Israel Moves to Register Lands Near Al-Aqsa Using Funds Earmarked for Palestinians

The registration process – carried out using funds earmarked for narrowing economic disparities and improving the quality of life of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem – could spark protests from the Muslim religious trust that administers the Al-Aqsa mosque compound

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The Ophel Archaeological Park in Jerusalem, last week.
The Ophel Archaeological Park in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Justice Ministry on Thursday began the process of registering ownership of land adjacent to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a highly sensitive area considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

The parcel of land in question, just south of the Temple Mount, is being registered with government funding earmarked for narrowing economic disparities and improving the quality of life of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. In practice, however, it is primarily being used to register land for Jews, while Palestinians are generally leery of cooperating with the effort. As part of the process, the land at the Ophel Archaeological Park, which lies between the City of David National Park and the wall of the Temple Mount, is also being entered in the land registry.

The registration process in the area could spark protests from the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the mosque compound, and from the Palestinians and the Jordanians, among others.

The first step in the registration process is the issuance of a public notice to anyone claiming ownership in the area where registration is being carried out, requiring that claimants provide proof of ownership. But for the most part, Jerusalem Palestinians have refused to cooperate out of concern that the Custodian for Absentee Property might claim ownership of all or a portion of it. The law permits the custodian to seize property if it is registered to someone who is or was residing in an enemy country.

In the last two years, following a 2018 cabinet decision, the official in charge of land registration in Jerusalem, David Rotenberg, began the registration process for a number of parcels in the east of the city. This prompted questions from human rights groups in Jerusalem, planning organizations and Ir Amim, an Israeli nonprofit whose stated mission is to make Jerusalem a more “equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.”

The groups questioned the choice of land selected at the outset, a large portion of which belonged to Jews or were administered by the Custodian for Absentee Property. In some areas where ownership of land was being recorded the custodian sought to establish Jewish neighborhoods.

In the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, for example, which has been the scene of intermittent friction between Palestinians and Jews including tension preceding last year’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the registration process has been completed and nearly all of the land registered to Jews.

Additional registration work has begun in a number of other East Jerusalem neighborhoods. All of this is being conducted with funding originally earmarked “to create a better future for the residents of the East of the city,” as the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry described it.

The 2018 cabinet resolution that preceded the registry push included a five-year plan to reduce socioeconomic disparities in East Jerusalem, with funding of more than 2 billion shekels ($580 million) through a number of government ministries.

Under pressure from Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister at the time, the Justice Ministry also received funding to establish a land registry system for East Jerusalem.

After the reunification of the city following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel stopped land registration in that part of the city, and more than 90 percent of the land in East Jerusalem remains unregistered, adding to chaos in city planning there. It makes it difficult to obtain construction permits or to plan Palestinian neighborhoods in the city as well as fosters a real estate black market.

In a statement for this article, the Justice Ministry said in part that claims that the registration process is being used to take control of land and settle Jews there is “without foundation.” The registration is a kind of judicial process “that is open to anyone claiming to have ownership rights,” the ministry said, adding that the office of the Jerusalem land registrar does not direct its efforts at specific landowners.

The Ophel Archaeological Park is one of the most important in the city and constitutes a portion of Davidson park next to the Western Wall. Until a year ago, the national park was administered by the City of David Foundation (also known as the Elad Foundation). It is now run by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter.

The Mikvah Trail, which was built with support from the Jewish Australian philanthropist Kevin Bermeister, was dedicated in 2017. Bermeister is one of the largest donors to the movement that seeks to settle Jews in East Jerusalem and is in close contact with settlement organizations and right-wing politicians. In recent years, the City of David Foundation has been digging a canal from the City of David, south of the Temple Mount, towards the Ophel. On Jerusalem Day this year, the cabinet approved special funding to complete the canal and tunnel project.

“The land [registration] arrangement was supposed to be for the benefit of the residents. It’s clear that no one can benefit from an arrangement in such a place and that this is another phase in the government taking control on the ground,” said Gal Yanovsky, a lawyer who is involved in policy planning for the Ir Amim nonprofit.

“The land [registration] that has been advanced through the resolution, which was meant to benefit the Palestinian residents of the city, is being exploited by the government in a cynical manner to steal their land and so that the state can take control of land and advance the interests of the Jewish settlers in the east of the city. Now things have already been stepped up a notch. The [registration] next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is an attempt at Israeli control of the most sensitive area of the city,” Yanovsky said.

“The more time that passes, we have been seeing that the land [registration] is being exploited for the interests of the state and the settlement enterprise and not for the benefit of East Jerusalem’s residents,” said Sari Kronish, an architect from the nonprofit Bimkom, which bills itself as promoting “development of planning policies and practices that are more just and respectful of human rights, and responsive to the needs of local communities.” Land registration “is important for jumpstarting urban development but to the extent that it is done in the dark and not for the benefit of all of the residents, it would be better to stop it,” Kronish said.

About three weeks ago, the registrar published two more notices regarding the registration process, stating that he intended to begin the process in Abu Tor, overlooking the Hinnom Valley and at the Ophel park. On Thursday, in a step unrelated to the announcement, the Waqf issued a statement condemning archaeological work at the Davidson park, claiming it was being performed on land belonging to the Waqf.

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