Jerusalem is known for being many things to many people, a holy city to all three monotheistic religions and the pulsing heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while its sun-bleached stone buildings and ancient olive trees imbue it with a timeless kind of beauty, Jerusalem is not recognized as a world-class green city, with centrally located parks and tree-canopied boulevards.
Why, then, would a national park bill here in Israel be so controversial? National parks are no less than the natural manifestation of democracy, enshrining the idea that beautiful outdoor spaces should be preserved for the enjoyment and access of all the people. They create green lungs to hedge against climate change. They provide a meditative pause from the pressures of urban life.
But in Israel, they can also be exploited to entrench the occupation.
This Thursday, an amendment to the National Parks, Nature Reserves and Memorial Sites Law moves onto the Knesset Interior Committee on its way to combined second and third final readings. Amendment 17, "Planning for Housing in an Existing Neighborhood in a National Park," would overturn the long-standing prohibition against building inside national parks. Unsurprisingly, traditional defenders of the environment, including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, are vigorously protesting it.
Beyond the obvious sin of subverting the very purpose of a national park, the bill is an offense to the principles of law. Amendment 17 is not intended for all national parks in Israel. It applies to just one: The City of David (Ir David) National Park in Silwan. Why, then, if it is not intended to be applied universally, and if all the recognized defenders of national parks universally oppose it, would it be coming up for a first reading sometime next week?
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The answer to that question lies in the frontline guardians of the City of David – not the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has ultimate authority for the park, but the group to which it privatized daily operations in the 1990s, an organization called Elad.
Elad is not an environmental group or an archeological authority; it has no professional capacity to even compete for a bid to manage a national park (had there been a transparent tender process, which there was not). It is, though, a right-wing settler group.
Elad is the only entity promoting this bill. Faced by objections from a spectrum of green groups, the group lobbied for a custom-made exemption to fit the City of David alone to push out Palestinians and permit building homes for settlers in a national park. That by itself should demonstrate Elad’s unfitness for running such a space.
Amendment 17 is specifically designed to enable Elad to expand its foothold in Silwan where, backed by the state, it has seized roughly 75 Palestinian homes over the last several decades. The latest eviction took place last week.
The City of David park sits just across the street from Jerusalem's Old City, within the Old Walls National Park that encircles it. According to its website, the park draws some half a million visitors every year.
Visitors include students from throughout Israel, new IDF officers - for whom the park is a mandatory part of military orientation, and tourists from every part of the globe. Those tourists may well be blissfully ignorant about the political complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – even, for that matter, that they are standing in occupied territory, while taking in the sights and purchasing mementos stamped with the ubiquitous golden harp of King David.
Most tourists are unaware that their guides' set speeches omit huge swaths of civilization and erase any vying narratives of historical connections to Jerusalem. And because most tourists have no cause to go beyond the park, they do not see Silwan, the Palestinian neighborhood in which the park is embedded.
Amendment 17 conclusively demonstrates that there is not one facet of life in Jerusalem – not construction of an apartment, approval of a road, management of a tourist site or use of a national park – that is apolitical.
Not one of these pillars of urban planning is excluded from settlement building in East Jerusalem, where national parks are valued not as pastoral picnic settings but as tools, by which the state transfers to private right wing organization the power to manage and develop public tourist, archaeological and educational projects.
This bill is the ultimate symbol of discrimination in planning in East Jerusalem, where a mere 15% of the land is allocated for Palestinian building; and where, in the years since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, 12 Israeli neighborhoods/settlements have been built - but not a single major Palestinian one.
National parks are often declared in order to prohibit Palestinians from building. Now, those same authorities - who greenlight the Jerusalem municipal authorities to suppress Palestinian development - are promoting a bill to ensure that settlers can build in these otherwise forbidden zones.
There are already 2,500 settlers living in and managing sites in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods in the Old City Basin. That Israelization enables Israel to cement its control over the most contentious seven square kilometers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – to the acute detriment of both East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents, and the two state solution.
Betty Herschman is Ir Amim's Director of International Relations & Advocacyand is an expert on Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Boston University. Twitter: @IrAmimAlerts