dynamic are the same. Israeli officials say they are compelled to demolish when Palestinians build illegally, without regard to zoning and planning; Palestinians say the Israeli authorities give out so few permits for new homes that they throw up their hands and build anyway.

What’s significant about these particular houses – theirs is one of several that has been totally or partially demolished in the past year – is the location. They’re on land that is slated to be turned into a Mount Scopus Slopes Park, an initiative of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that has the backing of Mayor Nir Barkat. The park, stretching out in the direction of Ma'aleh Adumim, would effectively create a land bridge between Jerusalem and E-1 – a corridor that Ir Amim and other groups supporting a two-state solution and housing equality say will bisect the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. In short, an Israeli park stretching from east from Jerusalem to E-1 will likely make it ever more difficult for negotiators to find a way sketch out a contiguous piece of West Bank territory for a Palestinian state.

Moreover, says Ahmad Sub Laban, a field researcher for Ir Amim, the park means that the already overcrowded neighborhoods of Issawiya and A-Tor, which are on either side of the territory that runs down the hill from the university, will have no room for future growth.

“The only place where people of Issawiya and A-Tor will have a place for their kids in the future is right here,” says Sub Laban, sweeping an arm in the direction of the park as we stand on the ring-road of the university.

According to the NGO Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, the two neighborhoods are not able to expand to any other lands other than that which are now being planned for the national park.

But will a park – or development of E-1 overall – really cut the West Bank in two? Technically, no. But in some ways, that division is already becoming a reality. Palestinians who need to go, for example, from Ramallah to Bethlehem, already face an extremely long and circuitous drive around the outer perimeter of Jerusalem because they can’t enter the city. Sub Laban points to the eastern ring road already being constructed in the distance -- various left-wing groups opposed to it have dubbed it the “apartheid road”– and explains that this so-called solution is unacceptable to Palestinians. “They’re going to give people access to the road but not the land,” Sub Laban says, “and the Palestinian side won’t accept that.”

A spokesman for the municipality said in response that the demolition has nothing to do with E-1. “We are talking about a demolition that was carried out with a court order after many discussions on the matter,” said Liad Vaknin. “Moreover, the argument that this should be spoken of in connection to E-1 is baseless and false.”

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher