Jerusalem Board Approves Old City Promenade on Remains of Muslim Cemetery

Israeli government agencies say they do not actually intend to expropriate the contested area, which was the site of mass protests last year

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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File photo: Israeli forces in Jerusalem's Old City.
File photo: Israeli forces in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A Jerusalem planning board rejected on Monday objections by Muslim religious authorities and Palestinian landowners, who sought to block a plan to expropriate an area near the Old City for the construction of a promenade.

The area in question, just northeast of the Old City walls, contains the remains of the al-Yusufiya cemetery, according to the Waqf, but Israel denies it plans to use land owned by the Muslim religious trust.

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There are about 10 graves at the site, and the Waqf says there are many more that are unmarked. Another part of the site served as Jerusalem’s sheep market for most of the 20th century.

In October, human bones were discovered in the area during excavations, resulting in mass protests by Palestinians that lasted several days and were quelled by force by the police.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg did not accede to requests by officials in Jerusalem to stop the project, and her bureau responded that there was no intention to actually expropriate the area.

Attorney Sami Arshid, who represents the Palestinian owners of the market area, explained that they leased it to the Jerusalem municipality in its various iterations – Turkish, British, Jordanian and Israeli – for more than a century. In 2018, the municipality stopped paying rent and began moving ahead a plan through the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to build a promenade and a park at the site.

Human remains unearthed outside Jerusalem's Old City, in October.

According to Arshid, “This plan was born in sin. It deprives the owners of the land of their rights and infringes on people’s basic rights as well as harming the delicate balance in the fabric around the Old City. The planned project also harms the Old City walls and the world heritage of the place.”

The Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee stated in its Monday decision that it believes that “the purpose of the project, which is to establish part of a tourist promenade around the walls, which will allow the public to enjoy the historical and archaeological as well as the natural and scenic values of this unique place is a worthy goal in terms of public planning.” The committee also said it was important to approve the plan, “without reference to those who hold rights within it,” to achieve that goal.

Attorney Mohanad Jabar, who represents the committee of Muslim cemeteries, criticized the decision, saying “the authorities entered the area in the middle of the night without legal authority. At first they claimed that the Jordanians had expropriated it. If that is true, why do they have to expropriate it again? Now they are receiving a prize.”

Various people, including Meretz party activists, have turned to Environmental Protection Minister Zandberg over the past few days with a request to stop approval of the plan. Jerusalem Councilwoman Laura Wharton assailed the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, saying that it “is planning very undignified surprises for us for Ramadan.”

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandber, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“This time it has surpassed itself and expropriated Waqf land," she said. "It’s a great pity that not only hotheaded MKs seek provocations, but so supposedly do government bodies, who place their masters the settlers above the interests of Jerusalem’s inhabitants.”

Zandberg’s bureau responded that “This is not an expansion of a nationalist type, but rather a national park that was approved and declared many years ago. This is a complex event that touches on matters of planning and ownership."

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority responded that it “does not intend to act to expropriate the area in question,” and that it “has worked and works all through the years to organize the site for the benefit of Jerusalem’s residents and many visitors.”

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