The new national park threatening Jerusalem’s Christian community

The Givati Parking Lot excavation grounds next to the City of David National Park in the Palestinian village of Silwan (Hadas Parush - Flash90)

Judith Sudilovsky

+972 Magazine  /  January 23, 2023

Concerns are building that Israel’s new government will revive controversial plans to take over Palestinian- and church-owned land on the Mount of Olives.

It might be assumed, ordinarily, that the declaration of an important heritage site as a protected national park would be a cause for celebration. But in occupied East Jerusalem, Israeli government plans to do just that invoke quite the opposite sentiment. For Palestinian residents and critics, such moves tend to serve as a “greenwashing” cover for a land grab — part of a long history of accelerating Judaization of the city while stymying the natural growth of local Palestinian communities.

The latest of these proposals aims to expand an existing national park, which currently encompasses the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, to include the Mount of Olives — home to a long list of Christian holy sites, and which is also important in Muslim and Jewish traditions. The project first came to light last February, when senior government officials inadvertently revealed it, not understanding its significance.

The plan would effectively hand oversight of the land in the Mount of Olives from the Jerusalem Municipality to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which, as a national body, is not directly responsible for the city’s residents and can therefore initiate projects as it sees fit. 

The slated park would include sites belonging to various Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate, the Catholic Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, and the Russian Orthodox Church. The nearby Jewish cemetery was apparently excluded from the proposal after Jewish religious authorities opposed its initial inclusion.

The proposed extension, which also includes the Hinnom Valley (Wadi Rababa), Abu Tor, the Kidron Valley, and Wadi al-Joz, would have far-reaching ramifications for the area’s churches and residents. Palestinian neighborhoods would be severed from the Old City, and residential development for these communities — even that on private Palestinian land, which would be included in the national park — would face even more restrictions. Construction, cultivating land, and even photographing in the park area would require a permit from the INPA. In other words, the Mount of Olives’ existing residents would retain ownership of their land, but lose all autonomous rights over their property.

Shortly after the plan was revealed, Meretz Knesset member Tamar Zandberg — then serving as minister of environmental protection — got wind of it and removed it from the agenda of the Jerusalem Municipality’s Local Committee for Planning and Construction. The Committee then announced that it would not promote the plan without “coordination and communication with all relevant officials, including the churches [that oversee holy sites on the Mount of Olives]” — which had not been done in the course of formulating the proposal.

But now Zandberg, along with the rest of her party, are gone from the government, with Benjamin Netanyahu having returned as prime minister at the head of Israel’s most right-wing, ultra-nationalist, and religious government in history. With this handover of power, human rights activists operating in Jerusalem are concerned that the Mount of Olives plan will soon be back on the table — and that, as it has long done in other areas of East Jerusalem, the settler movement will be working hand-in-hand with the government to achieve their biblical vision in the Old City Basin.

‘What is our role here?’

 “Sometimes we keep silent, but there are times when we see that we have problems with those radical groups, and we need to speak out,” Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theopholis III told a group of international journalists, which I joined, in Jerusalem in early December. “[The plan] is meant to deprive us of our properties, then what is left for us? What is our role here? Are we here to be solely the door-keepers? Or to just light the candles and keep the doors open for the pilgrims?”

Even though the INPA now states that any formal discussion of the plan will be put on hold until they have consulted with the relevant religious authorities, church leaders in Jerusalem say they have yet to be contacted about the expansion plan on the Mount of Olives involving their property.

“There is no change in the status of the program,” an INPA spokesperson told +972. “At this stage we have not progressed. As we promised, the plan will not be discussed before discussions with the churches.” A spokesman for the Jerusalem Municipality also said there is no change in the plan’s status as far as the city is concerned.

Daniel Seidemann, an attorney and the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nonprofit focused on the political implications of developments in the city, is skeptical of the Mount of Olives national park plan. He pointed out that the planned committee meeting — which Zandberg had pulled from the ministry’s agenda — was not actually canceled, but rather postponed until Dec. 28. It seems that, for reasons that remain unclear, the meeting has been postponed again, now until Aug. 23, 2023. 

 “There is no innocent interpretation as to why to put a national park [on the Mount of Olives], except for the fact that the settlers in general, and the settler movement Elad in particular, covet the properties and areas in the visual basin around the Old City,” Seidmann said. “This all comes within a context … [of] an attempt by the government of Israel, together with the settlement movement … to create an Israeli land bridge from the [state-protected] ‘green area’ on Mt. Scopus through Sheikh Jarrah, with biblically-motivated settlements and settlement activities.  We have already seen that on the north flanks with the encirclement of the Sheikh Jarrah area.”

Other human rights groups also warn that the planned extension of the national park will likely bolster the emerging settlement ring around the Old City, which already consists of residential settler compounds and settler-operated tourist sites serving as a guise for Jewish settlement expansion. 

Though there is no public official agreement, some human rights groups charge that, were the Mount of Olives national park to be established, the INPA would likely subcontract the site’s management to the Elad organization, similar to the current arrangement at the City of David National Park in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. There, settlers have forcibly expelled Palestinian residents and taken up residence in their homes in several buildings, while exerting significant influence over archeological digs in the area.

The INPA has also contracted Elad to administer the Valley of Hinnom National Park, also known as Wadi Rababa, where planned tourist attractions include a cable car which will ferry tourists to the Old City from Abu Tor — or a-Thuri, as it is also known in Arabic — to Elad’s visitor center in Silwan, and a suspension bridge linking Mount Zion to the settler complex. The settler group already operates an “educational biblical farm” in the Hinnom Valley on disputed land; on a recent visit to the site, armed settlers could be seen walking around the farm, while newly-created hiking paths on land which Palestinian families from Silwan claim to own are already in use, bringing Israeli Jews, often armed, to wander between Abu Tor and Silwan. 

Elad also runs tourist facilities in the Peace Forest between the Palestinian village of Abu Tor and the Armon HaNatziv promenade — having been contracted to do so by the Israeli Land Authority.

Such projects all involve a concerted push by the Jerusalem municipality, the INPA, and the judicial system to “provide the legal coverage needed for the Judaisation project encompassing the historical wall of Jerusalem’s Old City,” Hamza Quttaineh, a Palestinian lawyer in Jerusalem, told Middle East Eye last year.

Activists fear this existing activity is a preview of what will soon happen on the Mount of Olives, should the government go through with its plans for a national park there. 

In a press release issued last March by Peace Now, and the Jerusalem-based rights groups Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, and Ir Amim, the organizations warned that “longstanding collaboration between the INPA and settler organizations, such as Elad (aka the City of David Foundation), has led to the transfer of land into settler hands who convert Palestinian spaces into Israeli tourist and recreational sites as a front to strengthen settler strongholds and further entrench Israeli sovereignty in the Old City Basin.”

This track record has also left the city’s churches feeling they need to “be vigilant and to be on guard,” as Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Franceso Patton told the group of journalists last month. They don’t know, he said, when this kind of initiative will be promoted again, or by whom. 

“Of course, this is something that for us is very, very negative,” he continued. “These places are holy places … And so for us, it is important that the holy places are and continue to be places of prayer, places of worship, and not simply places open to the public.”

‘This is blatant discrimination’

According to Seidemann of Terrestrial Jerusalem, in 2022 alone the Israeli government invested NIS 72 million in the expansion plans, which he said have been taking place under the radar for years. 

“This could not have taken place without the active support of the previous government and the silence of most of the ministers, who did not want to know about it,” Seidemann explained. “And the next government will be far more sympathetic to the settlers. I would very much caution that this plan has not gone away … It may be back sooner than we think, and we cannot in any way be complacent.”

The INPA denied to +972 that management of the park — if established — would be turned over to a third party. “This is a plan to expand a national park around the walls,” the statement said.

“We have started a dialogue with the churches but no changes on the ground will be made until the completion of that dialogue,” the INPA continued. “The Nature and Parks Authority wishes to advance the plan to expand the park in order to preserve valuable areas as open areas according to previous overall plans. The Nature and Parks Authority promotes the plan and, if it is approved, will manage the areas [of the park]; there is no intention to transfer the management to another party.”

For Sari Kronish, Bimkom’s East Jerusalem urban planner, however, the establishment of such national parks is simply a misuse of planning tools for political ends. “Of course a national park is not a bad thing in principle, but in East Jerusalem the designation is used as a tool to prevent development of Palestinian neighborhoods,” she said. “For example, the national park around the Old City walls is much bigger than it needs to be in its southern section.”

Similarly, there is no real justification for the planned national park on the eastern slopes of Mount Scopus, on the only land reserve of the adjacent Palestinian neighborhoods of Issawiya and At-Tur, she added. “Urban cities today are looking to densify,” Kronish said. “I don’t know of another city [in the world] with such a percentage of land reserved within municipal boundaries for national parks — certainly not the size of, or even larger than, neighborhoods within the city. This is blatant discrimination.”

East Jerusalem is confronting a serious housing crisis, she said, and instead of prioritizing those needs, “greenwashing” is taking place on an enormous scale. 

Moreover, the plan’s declared aims of maintaining “the unique character of the area, by preserving the site’s historical, religious and national, landscapes and architectural values” are already enshrined in a 1977 city plan for the Holy Basin. In their joint press release, the rights groups noted that this plan already “prevents construction and development that would harm landscape values ​​and the Jerusalem Municipality enforces the law accordingly,” and that in over half a century of controlling the area, “There was no massive construction that impaired the visibility of the Old City walls.”

Perhaps more significantly however, if it moves forward, the Mount of Olives expansion would also include land until now labeled as “green areas,” some of which belongs to the churches, and some to residents of At-Tur and A-Sawane, two Palestinian neighborhoods that desperately need land to develop housing, even as residents have been barred from building there. While it is sometimes possible to get “green area” designation retracted, such exceptions cannot be made in a national park — which, once declared, keeps its status forever. In this scenario, Seidemann said, the church property is simply “collateral damage.”

More ‘legitimate’ than a settlement

The expansion plan also includes a promenade which would connect two Jewish settlements — the larger Beit Orot settlement, which includes a yeshiva and is on the northern edge of the proposed promenade, and the one-building settlement of Beit HaHoshen, which is close to what would be the south edge of the walkway — both neatly ensconced in the A-Tur neighborhood.  

A promenade is a lovely name for a walking path going from one point to another, but in this instance it does not bode well for the residents of the Palestinian villages, Ir Amim researcher Aviv Tatarsky told the group of international journalists touring the area. 

One of Beit Orot’s residents is Dov Lior, the ultranationalist former chief rabbi of the West Bank settlements in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and a spiritual guide and ally of Otzma Yehudit head and newly-elected National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Lior supports the construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, and he has called for Israel to be “cleansed of Arabs.”

“Israeli Jews will start coming here, bringing school groups and such, because the Mount of Olives is very important for Jewish history,” Tatarsky said. ”But at the same time, it is in a Palestinian area, so it is [deemed] ‘dangerous,’ and so they will need security. You will start seeing border police and private security here — Israelis with guns — and the area will become unsafe for the Palestinians who live here.” 

Standing on the empty “green area” lot in front of the Greek Orthodox Holy Monastery of Little Galilee, where the planned promenade is slated to be built, Tatarsky explained how the nature of the national park plan provides a cover for further settlement expansion. 

“If Israel would construct a settlement here, everyone would know it’s a settlement,” he said. “It’s against international law and … there would be strong condemnation. But when you speak about a national park, and ‘history’ and ‘promenade’ and ‘tourism’ and ‘education’ and so on, it seems much more innocent. It seems much more legitimate.”  

Tatarsky swept his arm across the expansive view of the Kidron Valley and the Old City walls, stressing that there must be a balance between the needs of the people living here for houses and schools, and the need to preserve the historical sites and structures.

The new government is unlikely to strike that delicate balance. “We know it’s going to be a far-right government … that wants to make pushing Jewish identity top priority,” he warned. “So we can assume that in the coming year, this plan for the national park will come back.”

Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist who has covered Israel and the Palestinian Territories for over 25 years