Flouting Courts, Jerusalem Pushes Ahead With New West Bank Checkpoint to Keep Palestinians Out of Park

Checkpoint is meant to prevent Palestinians from accessing a new park and is already underway despite not getting a permit

Flouting Israeli courts, Jerusalem pushes ahead with Walaja checkpoint to keep Palestinians out of new part
Emil salman

A court ordered the Jerusalem municipality to stop work on a new checkpoint south of Jerusalem on Thursday, but as of Thursday evening, the work appeared to be continuing anyway.

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Work on the checkpoint, which is meant to prevent West Bank Palestinians from accessing the new municipal park at Ein Haniya, began even though the project hasn’t yet received a building permit, as required by law, and has been proceeding very swiftly, continuing even at night.

Moreover, the municipality is funding the checkpoint, which will cost millions of shekels, even though it will be a police facility.

Two weeks ago, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat inaugurated the new park, which is located in southern Jerusalem. The park’s centerpiece is the Ein Haniya spring; it also contains two pools and many antiquities.

 the Ein Haniya spring
Olivier Fitoussi

But shortly before the ceremony took place, the Jerusalem police chief told the municipality and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that he would not allow the park to be opened to the public unless the Ein Yael checkpoint, which is currently located between Ein Haniya and southern Jerusalem, were relocated to beyond Ein Haniya, to prevent Palestinians from accessing the park. Until recently, Ein Haniya was a recreational site for Palestinians from the nearby West Bank village of Al-Walaja and the towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala.

The municipality initially planned to fast-track the checkpoint’s relocation, but eventually decided to send it through the normal approval process. On Monday, the Committee for Defense Facilities – a special committee that approves construction for the defense establishment – approved the checkpoint’s relocation over the objections of both Al-Walaja residents and residents of the nearby settlement of Har Gilo.

The Palestinians argued that the new checkpoint would prevent them from accessing their lands and violate international law. The settlers argued that it would endanger them and cause massive traffic jams. But the committee ruled that “It’s not possible to leave the park without security supervision.”

Nevertheless, immediately after issuing the decision, the committee’s legal adviser promised the Palestinians’ lawyer, Ghaith Nassir, that it wouldn’t actually issue the permit for another week to give him time to appeal the decision. But on Wednesday, Nassir discovered that work on the new checkpoint had begun despite the lack of a permit.

Jerusalem’s city manager, Amnon Merhav, is personally supervising work at the site and even brought in lights so it could continue after dark. Nassir charged that the goal is to create facts on the ground before the court can rule.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Tourism Minister Zeev Elkin at Ein Haniya
Olivier Fitoussi

When Nassir visited the site on Wednesday together with Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing Ir Amim organization, workers refused to show him their permit, and one of the managers yelled at them to leave. Tatarsky climbed on a bulldozer in an effort to get the police summoned to investigate the permit, but to no avail.

Then, while Tatarsky was on his way to work Thursday morning, he was arrested by the Jerusalem police on suspicion of disturbing the peace. He was released a few hours later on condition that he not go near the checkpoint for 15 days.

Thursday afternoon, Nassir asked the Jerusalem District Court to order the work to stop. Judge Oded Shoham issued an injunction barring any work until he decides otherwise.

Yet despite the court order, work continued over the next few hours. Har Gilo residents were even informed that the road would be intermittently closed Thursday night so the work could proceed.

Thursday evening, therefore, Nassir asked the court to declare the municipality in contempt.

“This constitutes serious contempt for the honorable court’s order, and the undersigned can only regret that a public authority in Israel isn’t respecting a court order,” he wrote. “This requires a forceful stance against the municipality and its city manager, Mr. Amnon Merhav, who is responsible for the work, because this doesn’t just harm the petitioners, but also severely harms the honorable court’s authority and status.”

Last month, inspectors from the municipality and the parks authority issued warnings to farmers from Al-Walaja over scarecrows they had set up in their fields. The scarecrows were set up a few dozen meters from the new checkpoint. The work done to prepare the ground for the new checkpoint has already damaged both Al-Walaja’s fields and the landscape on both sides of the road.

The municipality said that more than a year ago, it decided together with the army, the Defense Ministry and the police to relocate the Ein Yael checkpoint to a point “adjacent to the boundary of Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction (within the city’s territory). This decision stemmed from a complex of considerations,” of which the main ones were protecting the security of Jerusalem residents, drivers on the road and the buildings on either side of it, “which, if the checkpoint weren’t moved, would be vulnerable from a security standpoint.”

Consequently, it continued, the city requested a building permit, and after hearing the opponents, the Committee for Defense Facilities “approved the request and granted a building permit. The Jerusalem municipality is doing the work on the base of an initial agreement with the relevant agencies,” and it is being jointly funded by the municipality and the state.

“All work at the site is being done legally, and on the basis of professional plans that also address traffic and safety,” the statement concluded. “The injunction was a temporary injunction issued ex parte, and the municipality will respond to it in the next few hours.”