Pro-settler Group Bids to Convert Coexistence Peace Forest Into Commercial Site

With backing from local and national authorities, the pro-settler Elad group is advancing a host of commercial and other projects at a site originally created to be a pastoral meeting place for Arabs and Jews

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The sign welcoming visitors to the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.
The sign welcoming visitors to the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Shortly after the Six-Day War, the Jewish National Fund launched a major tree-planting campaign in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of pine trees were planted on the slopes of the Hill of Evil Counsel, on some 550 dunams (135 acres) of land located between the Abu Tor neighborhood and the Armon Hanatziv promenade in the eastern part of the city. On Independence Day 1968 the area was dedicated by then-Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Mayor Teddy Kollek as the Peace Forest: The large wooded expanse, straddling the city’s eastern and western sections, was intended to be a popular leisure spot and meeting place for all of the capital’s residents.

Ultimately, the precarious location meant that neither the city’s Jews nor its Arabs would ever feel truly comfortable there. But over the years the right-wing Elad association – a nonprofit that works to augment Jewish presence and settlement in East Jerusalem by purchasing Arab homes and by promoting tourism and archaeological initiatives there – “discovered” the forest. Indeed, in the past 14 years it has turned the area into a focal point of activity.

A view the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

At first the NGO simply trespassed and built illegal structures there. But things changed and gradually various local and national bodies – including the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Land Authority, the Tourism Ministry and the JNF – began to grant Elad assistance. This assistance has included granting building permits retroactively, allocating land to the group without a proper bidding process, and generous funding to the tune of tens of millions of shekels.

Tracking down the agreements that have been signed with Elad, however, has proven difficult. When the Movement for Freedom of Information sought information about the ties between it and the ILA, the NGO claimed that the information was classified because it involved national security interests.

The latest development occurred last Monday at a meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning Commission, which debated a request by the municipality to change the zoning of the Peace Forest so that it would no longer be defined as a forest within the framework the National Master Plan for forests, known as Tama 22. This would mean that the JNF would no longer be responsible for managing the area, nor would it be allowed to object to various educational and other activities that Elad has been conducting there, as in the past.

The Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

The reason for the request for change of status, according to the municipality, is to enable “possible sports-related uses. The Elad association has already received a permit that includes a zip-line installation.” The zip line (called omega in Hebrew) would start at the promenade and end at the Peace Forest below, and would be the longest of its kind in Israel – some 800 meters. While the municipality is in favor of it, a problem has arisen: Its construction violates the provisions of Tama 22. But if the area in question is no longer designated a forest, that problem is solved.

The open debate lasted only a few minutes, and almost no one objected to the idea. One exception was the representative of the Transportation Ministry. A zip line, he said, does not conform to the standard of “public use,” by law: “It constitutes commercial use: It’s not going to be operated by the municipality or a youth group. This alone is a reason not to approve the plan.”

In the end, the planning committee asked for further clarifications from Elad, so it isn’t clear yet whether the Peace Forest will no longer be legally deemed a forest. In any event, however, it is obvious that the rezoning scheme is yet another stage, and by no means the last one, in Elad’s gradual takeover of the forest and its environs.

Most of Elad’s current focus is on managing and developing the City of David National Park in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, and purchasing homes for Jews from the Arabs living there. But the NGO isn’t neglecting its other projects: It has been sponsoring activities in the Peace Forest since 2005, despite the fact that it has no ownership rights there or permits from the ILA (the legal owner of the land, which was expropriated from private Palestinian owners). These activities are essentially expanding Elad’s reach from Silwan into the entire historic basin of Jerusalem’s Old City, from the Mount of Olives to the Armon Hanatziv promenade (which actually consists of several different walkways, projects of the Jerusalem Foundation).

The Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Plaster ‘tents’

Initially, Elad erected tents in the Peace Forest and conducted educational activities there. It also used the site to sift earth brought in from archaeological excavations that it was conducting nearby. In recent years the organization erected a large tent, storage units, bathrooms and other facilities in its compound there – all without building permits. As a result, in 2012 the city decided to take legal action against the NGO, which was eventually convicted of illegal construction.

As part of the arrangement reached with the municipality, Elad promised to demolish the structures on its own within a year. But that wasn’t the end of the story: Two weeks before that deadline, the city’s local planning and building committee issued a permit that legalized the illegal construction. Moreover, the panel even expanded the permit, allowing the group to erect a campsite, including staff facilities, and a gradated structure that serves as a small amphitheater.

This change in policy spurred the Peace Now organization and Laura Wharton and Yosef “Pepe” Alalu, city councillors from the Meretz party, to appeal to the district planning committee, which had originally cancelled the permits and demanded that Elad demolish the structures in question. The panel rejected Elad’s claims that the issue involved “a temporary tent for creative and recycling activities.”

The Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“We’re talking about a large permanent structure that’s called a tent but in reality is partially a plaster structure and partially a permanent tent with wood foundations and steel connections,” the committee wrote in a decision in September, 2014. “The structure looks as if it’s meant to be used as a small banquet hall.”

Three months passed and the debate over the tent continued. Eventually the municipal legal adviser decided that Elad’s building permit would remain in force – but would not include the camping site or the activities tent. “Their demolition is a condition for applying for a [new] permit,” according to the city.

Days, months and years have passed, and the “tent” is still there in the forest, serving as a type of camping site for various groups, among other things. Throughout this period, the courts have repeatedly allowed the demolition to be postponed. Not only has the structure not been removed, but other construction work is taking place nearby. It’s no coincidence that in its official publicity materials, Elad presents the Peace Forest as “the City of David’s attractions center.” Haaretz was told by Elad that it has a building permit for the site, but it refused to present it.

A view the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Parallel to all this, Elad sought formal approval for its activities from the ILA, which owns the land. A request submitted by the Movement for Freedom of Information revealed that the ILA and Elad signed a number of agreements that allows the nonprofit to use the land for 15 years in return for a fee of 400,000 shekels ($110,300). There was no competitive bidding process or any public announcement of the deal.

“First they [the authorities] turned it into open public area and then they turned it into a forest, such that Palestinian use of these lands has been limited,” says attorney Sami Arsheid, an expert in Jerusalem property issues. “Now they are giving Elad a free hand in controlling the public space.”

Some of the land in the Peace Forest was never expropriated and still belongs to private Palestinian owners, Arsheid tells Haaretz: “This is another example of how the state transfers private Palestinian property and public property for Elad’s use, a method of ‘creeping settlement.’ I hope that this time it won’t succeed and there will be some brave legal advisers who will stop it.”

For its part, the ILA states that the land in question was transferred to Elad under a regulation that waives any need for a bidding process if what is at stake is “establishment of a unique tourism initiative.” Who is the guarantor behind this initiative? It turns out that recommendations supporting it came from the Tourism Ministry, which has good ties with Elad that have taken the form of several projects over the years – in particular the controversial cable-car scheme planned for the Old City.

The Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Decisions by the ILA’s tourism committee reveal another interesting detail: The NGO got the land in the forest without a tender because it already operated there beforehand. Says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, “This means that not only did Elad operate in the compound without permission: It got a reward for it in the form of formal permission to operate there for many years at a low price.”

In any event, the Movement for Freedom of Information has not been able to obtain all the details of the group’s agreements with the city. When it tried to do so, Elad petitioned the Jerusalem District Court and insisted it couldn’t provide the information, “because it is related to transactions that are sensitive from a security and national perspective, and their publication poses a risk to public safety and the safety of those involved.” Elad also demanded that the hearings on its petition take place behind closed doors and that lawyers for the Movement for Freedom of Information not be present – and in fact, that is how the hearings are being held.

“Elad is acting in bad faith by not including us in the process,” says Racheli Edri, director of the Movement for Freedom of Information. “It’s more convenient to portray everything as security related, because then you just have to prove a concern, without any factual basis. It’s easy to hide behind security stories.”

Tourism Ministry’s support for Elad is expressed not just with respect to the Peace Forest, but also at the starting point of the zip line – at the Armon Hanatziv promenade above it. The nonprofit owns a building at the end of the scenic walkway known as Shatz House. Recently, Meretz city councillor Wharton learned that the ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality plan to fund construction of a new Elad visitors center there, at a cost of 43 million shekels – 93 percent of the project’s total cost.

Sheep at the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“We’re talking about a commercial business,” Wharton wrote the state comptroller last month. “There will be a ticket booth at the entrance, and the compound will have a restaurant, a kiosk and a store. People will be able to rent an electric bike, Segway or set out from the zip line send-off point across the Peace Forest. All these will turn the forest and the entire area into an amusement park that will encroach on the forest itself but will primarily be a nice source of income for the Elad association.”

According to Wharton, support for an NGO project generally exceeds no more than 50 percent of the total funding. “It isn’t clear on what basis it was decided to give such a large gift to Elad,” she told Haaretz. “I don’t understand why they are stealing an open public area in the city and turning it into a camping site for pay, with the revenues going to a private entity.”

Ofran, of Peace Now, is also puzzled by the decision-making process. “Taking the forest out of Tama 22 is an effort to legalize the underhanded move by the municipality, which gave a building permit to the ambitious zip-line project in the Old City basin without a detailed urban plan or any publicity or public debate.”

‘To revive the area’

Elad said in response to this article that it is “working to develop ancient Jerusalem and make it accessible to the general public. The association was the first to offer Segway tours along the Armon Hanatziv promenade, from the Peace Forest, in order to revive the area and restore it as a center of urban nature. We are also working to build the longest zip line in Israel, which will allow an experiential encounter with ancient Jerusalem. All the association’s activities are in accordance with the law and regulations. The association will continue to work for the further development of ancient Jerusalem.

“The plan [for the Peace Forest] relates to the area of some 350 dunams trapped between several neighborhoods whose inhabitants avoid it. Elad is using only a small portion of the area, a total of only 15 dunams. The forest plan that applies to the area now severely restricts the development of projects, including playgrounds and the like. Ratification of the plan for an open public area [within the forest] (which has been in place since 1977) will facilitate development of the site by the various authorities for the benefit of the general public.

“Since the forest is not contiguous to any other forests outside the city, JNF professionals decided to transfer administrative responsibility for the forest to the Jerusalem Municipality, to allow the area to continue to develop as an open public area for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and for the general public. We have no doubt that the municipality will manage the Peace Forest well.

The sign welcoming visitors to the Peace Forest, on April 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“The JNF and the Jerusalem Municipality are engaged in many cooperative ventures, and only recently was it decided that the forests in the areas of Ramot and Har Nof [Jerusalem neighborhoods] will become community forests, which are now being developed. This is a professional position and it has nothing to do with the Elad association and/or any other entity.”

The Israel Land Authority said in response: “The request to give authorization to an attraction to the City of David association for temporary use was approved by the proper ILA committees in accordance with regulation 25 (14) of the mandatory tenders law, and in accordance with the ILA tourism committee and the Tourism Ministry's director general. The usage fees set for the authorization period were determined on the basis of an up-to-date assessment and were derived from the value of the land.”

The Tourism Ministry commented, with respect to Elad’s plans for a visitors center: “This is a request submitted by the Jerusalem Development Authority as part of a cooperation procedure, and the engagement is with it [the JDA]. The Tourism Ministry is funding 50 percent of the cost of the project, which was approved due to its tourism importance. A large hotel complex with 1,100 rooms is currently being built in the area, to be accompanied by complementary tourism infrastructure. The site is a strategic tourist destination that is in a state of development, which is why the Tourism Ministry committee approved the project for the Jerusalem Municipality. As far as the private project is concerned: Under Tourism Ministry regulations, there is nothing to prevent a project from being operated by a franchisee, if the revenues will go toward the maintenance and development of the project.”

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The Jerusalem Municipality stated in response, “The claims are not true. The request is not to cancel Tama 22, but rather to approve plan Ayin-Mem/9 [a plan for preserving open spaces around the Old City] in the vicinity of the Peace Forest. This approval will allow the addition of permitted uses in the open public space within the forest. The request is supported by the JNF and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

“If the district planning commission recommends approval of Ayin-Mem/9, its recommendation will be passed on to the National Planning and Building Council for a decision. [Approval of] other uses for the public areas would allow worthy projects to be created in the forest and would turn it into an attraction for the benefit of the city’s residents and visitors.

“The municipality enforces regulations throughout the city, including in the Peace Forest, including enforcement of demolition orders in accordance with the legal options available to the municipality. We’re not talking about violations of a scope that would provide grounds for rejecting the plan, so as not to encourage violations. It must be stressed that this argument is divorced from reality when the local and district [planning] committees approved dozens of plans with similar violations in East Jerusalem.”

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