Reignited Plan For "King's Garden" Park Threatens To Displace Over 1000 Palestinians From Al Bustan, Silwan

25 March 2021
Some 70 homes in the Al Bustan area of Silwan are under acute threat of demolition, placing over 1000 individuals of one community at risk of mass displacement. In late February, the Jerusalem Municipality filed an objection to the Local Affairs Court against the residents' request to extend a demolition freeze currently protecting approximately 70 homes in the area from demolition. It likewise stated its unwillingness to continue discussions with the residents concerning an agreed planning solution for the neighborhood. Dozens of houses in Al Bustan built without building permits due to the lack of an outline plan were marked for demolition as part of a national park plan the Municipality advanced for the area in 2010. Although the homes were constructed by residents on land they privately own, they were unable to secure the required building permits due to the absence of a proper outline plan which would allow for residential development of the neighborhood.
Supplanting Al Bustan with the "King's Garden" National Park
The municipality's plan called for the establishment of a touristic and archeological park (Plan 18000: "the King's Garden") replete with residential and commercial areas, including hotel space. This planned park would extend the existing national park in the City of David (the hub of Elad's settler operations) southwards spanning the entire neighborhood of Al Bustan and towards the settler enclave in central Silwan (Batan al-Hawa) where the Ateret Cohanim settler organization is active. Since 2010, the plan has not advanced likely due to local and international opposition. However, the municipality's objection to extension of the freeze signifies its intent to reactivate the plan, consistent with the acceleration of similar Israeli measures over the past year after being emboldened by the Trump Administration.

Attempt to Secure Residential Planning Solution
Over the course of the past decade, Al Bustan residents have engaged in negotiations with the Jerusalem Municipality in an attempt to create a housing solution for the community which would legalize building and enable proper residential development in the area. According to the arrangement reached between the residents and the municipality, part of the land would be designated for the community's residential development and would allow for the residents to formulate an outline plan for their neighborhood. Since the community's submission of their latest plan in December 2018, the residents succeeded in obtaining a deferral on the aforementioned demolition orders, which has been consistently extended by the municipality due to the ongoing planning process.

The municipality's February objection to the residents' request to extend the freeze not only marks a significant shift in conduct towards the neighborhood, but also constitutes a breach of the arrangement reached with the community. According to the objection, the municipality claims that the respective homes are so far from qualifying for the necessary building permits that there is no reason to further defer the demolitions. The municipality likewise cited a letter issued by the District Planning Committee in December 2020 stating that the community's proposed outline plan failed to comply with various stipulations.

Last week, the residents filed a response to the municipality's objection and are currently waiting for a court decision on the matter. If the court rules in favor of the municipality, the demolition freeze would be lifted, ushering in a devastating wave of demolitions and causing the mass dispossession of over 1000 Palestinians from Al Bustan, Silwan.

Settlement under the Guise of Tourism
Beyond the severe humanitarian toll lie the acute demographic and political implications. The "King's Garden" plan is yet another measure to transform the area into a sprawling Israeli tourist site, while further erasing its Palestinian presence.  Silwan is one of the focal points of state-backed ideological settler activity. Settler groups threaten to displace over 800 Palestinians with the goal of establishing settler strongholds in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods as a means to dismantle the viability of a political resolution on the city. Touristic settlement initiatives serve to reinforce residential settlement by connecting otherwise isolated settler compounds to create a contiguous ring of Israeli control (see map below for illustration), while artificially increasing the Israeli Jewish presence in the area via Israeli tourists visiting the sites. If advanced, the "King's Garden" would essentially constitute a seamless extension of the City of David's touristic attractions, further eroding the character of the neighborhood and its fabric of life, while leading to the forcible transfer of nearly an entire community.

Al Bustan is marked #26 on the map