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ExclusiveWatchdogs warn against 'settler effort to encircle Old City'

In 1st, Israel advancing plan to expand national park onto E. Jerusalem church lands

Visiting US lawmakers raise concern with PM about move slated to clear preliminary hurdle next month; church leaders blast plan to ‘nationalize one of Christianity’s holiest sites’

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

The Church of the Russian Ascension, towering over the Mount of Olives, dates back to Helena, the mother of Byzantine emperor Constantine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Church of the Russian Ascension, towering over the Mount of Olives, dates back to Helena, the mother of Byzantine emperor Constantine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Israeli officials are preparing to advance an unprecedented project to expand a national park onto church-owned lands and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem, sparking fierce opposition from local Christian leaders, The Times of Israel has learned.

The move would not strip the landholders of their ownership, but it would give the government some authority over Palestinian and church properties and religious sites, leading church officials and rights groups to characterize the measure as a power grab and a threat to Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Opponents of the project also highlight the ties the state body advancing the plan has to nationalist groups that are working to anchor Jewish presence in contested East Jerusalem areas, including the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Rights groups believe the planned park expansion is part of a larger nationalist strategy to “encircle” Jerusalem’s Old City by taking control of adjacent areas of East Jerusalem.

Plan 101-674788 would see the borders of the Jerusalem Walls National Park extended to include a large section of the Mount of Olives along with additional parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnom Valleys. It is slated to come before the Jerusalem municipality’s Local Planning and Construction Committee for preliminary approval on March 2. That hearing was originally scheduled to take place on April 10 — Palm Sunday — but was recently moved up.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which is promoting the project, says the expansion is designed to restore long-neglected lands and better preserve historical landscapes, and that it will not harm the church properties incorporated into the national park.

The national park expansion plan is being advanced amid increasingly strained ties between the Israeli government and church leaders, who have claimed their communities are under threat by radical Israeli groups.

A visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives was briefed on the matter and subsequently raised their concern regarding the project with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting on Thursday. 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 new violence, two congressional sources told The Times of Israel.

On Friday, 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 INPA, calling on her to take steps to get the planned expansion shelved.

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

“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.

“This is a brutal measure that constitutes a direct and premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land, on the churches and their ancient, internationally guaranteed rights in the Holy City. Under the guise of protecting green spaces, the plan appears to serve an ideological agenda that denies the status and rights of Christians in Jerusalem,” the letter obtained by The Times of Israel said.

The church leaders also sent the letter to the Jerusalem consuls general of France, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Spain, the UK, Belgium and Sweden, in an apparent effort to enlist international support for their opposition.

A spokeswoman for the INPA said that while the churches may not support the project, the INPA hopes to reach out to all of them before the planning committee discussion next month in order to hold a dialogue on the matter.

She insisted, moreover, that the project would not harm the churches and is designed to preserve the historic terrain, as national parks are meant to do.

Christian priests, some holding palm fronds participate in the traditional Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City on March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

But church leaders aren’t convinced and the move appears poised to intensify the already heated debate they have been having with Israeli authorities.

In December, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a rare joint statement warning that Christian communities have become the target of “radical groups” in Israel whose goal is to drive them out of Jerusalem. The church leaders pointed to the strategic acquisition of property in Christian areas and called on the Israeli government to act against the Jewish nationalist groups threatening their presence.

The Foreign Ministry responded by calling the accusations “baseless” and warned that they “could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people.” It also said that Christians in Israel enjoy “full freedom of religion.”

Phase two complete?

The Jerusalem Walls National Park opened in the 1970s. When the state moved to draw the borders for the project, it carefully avoided including much of the Mount of Olives where over a dozen historical Christian holy sites are located, including the Bridgettine Sisters Monastery, the Church of Viri Galilaei, the Grotto of Gethsemane and the Garden of the Apostles.

A “phase two” plan to expand the national park was considered by authorities at the time but was ultimately dismissed due to the sensitivity of the land they were seeking to incorporate.

Nearly five decades later, phase two has returned to the docket. An INPA spokeswoman said the goal of the project is to restore lands in the Ben Hinnom Valley, which were “neglected for years and suffer from vandalism and arson [attacks].”

Much of the 68 acres slated to be incorporated in the Jerusalem Walls National Park is considered to be state land, the spokeswoman said.

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

This may be the case for the lands in question in the Ben Hinnom Valley, but the Mount of Olives territory, which makes up the majority of what the INPA seeks to incorporate into the national park, is privately owned. A presentation of the plan shared internally to municipal officials and obtained by The Times of Israel includes a map delineating which parts of the Mount of Olives land are owned by private Palestinian landowners and which are owned by the Franciscan, Armenian or Greek Orthodox Churches.

The INPA-City of David Foundation connection

The INPA spokeswoman explained that declaring areas as national parks has allowed it to launch projects aimed at beautifying the area.

“As part of our activities, we are running a joint venture with the City of David Foundation [in which] schools and youth work, among other things, to clean, restore terraces and plant trees. The results of these projects speak for themselves — the neglected places become lovely nooks that first and foremost serve the residents of the area,” the INPA spokeswoman said. The City of David Foundation is known in Hebrew as Elad.

But the involvement of the nonprofit City of David Foundation is what critics fear most, given its alleged modus operandi.

Left-wing watchdogs say INPA has allowed the City of David Foundation to advance a nationalist political agenda in East Jerusalem.

This was even identified by former state comptroller Yosef Shapira in a 2016 report on the operations of the INPA and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in the Old City.

“The dereliction of [the INPA and IAA] led to a situation in which, in practice, the [City of David] foundation became a major factor in the area of management and operation of tourist sites in the Old City basin in Jerusalem, without substantial oversight by the state authorities in charge of the area and… is tantamount to a total disavowal by the State of its authorities,” Shapira wrote.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, center, holds a cross on Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

INPA works with the City of David Foundation at the City of David National Park, and logos for both are featured at entrances to the site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. The City of David has also sought to purchase Palestinian homes and move in Jewish Israelis.

“The joint partnership between the City of David Foundation and the INPA is done in accordance with the law,” the former group said in a statement.

From national park to cable car

Incorporating additional lands into a national park does not strip the impacted landowners of their property ownership, but it does give the INPA the ability to carry out a long list of actions, including carrying out inspections, granting work permits and conducting landscaping, restoration and preservation projects.

Rights groups say the INPA has used the authority to bar Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olives from trees incorporated into the Emek Zurim National Park near Mount Scopus.

Expanding the Jerusalem Walls National Park would also grant Israeli authorities the ability to carry out projects above church properties on the Mount of Olives, such as the controversial cable car project. The plan to ferry passengers between East and West Jerusalem was set aside late last year due to opposition from Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, the leader of the center-left Labor party.

But the Jerusalem municipality still supports the cable car plan, as does with the City of David Foundation, which is building a tourism center in Silwan that would serve as the final station on the cable car’s route.

This Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 photo shows the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. (Ahmad Gharabli via AP)

Critics say the cable car will turn Jerusalem’s most precious historical vistas into a theme park, and Palestinians see the project as an effort by Israel to assert additional control beyond the Green Line.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 in a move not recognized by the international community. Palestinians hope to see the capital of their yet-unrealized state in East Jerusalem, an aspiration opposed by the Israeli right.

‘Cynical misuse of heritage’

By gradually moving Jewish families into the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods north and south of the Old City and expanding the Jerusalem Walls National Park to include the Mount of Olives east of the Old City, the City of David Foundation will be able to encircle the area with Jewish residential, archaeological and environmental projects, Israeli left-wing watchdogs fear.

In a joint statement to The Times of Israel, the human rights organizations of Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim and Peace Now said, “There is a direct link between what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah and this expansion plan.”

In this March 13, 2019 photo, an Israeli flag flies on a building in East Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We object to the cynical misuse of heritage and environment protection as a tool by Israeli authorities for justifying settlement expansion, for reshaping the historical narrative and for determining ownership over the historical basin.”

Danny Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert and founder of the left-wing Terrestrial Jerusalem watchdog, said, “The motivations underlying the scheme have nothing to do with preservation, and the motives are entirely ulterior motives — the ideology of the biblically motivated settler organizations along with a government that willingly does their bidding, conveniently turns a blind eye or just doesn’t get it.”

For its part, the City of David Foundation said “the claims that are being brought against the project are largely spearheaded by organizations with a political agenda that receive large amounts of funding by the European Union with the goal of keeping Jerusalem in a state of neglect and squalor in order to bolster their narrative that Jews and Arabs cannot benefit together under Israeli sovereignly in all of Jerusalem.”

Sue Surkes contributed to this report

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