Mount of Olives becomes latest target in fight for control of Jerusalem

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  April 3, 2023

Israeli settler movement is making life harder for Jerusalem’s Palestinians and erasing Christian character of holy city.

Even in a city as storied as Jerusalem, some places are holier than others. The Mount of Olives, studded with churches marking events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, home to the most sacred Jewish cemetery in the world and tombs celebrated as those of the Sufi mystic Rabia al-Basri and the medieval scholar Mujir al-Din, is one such place.

Christians believe Jesus spent the last days of his life here, while according to the Hebrew Bible, the mount is where the resurrection will begin; in both Christianity and Islam, it is revered as the site Jesus ascended to heaven. The Mount of Olives’ summit, which gives the clearest view of the Temple Mount, or Al-Haram al-Sherif, has served as a pilgrimage destination for all three faiths for millennia.

Today, the mount is also the final piece of occupied East Jerusalem that remains out of the grasp of an Israeli settler movement that is actively working to make the city more Jewish. A planned takeover, under the guise of plans for a national park, could fundamentally alter the spiritual character of the holy city, and has set alarm bells ringing in the Holy See and the White House.

The wars that have raged for control of Jerusalem in the modern era are usually viewed as territorial rather than theological disputes: both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories began in 1967 and the Old City and the rest of the eastern half of Jerusalem were fully annexed in 1980, although they are still considered occupied under international law.

Yet nowhere else in the world are the sacred sites of three religions so close together, or so fiercely contested: archaeology, history and religion are also weapons in the fight for the city of God.

The erosion of the Islamic and Christian presence in Jerusalem – the two Palestinian faiths – is not happening by accident. Palestinians are being pushed out of the Old City and East Jerusalem neighbourhoods by settlers. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is demolishing increasing numbers of Palestinian homes on the grounds that they lack building permits and displacing the community with development projects that do little to address the needs of Palestinian residents.

The Mount of Olives is the last, and possibly most important, target among the Old City’s holy sites. While evicted Palestinians elsewhere in Jerusalem have little recourse against the Israeli state, more than a dozen pilgrimage sites on the mountain are owned by powerful churches, including the Vatican; efforts to shift the balance of power in the area will have ramifications for the world’s 2 billion Christians.

‘We are under attack from all sides’

Modern Jerusalem is a famously complicated place: it can take a long time for visitors wandering around to understand what they are looking at in a 5,000-year-old city.

Today, the 1948 Green Line demarcating the would-be borders of a Palestinian state still cuts through the middle of the city centre, brushing against the west side of the Old City’s Ottoman-era walls, but it is largely invisible. The light rail, which opened in 2011, crosses seamlessly from one side of Jerusalem to the other; it is still one of the only environments in which the city’s diverse population finds itself cheek by jowl.

One of Jerusalem’s most disconcerting elements are settlements: the presence of Jewish Israeli homes on the eastern side of the city. According to the rights group Ir Amim, which works to ensure “dignity and welfare” for all Jerusalem residents, after 1967, successive Israeli governments expropriated around one-third of East Jerusalem to build large Jewish-majority neighbourhoods establishing the newly expanded boundaries of the city. For the most part, these areas have the feel of working-class suburbs, and people living there do not consider themselves settlers.

The second type of settlement are known as “ settlement enclaves”, individual houses, or clusters of homes, in the Old City and flashpoint East Jerusalem neighbourhoods in the historic basin that surrounds it, such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. Many Israelis living here believe that the entirety of the biblical land of Israel must be returned to the Jewish people by any means necessary, including violence.

“We are under attack from all sides, both the government and the settlers, working together,” said Fakhri Abu Diab, co-founder of the NGO Jahalin Solidarity, which works to prevent forcible transfer of Palestinians from their homes. His home in Al-Bustan, along with 100 others in the neighbourhood just south of the Mount of Olives, is at risk of demolition to make way for another national park.

“They say they will build apartments instead, but no one knows when that would happen. We pay our taxes even though we do not have citizenship … Jewish homes are not demolished. We deserve the same treatment.”

Since emerging in the 1990s, settlement enclaves have flourished. False names and shell companies are often used to purchase property, and Israel’s border police quash any Palestinian objections to their new neighbours with notorious force. Over the past five years, a municipality push to register East Jerusalem land with the Israeli land agency has in effect turned into a drive to register almost all plots as Jewish-owned – often without the knowledge of Palestinian families actually living there.

“I have no problem with Arabs [Palestinians] ; I have a lot of Arab friends. The rules apply the same to everybody: everyone needs to utilise the land registry and get the right building permits,” said Aryeh King, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and a well-known settlements advocate.

Encirclement of the Old City and holy sites

Settlers do not just target private property, they are active in the public domain too. Elad is a large settler association that invests in tourism and archaeology to “strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem”, funded by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Over the past two decades it has won tenders, sometimes uncontested, to operate and develop sites in Jerusalem under the control of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA).

By 2014, an Israeli state comptroller’s report declared that the relationship between INPA and Elad had become “symbiotic”, despite the fact Elad has been repeatedly accused of making bogus historical claims to further its agenda. The most infamous example is the City of David archaeological park in Silwan, at the southern tip of the Mount of Olives. There is considerable doubt among archaeologists that the tourist attraction is the real site of King David’s palace but Palestinian land was appropriated to build it anyway. INPA and Elad did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Guardian about projects around the city. The Jerusalem municipality referred questions to INPA.

Since 2020, there has been a sharp increase in municipality infrastructure and development projects in East Jerusalem, many of which are connected to Elad.

Planning minutes show a total of £283m has been budgeted for this construction, although Palestinian residents say few of the proposals will address their infrastructure needs, such as desperately needed new housing. At the same time, strict criteria for building permits and the costly land registration process make it almost impossible for Palestinians to build legally.

A cable car passing over Palestinian areas connecting a Jewish neighbourhood to the Old City, several new national parks and nightlife projects in the Christian Quarter are all on the municipality planning committee’s docket. Almost all involve the appropriation of Palestinian land, including, for the first time since the occupation began, the displacement of entire communities, rather than lone buildings or families, such as a business park that will replace the bustling main shopping street in Wadi Joz, north of the Old City.

Trying to keep track of the myriad planning proposals is a dizzying task. But stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, a clear pattern begins to emerge: the sum total of the projects ensures Israeli geographical continuity in the city, while fragmenting Palestinian life.

If Jerusalem is thought of as a clock face, there is now an established Israeli presence everywhere in the eastern side of the city except the 2-4pm slot, which is home to the Mount of Olives. The looming plan to turn much of the mount into a national park, most likely administered by Elad, will complete the encirclement of the Old City and its holy sites.

‘There’s no innocent interpretation for this park’

A national park, on the face of it, sounds like a worthwhile use of space and funding. In February last year, The Times of Israel reported that a proposal extending the borders of the existing Jerusalem Walls national park to include a swathe of the Mount of Olives was set for preliminary approval by the municipality’s planning committee.

INPA said the extension would better preserve the historical landscape and not harm church property, but the news was met with uncharacteristically vocal fury by Jerusalem’s patriarchs and church leaders.

An open letter from the Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches accused INPA of promoting a project “whose apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalise one of the holiest sites for Christianity … under the guise of protecting green spaces”.

The move would not strip the churches of ownership but it would give the state the power to demolish, re-landscape, carry out restoration work and inspections.

 “There is no innocent interpretation for this park,” said Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, who has spent decades analysing the political impact of urban development in the city.

“The state considered it in the 1960s, but decided it would be inappropriate. Existing zoning laws are more than adequate, and the churches are not exactly ruining the Mount of Olives anyway. They already preserve it devotedly.”

Documents from the Jerusalem Development Authority show there are specific plans for the Mount of Olives that affect church property. A promenade for Jewish pilgrims visiting the mountain’s sacred cemetery and celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkot will criss-cross church land; according to a budget plan, part of the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth orphanage, run by Polish nuns, must be seized to build it. At the mount’s base, there are plans for a visitor’s centre associated with Elad.

The patriarchs fear the promenade will restrict access to the churches and Christian holy sites and make it difficult to hold the annual Palm Sunday procession celebrating Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and marking the start of Holy Week.

“It’s greenwashing, pure and simple,” Seidemann said. “It will mean that the Christian presence on the mount will be restricted to inside the walls of the churches, and the settlers will control everything else.”

Rise in attacks on Christian dignitaries

While millions visit every year, there are very few Christians living in the Holy Land these days. A century ago, they made up a quarter of Jerusalem’s population; today, they comprise less than 2%. The community struggles to afford housing, and the West Bank security wall has isolated them from their brethren in Bethlehem, even though the cities are just six miles apart.

Attacks by Jewish extremists on Christian dignitaries and holy sites are not new but are on the rise: so far in 2023, a graveyard and statue of Jesus have been vandalised and a Christian-owned restaurant in the Old City attacked by young men.

 “The sense these days is that we are guests in Jerusalem, rather than having rights and status as a community. It must be understood that we are not guests,” said Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the city’s well-respected Latin patriarch and de facto Vatican ambassador, weighing his words carefully.

There are also divisions within the church leadership over how best to deal with the erosion of Christian Jerusalem: the Greek Orthodox church, in particular, has been accused by Palestinians of collaboration by selling or leasing property to Jewish settler organisations.

After the outrage from Pizzaballa and other church leaders over the Mount of Olives proposals last year, the Jerusalem municipality quickly withdrew the plans and said it would consult the churches and other stakeholders going forward.

But according to the municipality’s website, the project is back on the docket. It is now due to be discussed and approved in August this year, although the churches say that as of yet, no Israeli authorities have been in touch.

Since the plans for the Mount of Olives became public, Israel has elected the most rightwing government in the country’s history. For the first time, several new cabinet members are extremist settlers, who have made it clear they intend to challenge the holy city’s sensitive status quo; they are the least likely candidates to stand in the way of the final push to encircle the Old City.

“I have lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. I have seen the city change a lot over that time,” the Latin patriarch said. “We must make sure it remains a welcoming place for everyone.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian