Settlements and National Parks

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Israeli construction in East Jerusalem began as soon as the area was annexed in 1967. Large Jewish neighborhoods/settlements were built: French Hill, Giloh, East Talpiot, Ramot, Neveh Yaakov, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Har Homa. The Israeli authorities expropriated about one third of East Jerusalem’s territory for constructing these neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were built along the municipal boundaries between Palestinian neighborhoods in order to fortify and establish the new and expanded boundaries of Jerusalem to maintain a Jewish majority and to create Israeli dominance in the area. These neighborhoods/settlements currently house some 200,000 Israelis. According to international law, which never recognized the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, these neighborhoods are settlements in every sense of the word. Yet Israeli discourse and law view them as ordinary Israeli neighborhoods.
The accepted outline of a political settlement in Jerusalem, in line with the Clinton parameters, suggests that most of these neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty under a land swap framework. Naturally, constructing new neighborhoods, further expanding existing neighborhoods, and linking neighborhoods together to form one urban continuum would undermine the realization of such a resolution and consequently the feasibility of a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Since the late 1980s, there has been a concerted effort to establish Israeli presence in the area of the historic basin and inside the Palestinian neighborhoods. Two tools have been used for this purpose: settlement in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods and seizure of areas for public projects such as roads, archaeological excavations, tourism projects, and national parks.
The establishment of national parks and settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is an expression of a policy that has extensive consequences, both in relation to the feasibility of a political settlement and to equitable living arrangements in this mixed city.
The Establishment of Israeli Complexes Inside Palestinian Neighborhoods
We define a settlement--as distinguished from a neighborhood/settlement in East Jerusalem--by two features: a settlement is an Israeli complex inside a Palestinian neighborhood created jointly by the state and private bodies, and with an ideological purpose. Until the mid-1980s, the authorities avoided creating Israeli complexes inside Palestinian neighborhoods. They wanted to avoid friction and also were limited by their own justification of control over East Jerusalem – namely, that only Israel had the ability to maintain the city’s religious and cultural pluralism. For those reasons, the late former mayor Teddy Kollek, who supported construction of large Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, was against creating Israeli complexes inside Palestinian neighborhoods.
Since the mid-1980s, and even more so since the 1990s, the policy has changed. Ariel Sharon, as Minister of Housing and Construction, encouraged Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Sharon himself bought a house in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and under his stewardship, the Ministry of Housing and Construction transferred dozens of properties in the Old City and East Jerusalem to settler organizations. The organizations that received these properties maintain a nationalist-religious worldview, openly oppose a political settlement, and believe that Jews have exclusive rights to Jerusalem, its properties, and its resources. Most of the settlements are concentrated within the historic basin of the Old City and its surroundings, and have over the last two decades created a ring of guarded Jewish complexes in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods in and around the Old City. The ring of settlements extends from clusters of houses in the Christian and Muslim quarters to outside of the walls of the Old City in the areas of Damascus Gate and Sheikh Jarrah in the north, through Ras al-Amud and a-Tur in the east, all the way down to Silwan and Jabel Mukabbar in the south. In 2009, the settler population in the Old City and its surroundings reached 2000. Plans to expand existing settlements and build new ones are being advanced by the settlers and supported by the municipality and government ministries.
Settlements on Behalf of the State: The Players and the Mechanisms
The settlement enterprises in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods over the last 30 years were seemingly carried out by private bodies, but were in fact rooted in government policy and enabled by it. To bypass domestic and foreign criticism of these actions, the government usually avoided direct involvement in them. Instead, the state has used its mechanisms to allow private right-wing organizations to realize their plans to create Jewish outposts in the Palestinian neighborhoods of the Old City and its environs, to serve as barriers between Palestinian clusters, to change their character, and to prevent the possibility of a political settlement in Jerusalem.
Elad and Ateret Cohanim are among the organizations that have received properties from state authorities. These private bodies are actually executive arms of Israel's governments who carry out their policy in East Jerusalem while utilizing official government apparatuses for the purchase, population, and security of the settlements. Since the 1980s, the state has transferred and facilitated the transfer of properties inhabited or owned by Palestinians to right-wing societies through the Custodian of Absentee Property, the Custodian General, the Jewish National Fund, and other bodies. Silwan/City of David epitomizes the use of these state mechanisms, where all of the aforementioned practices have been used. The transfer of property from the state has often been carried out through a manipulative use of the law or even its circumvention. These measures were described and strongly criticized by the Klugman Committee, appointed by Justice Minister David Libai, which was formed as a result of public pressure and submitted its conclusions in September 1992.
The Use of Absentee Property Law
Many of Israel’s attorneys general instructed the government not to use the Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem due to its problematic nature. The original 1950 law, contentious in itself, referred to the property of Arabs who were considered absentees at the end of the 1948 War of Independence. The State of Israel, through this law, appointed itself guardian of their absentee property. If this law had been applied verbatim after 1967, it would have categorized residents of the West Bank, who live outside the Jerusalem municipal border but own property inside Jerusalem, as absentees. These people’s absenteeism would have been purely technical because they continued to live in their own homes on their own land in a territory under Israeli control (but separated from parts of their land by the Jerusalem municipal border). The evident difficulties of this hypothetical situation led the attorneys general to state the Absentee Property Law should not be applied to East Jerusalem. However, the authorities, at times, have applied this law. In the case of the Abbasi house in Wadi Hilweh in Silwan, for example, the Jerusalem District Court even ruled that declaration of the house as absentee property was based on a false affidavit without factual or legal basis, and that the entire procedure was tainted by “an extreme lack of good faith." Nonetheless, Elad people live in that house to this very day.
Illegal Purchases and Illegal Construction
The Klugman Committee Report’s severe criticism of the transfer of properties by the state to private bodies through the aforementioned channels forced the state to stop those practices for some time. But recently, the takeover of properties in East Jerusalem has commenced through private sales transactions. The authorities look the other way while shady deals are made through straw companies and individuals, and while various pressures are exerted on the Palestinian owners.
The Maale David settlement in the neighborhood of Ras al-Amud near Mount of Olives illustrates the way various state authorities mobilize to build and support a supposedly private project that in fact carries political significance. Until April 2008, the 11,000 square meter complex served as the Judea and Samaria district police headquarters. Right-wing parties endorsed the construction of a new police headquarters in a settlement in the politically controversial E1 area. In exchange, the state transferred the old headquarters building to the Bukharan Community Committee, which owned the area before 1948. In the next stage of this circular deal, the Bukharan Community Committee transferred the building to the settlers. Even though in its outline plan, this area is designated for public buildings, it is presently being converted into apartments. Future plans for additional housing units, a country club, a swimming pool, and educational institutions have also been put in place. While the conversion process into private housing units has been undertaken without building permits, the planning and approval processes are being applied to it retroactively. Maale David is supposed to be connected by bridge to a settlement on the other side of the street: Maale Zeitim, a guarded and fenced residential complex with 119 housing units.
Thus, while the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are subjected to severe building restrictions, the settlements in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods receive preferential terms. For example, in the plan for the settlement of Nof Zion in Jabel Mukabbar, building rights are 130% in the main areas, compared to 25% to 37.5% permitted for construction in the approved plans for the Palestinian neighborhood in which the settlement is located. The discriminatory planning in favor of the settlements is an indication that the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem is not part of a private process, but part of government policy. Another indication is that the government funds the security surrounding the settlements in the Palestinian neighborhoods. Thus, in 2011, the state allocated more than NIS 70 million from the Housing Ministry's budget for private security services through guards who are employed as contract workers. This is the only case where the state provides private security services for residents whose official status is mere private citizens, creating tensions and friction with the local Palestinian residents.
Settlements on Land that was Owned by Jews Before 1948
Construction of settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods has also been based on Jewish claims of ownership over land from before 1948. This is the case for some of the houses in Silwan, the Nissan Beck houses near Damascus gate, and the Ras al-Amud case above. One prominent case where use of such a claim of ownership was made is the Sheikh Jarrah settlement.
Before 1948, the land on which the Palestinian houses were built was part of the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood, whose land was owned by the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee. The Jordanian government (through the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property) did not change the registered ownership, but nonetheless settled refugee families on site, some of which had lived in West Jerusalem until 1948 and owned property there. Under Israeli law, Jews can claim property they owned before 1948, but Palestinians are denied that option. This asymmetry, rooted in law, paved the way for the entry of settlers into the neighborhood and the loss of homes for Palestinian families, all of this following a legal battle.
Jewish settlers have been entering homes in Sheikh Jarrah at the expense of Palestinian families since the beginning of 2009. This is presented as a legal question of ownership, rather than a political question of cooperation between government and private organizations as part of a broader policy. But actually, the legal recognition of the right of Jews to properties they owned before 1948, and the eviction of Palestinian families from homes they lived in for decades in the name of that right, is not just a question of real estate ownership but expresses a principal position. According to this position, Jewish properties and houses in East Jerusalem are connected to the reality of Jerusalem before 1948, but there is no such connection in the case of Palestinians whose houses are presently in Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. This discriminatory policy is inconsistent with the values of justice and democracy.
Recognition of the right of Jews to properties they owned before 1948 is also a precedent that may have far-reaching political consequences. Although Israeli law does not recognize the right of Palestinians to claim their pre-1948 properties within the Green Line in a similar manner, a collective claim of that sort – even if it is only symbolic – could put Israel in a most complex situation both locally and internationally. Such a claim serves those who wish to divert the discussion of a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a conversation surrounding 1967 to a conversation about 1948, and in the context of Jerusalem from a conversation about property rights and sovereignty over East Jerusalem to that over West Jerusalem.
Settlements and National Parks
The settlements in the Palestinian neighborhoods are often anchored in archaeological sites, historical sites, and national parks, which in themselves are powerful political tools.
According to law, a national park is "an area designated for public use for leisure in nature or to commemorate values of historic, archaeological, architectural, natural or landscaping importance or the likes…" The definition is flexible and broad enough to justify the conversion of different kinds of areas into national parks. The first national park in East Jerusalem, Walls of Jerusalem National Park, was declared in 1976 and included the strip surrounding the walls of the Old City, extending into Silwan/City of David. Since the 1990s, additional areas of East Jerusalem have been turned into national parks, some of them as additions to Walls of Jerusalem, and some, like the Tzurim Valley National Park, as an extension of it deep into the Palestinian neighborhoods, without claiming the site has any archaeological, historical, or landscaping importance. Additional national parks are in planning and approval stages, including the Mount Scopus Slopes, planned to be on the land of the neighborhoods of a-Tur and Issawiya, and at the expense of plans to expand these neighborhoods, which are in approval stages. Added to that are municipal plans such as The King’s Garden, which is supposed to be an expansion of the City of David National Park and will involve the demolition of most of the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan.
The Map of National Parks
Similar to cases of settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, national parks are also an arena in which state authorities have joined hands with private bodies, with the state transferring administration and development powers for public, touristic, archaeological and educational projects into the hands of right wing private organizations. Frequently, representatives of the organizations participate in the planning of the projects and even initiate them, and people who previously worked for them serve in senior positions in public bodies that are responsible for those projects, such as Israel Nature and Parks Authority. For example, the Elad organization, the biggest and most prominent of the right wing organizations, operates the City of David National Park, an educational project in the Tzurim Valley National Park, a project in the Peace Forest and the information center in the Mount of Olives cemetery, while also endorsing archaeological excavations in the entire area of Silwan.
Archaeological excavations and tourism development are frequently undertaken and/or underwritten by the right-wing organizations, which in turn use them to justify their activity and disseminate and impose their historic narrative of Jerusalem through extensive educational activity. The narrative in question derives pronounced political and nationalist conclusions from historic Jewish presence, while covering up the diversity and wealth of cultures that existed in Jerusalem through its thousands of years of history. By-and-by, this awareness delegitimizes any non-Jewish presence in the city. The Education Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Jewish Agency, and other bodies send hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, soldiers, officers and college students from Israel and abroad to participate in educational projects operated by right-wing organizations in East Jerusalem, who in turn provide visitors with a story that binds history, heritage and politics in one. A visit to these tourist sites provides a comfortable setting for establishment of Israeli presence in East Jerusalem and at the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, while ignoring its political implications.
The national parks serve not only as tools for shaping the national landscape and awareness, but also as administrative tools. An area declared as a national park is transferred from the responsibility of the municipality, which is formally committed to the welfare of its residents, to the responsibility of the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA), a government agency in charge of the protection of nature, landscape, and heritage. The NPA has enforcement powers in the territory of the park but has no obligation towards the people who live in it. Private land located in national parks is not expropriated and compensation is not provided for it. However, it is impossible to realize ownership of such land in any significant way when it is swallowed into the area of a national park. The declaration of a national park does not only violate private ownership but also hurts the population of East Jerusalem as a whole. With almost no public spaces in Palestinian Jerusalem, establishing fenced national parks in open areas in the Palestinian neighborhoods comes at the expense of developing spaces in favor of public institutions such as schools, community centers, public parks and so on.
While it is not a necessary tool for the protection of nature and heritage, it does complete and connect settlements in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods, limit Palestinian use of land, and provide nationalist organizations, into whose hands the parks were privatized, with a firm grasp on the land. Therefore, national parks are useful tools in the political-strategic settlement enterprise, whose inviting appearance, institutional status, and mythology of heritage obscure the fact that they are political tools of the highest order and thwart public discussion that should have taken place around them.
Israeli settlements and national projects in Palestinian neighborhoods in and around the Old City create an impervious religious-ethnic net that affects the character and development prospects of the neighborhoods.
As Israeli control over parts of East Jerusalem inside and next to the Palestinian neighborhoods strengthens, Palestinian control over East Jerusalem weakens, and their physical and symbolic connection to the historic basin is gradually waning. This process is being supported, on the public level, by a nationalist narrative that utilizes historic and religious arguments while erasing the political dimension of the process and its dangers. This policy is part of a comprehensive policy toward Greater Jerusalem. Along with the giant neighborhoods/settlements in the eastern ring of Jerusalem and the clusters of settlements to its north, east, and south that comprise Greater Jerusalem, the settlements and National Parks in the Palestinian neighborhoods create a geographic-strategic contiguity in and around the Old City. It leans on Mount Scopus and Maale Adumim and joins a highway system ending at the outskirts of Jericho, thus severely impeding the possibility of an equitable living arrangement in Jerusalem, and the chance of reaching a political settlement that respects the private and collective rights of the members of the two peoples who share this city.
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