Jerusalem Plans to Use Land in Palestinian Neighborhood for Jewish Visitor Center

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Construction work at the Mount of Olives cemetery, April 24, 2017.
Construction work at the Mount of Olives cemetery, April 24, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Jerusalem City Hall has published plans to expropriate land in the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al-Amud for a new visitor and information center to serve the adjacent Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

Even though construction plans have yet to be published, work has apparently already begun on the project. At this point, it is unclear who owns the land to be expropriated, which is near a neighborhood mosque and not far from the Temple Mount in the Old City.

City hall said the current work is being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority and is not related to the municipality’s construction plan. The antiquities authority has permission to perform work anywhere in the city without a municipal permit, city hall added.

The plans for the visitor center were developed by the Jerusalem Development Authority in conjunction with the municipality. Groups and individual visitors would be able to congregate at the facility and be advised on the location of graves of family members and famous religious figures.

The plans provide for an assembly hall, shop and information office, as well as a path that would lead from the center through the cemetery itself. There is already a similar information facility in the area, run by the right-wing Ir David Foundation (also known as Elad).

Khalil Tukfaji, a geographer who heads a Palestinian land mapping office, spotted the public notice detailing the expropriation. (Tukfaji's office had been shut down for a day in March on the orders of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, in the mistaken belief it was operating illegally within the city limits of Jerusalem. The office was allowed to reopen the next day after it was determined it was in the West Bank, not Jerusalem.)

Tukfaji said Monday he assumed the purpose of the expropriation was to build a police station on the site, but most of the site is actually earmarked for the visitor center, to attract tourists to the cemetery.

The Mount of Olives cemetery, with the area circled where the construction work is occurring.
Construction work at the Mount of Olives cemetery, April 24, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“It’s impossible to ignore the location and political context prevailing at the site,” said Hagit Ofran, coordinator of the settlement watch team at the Peace Now organization.

“Establishing a tourist site in the heart of the historic basin of Jerusalem, adjacent to a mosque, opposite the Temple Mount, means building a kind of settlement. This project – together with the tourist settlement being promoted by the government in Palestinian neighborhoods in the area of the Old City – not only increases tensions in Jerusalem and harms the delicate fabric of life there, but also threatens the prospect of reaching any compromise agreement in Jerusalem,” Ofran added.

City hall said the land is adjacent to a mosque and currently serves as a parking lot. “There is no intention to harm the mosque or what is around it,” it said. “There is an old municipal construction plan for the site earmarking it as part of the cemetery, but not as land earmarked for graves. In light of this, it was decided to advance the establishment of a center for information services on the Mount of Olives. As with any plan it is possible to file an objection, which will be considered according to accepted [procedure] by various planning committees.”

In practice, however, work on the visitor center appears to have begun, even before the plan was published for objections.

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