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Decision follows Times of Israel report exposing project

Parks authority says it’s shelving Mount of Olives plan that angered church leaders

Plan to expand national park onto church-owned lands still appears on website of planning panel; parks authority: Project won’t be advanced without dialogue with church leaders

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

Nuns pose for a selfie as they mark Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Nuns pose for a selfie as they mark Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said Monday that it was withdrawing a controversial plan to expand a national park onto church-owned lands in East Jerusalem, amid opposition from local church leaders who denounced it as a “premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land.”

The announcement came a day after a report by The Times of Israel exposing the project, which was slated to receive preliminary approval from the Jerusalem municipality’s Local Planning and Construction Committee approval on March 2. The project still appears on the panel’s website, but a parks authority spokeswoman said the site simply hadn’t been updated yet and that the plan was off the table.

“There is no intention of advancing the plan in the planning committee, and it is not ready for discussion without coordination and communication with all relevant officials, including the churches, in the area regarding the correct way to preserve this special area,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Questioning the definitive nature of the announcement, Terrestrial Jerusalem research institute director Danny Seidemann tweeted, “there is a big difference between taking the Plan off the agenda of the District Committee, which is precise and consequential, and ‘not advancing a plan’ which is spinnable.”

The park authority’s Plan 101-674788 envisions extending 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.

While announcing the withdrawal of the plan, the park authority spokeswoman defended its goal, saying it would not involve any construction but would rather conserve “one of the most important cultural and heritage landscapes in the world.” The spokeswoman earlier noted that the areas slated to be incorporated in the plan had been “neglected for years and suffer from vandalism and arson.”

But church leaders were 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)

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 parks authority (INPA), 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.

“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,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Times of Israel.

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.

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

The plan to expand the Jerusalem Walls National Park by 68 acres was initially advanced amid increasingly strained ties between the Israeli government and church leaders, who have claimed their communities are under threat by radical Israeli groups.

Israeli left-wing watchdogs feared that 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 would have been able to encircle the area with Jewish residential, archaeological and environmental projects.

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 sovereignty in all of Jerusalem.”

The Hamas terror group condemned the project as “aggression against our sites, both Islamic and Christian.”

“This is a blatant violation of human rights and international law,” Hamas said. The terror group called for “resisting [Israel’s] plans in order to protect our holy sites and defend them.”

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