PM: Jerusalem is capital of our people... only of our people

Opening tense week, government okays huge East Jerusalem ‘sovereignty plan’

Ministers authorize NIS 2 billion ($560 million) for plans to formalize land ownership claims, apply Israeli curriculum to Palestinian schools, and build cable car to Western Wall

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

People tour the Jerusalem Ramparts Walk on Jerusalem's Old City walls overlooking the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan,  May 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
People tour the Jerusalem Ramparts Walk on Jerusalem's Old City walls overlooking the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, May 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Government ministers vowed Sunday to “deepen Israeli sovereignty” in East Jerusalem as they approved a hefty series of plans to fete Jerusalem Day — the anniversary of when Israeli forces took control of the Old City and Arab-majority East Jerusalem in 1967 — in what they described as a unique opportunity created by President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Israel’s capital.

At a celebratory cabinet meeting held in Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, the cabinet authorized programs in the capital estimated at some NIS 2 billion ($560 million), which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said were intended to “​build up and develop Jerusalem, east and west, north and south.”

​The proposals given the go-ahead include plans to formalize land ownership claims in East Jerusalem and transfer Palestinian schools in the area to use of the Israeli curriculum. Ministers also earmarked budgets for the development of increasingly Jewish areas of the majority-Arab Old City and Mount of Olives, and to build a cable car from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall.

“​We will make a series of decisions to​ ​build up and develop Jerusalem, east and west, north and south, in all directions – to both reveal its past and build its future,” Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. “We dreamed of returning to rebuild it, the city that is joined together – this is exactly what we are doing today​.”

Cabinet members pose for a group picture during a special meeting in honor of Jerusalem Day, at the Bible Lands Museum, on May 13, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Telling ministers that Jerusalem is “the capital of our people, and only of our people,” Netanyahu also acknowledged the controversial nature of the plans, which encroach on parts of the city claimed by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“I know that there will be difficulties along the way; there have been difficulties for the past 70 years. We have met them since 1949 and up to recent years. We will also meet them in the future​,” the prime minister said.

The meeting came at the start of a politically tense week for Jerusalem that will see the US move its embassy to the capital on Monday, and the culmination of over six weeks of protests along the Gaza border, when Palestinians mourn the “catastrophe” of the creation of the Jewish state, on both Monday and Tuesday.

Later on Sunday, thousands of Israelis took part in the annual Jerusalem Day parade celebrating 51 years since the reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War.

The march, in which primarily religious teenagers parade through the Old City decked in white and blue, the colors of the Israeli flag, has raised tensions over its route through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. In previous years, the march has sparked sporadic incidents of violence between Israeli revelers and local Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem.

‘Regulating’ East Jerusalem

The most contested of the plans relate to Israel’s bureaucratic control over mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem, which was captured in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.

According to the “Land Regulation” proposal, one of the programs authorized by cabinet ministers, Israel will attempt to establish full administrative control over territory in the eastern part of Jerusalem by settling land disputes between Palestinian neighbors and demarcating property boundaries.

Israel currently has no accurate record of land ownership claims in East Jerusalem, the Justice Ministry says, due to it never before forcing Palestinian residents to present certifiable documents of ownership.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked gives a statement to the media at the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the plan being pushed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, which will cost some NIS 50 million ($14 million), “residents of the area will benefit from their property being regulated,” by having their claims verified by an Israeli court.

“Every land claimant will be able to present their suit to a city official,” reads the text of the proposal, which calls for the regulation of all claims by 2025. “If there are opposing claims, the process will be decided in court, as is the law elsewhere.”

Critics of the plan, however, say it is a tacit land grab, with the government attempting to establish swaths of land with no proven property claims in order to advance building projects in the eastern part of the city. The proposal itself mentions future development of industrial zones, without specifying where they are to be built.

Presenting the plan to the cabinet, Shaked made no bones about her intentions to “deepen Israeli sovereignty” in East Jerusalem, linking the move to Trump’s embassy decision.

“A day before we strengthen Jerusalem by moving the US embassy here, we are bolstering the city by applying Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem through the plan to regulate land claims,” the justice minister said. “This is the first practical application of Israeli sovereignty since Israel took sovereign control of the eastern part of the city.”

Other plans include a vast rehaul of the East Jerusalem education system with an investment of over NIS 300 million to incentivize schools to drop the currently used Palestinian matriculation system in favor of the Israeli bagrut. Part of those funds would go to infrastructure projects to schools that agree to the reforms.

‘Settlement tourism’

Another huge budgetary investment passed by the cabinet allocated NIS 200 million ($56 million) for a plan to construct a cable car from the new city of Jerusalem to the Western Wall, which will allow more accessibility to the holy site.

The cabinet approved the first phase of the joint project between the Tourism Ministry and Jerusalem Development Authority at last year’s Jerusalem Day cabinet meeting. Then, it was agreed that the Tourism Ministry would cover the initial budget of NIS 15 million ($4.2 million)

Sunday’s decision earmarked the additional funds for the completion of the project, which Tourism Minister Yariv Levin says will be accomplished within three years.

“The cable car project will change the face of Jerusalem, offering tourists and visitors easy and comfortable access to the Western Wall, and will serve as an outstanding tourism attraction in its own right,” Levin said Sunday. “There is no better time than Jerusalem Day to approve this decision and I welcome the next phase en route to constructing this important project.”

A mock-up of the project shows cable cars running over the Hinnom Valley to the Old City (Channel 10)

One section of the line will run to Dung Gate from near the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives in the east of the city. The other section will run from the Hinnom Ridge, near the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and the Khan Theater, along a route similar to that used by a cable car that maintained a connection to the Old City in the 1948 War of Independence.

Planners of the system said it will relieve congested traffic, reducing private vehicles by an estimated 30 percent and buses by 50%, and pollution as a consequence.

The cable car will be designed to serve about 3,000 visitors an hour in each direction and will travel at up to 21 kilometers an hour (13 miles per hour).

Access to the Western Wall is currently via narrow, winding and very crowded routes. The cable car is intended to provide easy, quick and convenient access for the approximately 130,000 visitors who come to the site each week.

The project, the brainchild of the Jerusalem City Council and its mayor, Nir Barkat, has stoked controversy because the route passes over parts of East Jerusalem. First announced in 2013, two years later, France-based utility giant Suez Environnement, which had been contracted to build the cable car line, dropped out of the project due to its “political sensitivities.”

In February, a European Union report lambasted Israel for tourism development in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, specifically noting the cable car plans.

Davidson Archaeological Park in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The report from the EU’s heads of missions in Jerusalem, leaked to British daily The Guardian, describes archaeological sites in and near the Old City, including in Silwan’s City of David — which also received budgets in Sunday’s cabinet meeting — and the planned cable car, “as a political tool to modify the historical narrative and to support, legitimize, and expand settlements.”

That historical narrative the report says is being advanced by Israeli tourism development in the area was based on the claim of “historic continuity of the Jewish presence in the area at the expense of other religions and cultures.”

“East Jerusalem is the only place where Israeli national parks are declared on populated neighborhoods,” the Guardian quoted the report as saying, a reference to the growth and development of the City of David site atop the earliest known settlement areas in ancient Jerusalem. Critics say the development of the site, which is a popular tourist destination, is part of a process of displacing the Palestinian residents in the area, which is part of the larger Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

The EU diplomats warned in the report that the “highly controversial” cable car would “contribute to the consolidation of ‘touristic settlements.’ The project also aims, in a second phase not yet approved, to extend further into East Jerusalem.”

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