Veteran Israel Defense Forces paratroopers oppose a plan to expand a monument memorializing fallen comrades located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Reservists of Battalion 71 say the step initiated by the military, Jerusalem City Hall and the Jewish National Fund will worsen tensions unnecessarily in the already fraught neighborhood.
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The municipality approved the plan last month to expand the memorial, to be funded to the tune of a million shekels by the Jewish National Fund by building an amphitheater to accommodate 300 people for ceremonies and visitors. Observation posts and benches would also be placed at the fenced-off site.
Sheikh Jarrah lacks space for public buildings. One of the only spaces left is soon to house a large yeshiva, as part of another city plan. The neighborhood has been the focus of legal conflict for more than a decade after settler associations have sued to remove dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes, claiming that Jews purchased the land on which these homes were built in the 19th century. Recently Palestinians have suffered a list of legal setbacks and many families face a threat of imminent expulsion from their homes.
The plan was initiated by the neighborhood’s Jewish residents and in recent weeks it has met with some unanticipated opposition on the part of paratroop reservists from Battalion 71, for whose fallen comrades a monument was built. The reservists have been debating the plan on their Facebook page. On Sunday some of them sent a sharply worded letter to the current battalion commander, Uri Kelner, who has spearheaded the memorial expansion plan.
The letter says there’s no need to expand the monument and turn it into a war heritage site in a neighborhood that badly lacks public space. The reservists noted that this is especially so given the fact that the main memorial monument to the fallen is only a few hundred meters away at the site of Ammunition Hill.
The reservists wrote that in their letter they wish “to express our firm opposition to the initiative to upgrade the Battalion 71 memorial monument and to expand it. The source of this initiative is a desire to Judaize Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem and these are not among the tasks of the paratroop division.”
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They added that “figures behind upgrading the monument are seeking to enhance the heritage of the paratroopers, that which is already memorialized by the monument at Ammunition Hill a few hundred meters away, and not to deepen the personal memory of the fallen which the monument is meant to honor.”
“Beyond being from the same battalion we belong to a community for whom making peace and forging cooperation in our country are important,” the letter goes on to say.
“How do we explain that the fallen from Battalion 71 are being remembered 54 years later by an expensive monument built on an expensive piece of property while monuments to others who have fallen elsewhere in the country are not being thusly upgraded? Who of the initiators of the upgrade of the monument has gathered around it on Memorial Days and found it overcrowded enough to warrant an expansion including an amphitheater right next to it?”
Since sending the letter some soldiers have been in touch with Kelner and a meeting about it is expected to take place next week at a groundbreaking event for the monument, to take place at Ammunition Hill. The soldiers are skeptical there is any real intent to listen to their argument and change the plan.
Eli Safran, a former paratrooper who opposes the plan, said “the fact they are already holding a ceremony to launch it shows this is a done deal. We have some criticism. It’s not just a small matter of moving a chair. We don’t feel they are treating our issues seriously.”
He said the project has been in the planning stages for the past four years. “They couldn’t notify the battalion before now? Many of us are unhappy about this provocation.”
Aner Attar, one of the authors of the letter, said “I want residents of Sheikh Jarrah to live together with me. I don’t want to make them envious. Nobody has asked the residents if this is what they want, therefore this format is unacceptable to me.”
Another opponent, Yoav Brosh, said “it will be a disaster if they set up an amphitheater there.”
Kelner refused to offer any response.