A bill backed by the City of David Foundation, a right-wing group better known as Elad, that would enable housing to be erected in areas zoned for national parks within municipal boundaries was approved on Wednesday by the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.
The proposal passed 8-6 despite objections voiced by officials at the Justice Ministry and planning authorities, and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. It will now go to the Knesset plenum for its first of three votes. If the Knesset votes in favor the bill will return to committee for its preparation for itsfinal votes.
If enacted, the law would enable homes to be built in the City of David national park, an archaeological site immediately south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The City of David archaeological site is where the ancient city of Jerusalem was built and some believe parts of the findings excavated are the remains of King David’s palace and capital city. The archeological dig and City of David national park are part of the larger park surrounding the Old City’s walls, now called the “Jerusalem Walls – City of David National Park.”
The original version of the bill, presented a year ago, proposed that construction be allowed in archaeological national parks within cities, where a neighborhood had existed before the park was declared.
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The City of David national park in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan is managed by Elad, and it seems to be the only park in all of Israel that meets these criteria for residential construction. The area of the park houses thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Jews – almost all of the latter being associated with Elad. Aside from running the archaeological dig, Elad is also striving to populate the neighborhood with Jews.
The minutes of the committee’s previous meeting in January made it clear that Elad and its leader, David Beeri, are behind the bill, which is designed to promote construction at the site. At the start of the discussion, coalition whip MK David Amsalem (Likud) told Beeri, “Define for me what you want. I will tell you what I was thinking.”
Supporters of the bill, including Amsalem and committee chairman Yoav Kish of Likud, claim that the City of David is unusual in having a resident population – albeit not formally regulated – before being declared a national park. Beeri said at the discussion that the neighborhood should be regulated and normalized, “with preschools, everything, while on the other hand, preserving the values of the national park.”
MK Tamar Zandberg of Meretz inquired why no representative of the Palestinians living there – who are the majority in the neighborhood – had been invited to the discussion.
Mendelblit opposed the legislative proposal, said the representative of the Justice Ministry on Wednesday, because he does not see a “legislative solution to the complexity involved in a national park.”
Yael Adoram, the representative of the planning authorities at the committee meeting, said the problem of residence inside a national park could be resolved without legislation. It could be done with planning decisions, she said.
Kish rejected the objections and demanded to hear what the justice and finance ministers say, irrespective of the opinions of their professional staffers. The ministers said the bill could advance to this first vote, so the issues at stake would be discussed before further votes make it into law.
Opposition MKs objected to the proposal. Israel is poor in national parkland, let alone inside the cities, so what little there is should be protected, said Yael Cohen Paran of the Zionist Union. Zandberg accused Kish of doing back-door deals with Elad, and said the law is intended “to enable the settlers to build and prevent the Palestinians from doing so.”
The Ir Amim organization and Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists, say the purpose of the bill is to reinstate a grandiose construction plan Elad had prepared, which had been shelved in the 1990s due to strong opposition. Then Elad sought to build 200 housing units in the national park, and a plan to that effect was prepared, but shelved.
“This isn’t the first time a monkey is being made of the law and common sense to advance the agenda of the Elad settlers,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with Ir Amim. “But even this law can’t change the fact that Silwan, like East Jerusalem, is entirely a Palestinian city. Israeli attempts to deny that simple truth impair the basic rights of 350,000 people in East Jerusalem. The residents of the Israeli city also pay a price for it.”
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said it “attaches great importance to advancing the bill that will legally regulate the integration of residential buildings within a national park area around the walls of Jerusalem and the City of David.”