Right-wing Israeli Group Running Activities for Schoolkids on Private Palestinian Land

Volunteer work on land developed by Elad and the Israel Parks and Nature Association counts toward students’ matriculation requirements

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Houses in the Hinnom Valley, this week.
Houses in the Hinnom Valley, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Elad, a right-wing Zionist organization, has been holding educational activities on private Palestinian farmland in East Jerusalem under the auspices of the Jerusalem Municipality.

The activity is defined as a joint project between Elad and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and was made possible after Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon signed a landscaping order to develop the area of the Hinnom Valley where the farmland is located.

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Elad, which manages the City of David National Park and archaeological excavations in East Jerusalem, has recently focused its efforts on the Hinnom Valley – a stretch of land situated between Mount Zion and the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Abu Tor and Silwan.

In 2020, Elad signed an agreement to develop the area with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The INPA has extensive powers in the Hinnom Valley, as much of it falls within the Jerusalem Walls National Park. The agreement signed with Elad, which was not subject to a tender, was for management of a joint project for five years, during which Elad pledged to build terraces, plant, arrange paths and establish a farm as a “touristic-educational-experiential project.”

A map was appended to the document which shows the entire area of the valley. The map of the area overlaps almost entirely the area included in the landscaping order signed by Leon the year before. The municipality is legally authorized to order such landscaping, but the area remains in the hands of the private owners.

Following the agreement, Elad employees and volunteers began working the land. One plot, registered partly under the name of the administrator general and official receiver and partly under private ownership, was fenced off and turned into a farm, though most of the area remains open space. Schoolchildren and teens have been invited both to the farm and the open areas. Participants pay a fee for the activities that include tours, pita baking, and grape pressing, building terraces and other activities.

About a month ago, protests began in the nearby Baka neighborhood, after the community administration invited teens from the neighborhood to volunteer at the farm. The local high school recognizes the volunteer work for the purpose of fulfilling their social action requirement. Hundreds of neighborhood residents signed a petition against community institutions cooperating with Elad.

Shadi Sumrin, a Silwan resident whose family owns lots included in the landscaping order, has a Turkish deed and tax payment documents from the British Mandate government, which prove his ownership of the land. About a month ago, clashes broke out between family members and the police, after the INPA broke down a fence and brought heavy equipment to the family’s olive grove.

Members of the Sumrin family, the owners of land included in the landscaping order.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We are not racist and we don’t mind if Jews come here,” a family member, Shuaib Sumrin, said. “Let them sit, let them visit, no problem. But they shouldn’t work our land.”

Considerable work has been done in the plots, most of which contain ancient olive trees. Elad has built new fences, destroyed an ancient terrace, cleaned up the area and performed landscaping. The residents fear that the next step will be fencing off the land and banning their access.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s court rejected the residents’ appeal against the landscaping order. The residents have now appealed to the district court.

At a Jerusalem District Court hearing on the matter last week, attorney Mohand Jabra said that there was no precedent for such sweeping use of a landscaping order over such a large patch of land. He added that there is also no precedent for using a landscaping order to turn the area over to the INPA. Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman postponed her decision to a later time.

Alon Arad, executive director of the archaeologists’ organization Emek Shaveh, is assisting the residents. “People who love Jerusalem and care about its heritage don’t harm its landscapes or push out its people,” he said. “The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, through Elad, is promoting development that essentially changes the landscapes, damaging the historical heritage of the valley and reshaping it to fit political interests,” Arad said. “It is shameful that this work is being done by a political organization that drafts teens and children for its own needs under the framework of fulfilling their educational obligations.”

In response, the INPA said, “The authority is managing and carrying out all work at the site itself. Our activities at the site are a joint project with Elad. The project was publicized and approved by the tenders committee. Any claim to ownership of the land must be clarified in court.”

The Jerusalem Municipality responded: “This is open public space for which a landscaping order was issued to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The city rejects any claim that the area has been transferred to anyone.”

Elad responded that the agreement with the INPA was legally signed and that it is not carrying out work on private property.

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