UAE firms touted to join Israeli ‘Silicon Wadi’ project in East Jerusalem

Palestinian auto repair mechanic Khaled Shaheen works at his shop in the neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz in occupied east Jerusalem (AFP)

Mustafa Abu Sneineh

Middle East Eye  /  October 22, 2020

Opaque scheme would see Emirati companies complicit in demolishing Palestinian buildings and construction on occupied land.

The Israeli-run municipality of Jerusalem has recruited companies from the United Arab Emirates to invest in a modern industrial park, called Silicon Wadi, in the city’s occupied east.

However Palestinian urban planning experts have told Middle East Eye that the plans and the UAE’s involvement has been kept unusually under wraps.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Israel’s deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told Makor Rishon newspaper that “Jerusalem’s branding in the UAE is very strong. They are very excited to see someone from Jerusalem and waiting to visit there.”

Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been building official ties since August, when they announced a normalisation of relations.

Hassan-Nahoum, who visited the UAE last week, is in charge of the foreign relations and tourism portfolios on behalf of the municipality. 

“My dream is that Jerusalem will become a high-tech centre for the entire Middle East,” she said, adding that there an “opportunity” to connect Palestinian high-tech graduates to the UAE.

The project, which was announced in January by the mayor, Moshe Lion, is ambitious.

According to Israeli media, it will stretch over 250,000 square metres of real estate for high tech companies and 100,000 square metres split between commerce and hotels. People behind the scheme say it will create 10,000 jobs.

Its estimated cost is 2.1 billion shekels ($600m), and will include 13 pedestrianised thoroughfares, which will replace the industrial area located in Wadi al-Joz, an area of hundreds of workshops, catering units, shops, warehouses and mechanics workshops. 

Wadi al-Joz, meaning the Almond Valley, was once an orchard on the eastern and northern slopes of Jerusalem, within a short walk from the historic walls of the Old City.

It is also near the Hebrew University’s facilities and dormitories to the north. 

Despite several comments in the Israeli media, Khalil Tafakji, head of the maps department at the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem, told MEE that “officially” nothing has been launched.

“When you have a building project such as this, you will officially announce it in the newspaper. This did not happen,” Tafakji said, adding that the only information available are the statements to the media.

Tafakji, an expert on Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem, said Wadi al-Joz is currently slated to be the site of a different project, which will also see facilities rented or owned by Palestinians demolished.

 “Normally, when the municipality wants to build a project, they should publish and issue a building scheme, and also seize and expropriate the land, and this did not happen so far,” Tafakji said.

MEE has asked the municipality for comment, but received no response by the time of publication.

Hatem Abdel-Kader, a former minister for Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian Authority, told MEE that the Silicon Wadi project is under study and research. 

“It did not start the official approval procedures yet, but what is certain that the Wadi al-Joz area, in the near future, will not be the same,” Abdel-Kader said.

“I do not have information about UAE investment in the project, but if it is true, it is certainly dangerous, because this is a settlement project that harms the Arab identity of Jerusalem, despite Israelis claiming it will benefit Palestinians.”

Abdel-Kader added that Israel’s plan is to connect East and West Jerusalem together with the Silicon Wadi project, and “any Arab involvement in it means helping the Judaization of Jerusalem, and helping in making it the unified capital of Israel”.

Last week, Israel and the United Arab Emirates set an agenda to discuss bringing thousands of visitors from the Gulf to the occupied Old City of East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

“Jerusalem will host between 100,000 and 250,000 Muslim tourists a year; they dream of visiting Al-Aqsa,” Hassan-Nahoum told newspaper Israel Hayom.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed a US-sponsored normalisation deal with Israel on 15 September in Washington.

Mustafa Abu Sneineh is a poet and staff writer at Middle East Eye