Historically, few places on earth have been as heavily contested as Jerusalem and its encircling zones of farmland and desert. There lie the ancient ruins of past civilizations that resided in what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
For centuries, a potent mix of religion and relics have been used to advance one people’s ownership of the land over another’s, but in modern times this fight over the city’s history has taken on new dimensions.
As plans to establish Israeli national parks in East Jerusalem have escalated, so too has suspicion that the conservationist agenda is masking a deeper political purpose.
According to Palestinian and planning activists, Israeli authorities are abusing the pretext of archeological excavation to strengthen the case for park expansion. They say that when completed the parks will form a kind of green belt around the eastern parts of Jerusalem, further severing it from the West Bank. Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War, the international community still considers it a part of a future Palestinian state.
How can a national park cause such uproar?
In late November 2011, the Knesset passed a bill proclaiming Mount Scopus, one of East Jerusalem’s last remaining open spaces, encompassing an area roughly akin to the walled Old City, a national park.
The decision is still awaiting ministerial approval but has already enraged activists and local residents who say it will prevent their communities from expanding and building much-needed schools and hospitals.
Building permits for Palestinians are notoriously hard to obtain in East Jerusalem but because of high population growth, residents often build regardless, even if it makes them more susceptible to Israeli demolition orders.
According to Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli civil rights group that advocates “responsible” urban and rural planning, in national parks illegal construction is made much harder and gaining demolition permits much easier.
The creation of the national park also technically transfers responsibility from the municipality to the Nature and Park Authority (NPA). “By rezoning these areas, the Jerusalem Municipality will abdicate its responsibility for the area, its residents, landowners and users,” Bimkom said in a press statement. As the NPA, “bears no responsibility toward the residents,” municipal service provision – which are already inferior in Palestinian areas – including water, sewage and garbage collection would no longer be required, the statement added.
Mount Scopus is not alone
What is perhaps most alarming about Mount Scopus is that it’s not a freakish exception.
Four other national parks in East Jerusalem are also in various stages of approval in the Palestinian-dominated neighborhoods of Al-Bustan, Mount of Olives, and Bab as-Sahran. Only one of the sites, Ash-Sheikh Jarrah, is seen as mixed.
Additionally troubling the archeologists, who oppose the expansion, is the dubious archeological wealth of the parks, with only Al-Bustan thought to have real archeological significance.
Instead, the sites seemingly stand out for the interlinking positions.
Map: Nava Sheer
If a conservation buffer is erected, it could act an additional insulating pocket for the city, already shielded from the West Bank by a famed separation barrier stretching the length of the border.
To its opponents, the park policy is an extension of a longer-term agenda of altering the town’s ethnic makeup, expressed in documents like the 2000 official city development plan, known as the Israeli Town Planning Scheme/Master Plan.
It proposes creating a population balance of 77 percent Jewish by 2020, up from around 65 percent Jewish and 35 percent Palestinian today. Demographic trends make such a reversal highly unlikely and Palestinians are on tracks to increase to some 42 percent by the close of the decade. But the government is not giving up. In a 2009 revamp, a new 2030 goal has been set. It concentrates less on numbers and more on spatial segregation, reducing the visibility, if not the demographic ratio, of the Palestinian presence.
“In Jerusalem, the National Parks are like green settlements,” said Efrat Cohen-Bar, a Bikrom architect who helped compile the 2012 report “From Public to National”. “These are areas where the settlers feel they would not be able to develop settlement projects so they tried to make a National Park out of it instead.”
The trouble with tourism
The authorities deny these allegations. In comments to the Jerusalem Post, the director of the Old City projects at the Jerusalem Development Authority, Elad Kandall, defended parks as the best way “to preserve and protect” the last open areas in East Jerusalem. “When you make it a national park, you keep the status quo so you don’t damage the area,” he said, while explaining that much of the proposed areas were being used as illegal dumping grounds.
The park expansions are also defended on touristic grounds and authorities have long striven to boost visitor numbers.
The most visible part of this is an East Jerusalem promenade designed as a touristic loop, connecting the northern parts of the city with the Holy Basin. It is being built thanks to an annual 50-million shekel ($14 million) budget for 2006 – 2012 allocated to boost tourism in the Holy Basin, part of a city-wide $100 million tourism development plan, hoped to triple visitor numbers in the next decade.
All roads lead to Al-Bustan…
For now, however, the road remains incomplete, stopped in its tracks by the tiny Palestinian village of Al-Bustan that lies at the Holy Basin’s southern edge.
Also known as The King’s Valley National Park, the area is said to be home to ancient gardens where King David used to take his wives for walks and could heed enlightening archeological results. But pro-Palestinian activists question the proposal’s motives and insist archeological gains cannot justify the uprooting of Al-Bustan’s 1,000-odd residents even if their homes were erected illegally.
The municipality has issued demolition orders on many of the homes and tried to relocate or compensate some families but most have refused the offer.
Tensions have caused periodic protests to erupt in Al-Bustan, which residents fear will soon be annexed by the City of David Park and maybe even El’ad, the settler group that administers it.
City of David rests directly west of Al-Bustan in the volatile Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, which is a hotspot for protests, arrests and mass evictions. Despite its proximity to the Old City, it is one of East Jerusalem’s poorest areas and is disproportionally at risk from demolitions.
El’ad, the only private organization to have custodianship over a state national park, is widely blamed for this state of affairs. Not only have they promoted settler immigration to the area, they operate tours at the park that present an extremist version of Jewish history based around the Old Testament, which largely omits other civilizations from Jerusalem’s mixed heritage.
Although courts and politicians have tended to support El’ad, in August a Jerusalem District Court declared its park’s contract illegal, ruling that it was unfairly renewed because other private organizations were not allowed to bid. Despite the small victory, most are doubtful the reality will change even if the decision stands up on appeal.
“…Even if the private ownership of the City of David is ruled illegal, I don’t think anything will change on the ground,” Melkam Lidet a writer for the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy told Record. “Settlers would still continue to live in the ‘park’ or other parts of Silwan. It won’t be new in Israel where the law enforcing body fails to follow court orders.”
The Palestinians have started playing that game too
In the parts of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has near total control, the outlook is not as bleak.
As Cambridge University professor Jennifer Wallace writes in a June article for the open access forum International Relations and Security Network, “in this long heated debate about archaeology and nationhood, the Palestinians have been relatively quiet until now.”
Earlier skirmishes are attributable to political retaliation but the Palestinians have now woken up to the potency of politicizing the past, she explains.
“It seems that the Palestinians are increasingly recognizing that the ancient remains in their land may prove useful to them in the international arena,” Wallace said.
The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) October 2011 entry into the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the first U.N. organization to accept Palestine as a full member, has been pinnacle of this awakening.
A central aim of the UNESCO bid was to propose several locations for World Heritage status in hopes that the move would allow Palestinians to reassert their claims to the land, challenged by Israel’s archeological, ecological, and tourism policies.
At least two sites now look like they will be put up for World Heritage consideration in 2013: the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The selection is officially apolitical but that is impossible in Palestine. The tomb, for instance, is located next to a notoriously volatile settler community and is guarded by Israeli soldiers who frisk all visitors.
While World Heritage status cannot protect against acts of terrorism or war, it can boost tourism revenues – a key industry in Palestine – and soften Western public opinion, which arguably has the potential to change the facts on the ground.
Indeed, Palestinian UNESCO membership clearly ruffled feathers. In response, the U.S. froze its portion of UNESCO funding, as well as $200 million of direct funding to the Palestinians, while the Israelis withheld Palestinian revenues from tax collection. A month later the Knesset approved the Mount Scopus bill, although it didn’t directly linked this to the UNESCO move.
Might there be a solution?
Politics is always a priority in Israel and Palestine but “new school archeologists”, lead by Israeli group Emek Shaveh, have proposed a seemingly simple solution to the crisis and think that the past can bring about a united future.
They have called for the adoption of “inclusive archaeology,” an international method that would see a site’s mixed heritage celebrated in an attempt to engage all residents. In principle, this should be easy in the Holy Land where few sites don’t betray signs of various lost and living cultures.
Inclusive archeologists additionally propose alleviating tensions by using park tourism revenues to build projects, such as schools. Although similar schemes have proven surprisingly successful elsewhere, and are being tried by western universities and aid agencies working at Palestinian’s proposed UNESCO sites, these are still in their infancy.
Whether such policies will remain after the international archeological crews leave remains to be seen.