With Help From Israeli Justice Minister, Road Cleared for Settler Group to Expand East Jerusalem Enclave

Elad, which settles Jews in Silwan, asked Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's help in reversing the state's decision on a planned tourist center, and she delivered.

A guard post in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, June 23, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has intervened on behalf of the settler organization Elad to reverse a state decision that would have significantly reduced the space allotted for the NGO’s planned tourist facility in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Haaretz has learned.

Elad, which settles Jews in Silwan and administers the City of David National Park there, approached Shaked’s chief of staff to ask the minister to act on the group’s behalf in promoting its plans for the Kedem Center, a large tourist facility proposed in Silwan.

Shaked intervened, bringing about the change of a previous decision of the National Planning and Building Council to substantially reduce the size of the project.

In recent years, Elad has been advancing plans for a complex at the entrance to the City of David National Park as well as a visitor’s center, offices and museum. The center would sit above the archaeological excavations. The proposal is supported by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jerusalem municipality.

A year ago, the appeals subcommittee of the national planning committee voted, by a majority of one, to reduce the size of the project. The decision came after harsh criticism from urban planners, archeologists and residents of Silwan.

Elad decided to appeal the decision, and originally filed a lawsuit claiming that one member of the committee had a conflict of interest. The Jerusalem District Court rejected this claim.

Next Elad filed a request for a rehearing by the full committee. This request was accepted, a rare occurrence, and in an even rarer event the director general of the Justice Ministry, Emi Palmor, personally appeared before the committee. She took the place of the ministry’s regular representative, who had supported the decision to reduce the size of the project. At the meeting, the subcommittee’s decision was overruled and the original plan was reinstated.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Olivier Fitoussi

After this decision, the left-wing NGO Ir Amim submitted a freedom of information request to the Justice Ministry, asking who had approached Shaked or the ministry about Elad’s plan. It also asked if Shaked or senior ministry officials had met any person or official associated with the plan, and if so, what had been said at those meetings.

Elad tried to block this request and even filed a petition in court to prevent it. The petition is still under a gag order, but it appears it was rejected because in the past few days, Ir Amim, one of the groups fighting construction of the Kedem Center, has received documents concerning the links between Shaked’s office and Elad.

The documents show that in December 2015, an Elad official named Aharon (his last name was erased from the documents before they were given to Ir Amim) provided Shaked’s chief of staff with a detailed letter listing the steps to be taken to reverse the subcommittee’s decision, including appointment of a representative to the committee who would vote in favor of the project.

Aharon also listed disadvantages in reducing the size of the project, including harm to tourism, planning problems and harm to antiquities. He also listed the members of the committee and marked which ones he thought were on their side, and which were not.

Ir Amim’s lawyer said she had added the material from the ministry to its petition against the project. In addition, the material shows that Shaked had intervened on behalf of Elad in a quasi-judicial process, to the benefit of the project’s politically affiliated sponsor.

Elad said in response that the national planning committee made its decision based on professional positions.

The Justice Ministry said in response that after examining the matter, it was clear that its conduct in the matter was faultless. It added that the attorney general maintained that the ministry’s representatives on the committees must represent the minister’s views, and it is clear that it is Shaked’s “policy to develop Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital, including all its parts. [Shaked] will continue to act tirelessly on behalf of building in the city, even if it does not find favor with Ir Amim and Haaretz.”