Expansion of East Jerusalem national park onto church-owned lands back on docket

Project reappears on municipal planning body’s website, with hearing date set for August 31; parks authority insists it has no plans to advance controversial initiative

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Priests pause on Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, on Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Priests pause on Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, on Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Israeli authorities have placed a controversial project to expand an East Jerusalem national park onto church-owned lands back on the docket, despite assurances that the plan had been withdrawn amid backlash from local Christian leaders.

Plan 101-674788, which will extend by 68 acres the borders of the Jerusalem Walls National Park to include a large section of the Mount of Olives, along with additional parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnom valleys, returned on Sunday to the Jerusalem Municipality’s Local Planning and Construction Committee website, with the session scheduled for August 31.

Last week, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) announced that it was withdrawing the project a day after a Times of Israel report exposing the plan along with church leaders’ opposition to it. INPA said it would hold talks with local church leaders in order to come up with an appropriate way to preserve the territory in question.

Asked on Monday why the project was back on the agenda, an INPA spokeswoman said her office is not in charge of the municipal planning body website that put it there and that the parks authority still has no intention of advancing the national park expansion. The Jerusalem Municipality did not respond to a request for comment.

Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran was not buying the INPA’s explanation. “First, they promote an abusive program that expresses contempt for Palestinians and Christians, and then they turn Israel into a liar that promises to take the plan off the agenda, but in fact puts it right back on,” she said. “This not only hurts Israel, it is also silly because it is clear that this trick would be discovered.”

While INPA has said the goal of the project is to preserve long-neglected lands, church leaders are not convinced, pointing to the park authority’s close ties with the City of David Foundation, which works to expand Jewish presence in contested East Jerusalem areas, including the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

A map produced by left-wing watchdogs showing the areas designated to be incorporated in the Jerusalem Walls National Park. (Courtesy)

Earlier this month, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theopolis III, Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian penned a letter to Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, whose office oversees the parks authority, urging her to take steps to have the planned expansion shelved.

“Although the plan is officially presented by the INPA, it seems that it was put forward and is being orchestrated, advanced and promoted by entities whose apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalize one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature,” the church leaders wrote, referring to the Mount of Olives, where Christians believe several key events in Jesus’s life took place.

A visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives was briefed on the matter and subsequently raised their concerns over the project with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting last week. Bennett did not appear familiar with the previously unpublicized plan, but he told the US lawmakers that he was doing everything he could to reduce tensions in Jerusalem and prevent steps that might trigger fresh violence, two congressional sources told The Times of Israel.

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