Israeli Agency OKs Right-wing NGO's Plans to Build Large Visitors' Center in East Jerusalem

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Excavations at the City of David.

The National Planning and Building Council ruled this week that a right-wing organization can build a 16,000-square-meter center in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, overturning the decision by the council’s appeals subcommittee limiting the size to 10,000 square meters.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had pushed for the reversal of the size restrictions on the center planned by the Elad group. The facility will cover 16,000 square meters and tower seven stories over the Givati parking lot, adjacent to the walls of the Old City.

The national zoning panel reopened debate on the issue after Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor took the unusual step of attending a council meeting in January that voted on the proposal.

In its two-page statement reversing the ruling of the appeals body, the national council said the Jerusalem Walls National Park, where the center is to be built, “is a unique tourist destination of the highest order in Israel that deserves encouraging tourism within it.” The council members added that “goals like promoting a tourist experience, education by assimilating cultural, historical and archaeological heritage are a significant part of the designation of the national park.”

The council rejected all four appeals that had been partially accepted in June, which were signed off by the Emek Shaveh organization of archaeologists, the Ir Amim organization, Silwan residents and a group of intellectuals and architects. They asserted that the facility Elad seeks to build would damage antiquities, change the wall’s skyline, undercut the needs of the Palestinian population and would constitute a dangerous precedent for private, politicized building in the city’s most sensitive area.

“The decision to build a huge building the size of a mall on top of Jerusalem antiquities, for the benefit of a political organization, arouses a fear that intense politicization of planning institutions and also hurts Jerusalem as a world heritage site,” Emek Shaveh commented. “Instead of the antiquities being open and available to all, the planning committees decided, under pressure from politicians, to approve unprecedented damage of antiquities and to transfer cultural remains to Elad, which is a right-wing, nationalist, ideological organization. The Israel Antiquities Authority’s support of this project is testimony to the inability of this body to protect Jerusalem’s past and to maintain in the hands of the broader public for the sake of future generations.

Elad commented that the plan realizes a modern tourist-oriented program for early Jerusalem near the Western Wall. “The plan will increase the ability to handle visitors in early Jerusalem and is part of the national tourist challenge of improving the visitor experience and improving tourist infrastructure for the benefit of all who come to Jerusalem,” the organization stated.

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