Israel plans to expand national park onto Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem
Israeli officials are preparing to put forward controversial plans next month to expand a national park onto church-owned lands and Christian holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, according to an Israeli newspaper.
The plan, which is set to come before the local planning and construction committee of the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem for preliminary approval on 2 March, would see the borders of the Jerusalem Walls National Park extended to include a large section of the Mount of Olives along with additional parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnom Valleys.
The Times of Israel newspaper said leading church officials and rights groups had characterised the plan as a power grab and a threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
Opponents of the move have also highlighted the ties between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which is promoting the plan, and nationalist groups that are working to increase the presence of settlers in East Jerusalem areas, including the flashpoint neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
On Thursday, visiting US Democrats briefed on the matter subsequently raised concerns with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who, according to two congressional sources who spoke to the Times of Israel, did not appear familiar with the previously unpublicised plan.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theopolis III, Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian on Friday sent a letter to Israel's Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, whose office oversees the INPA, calling on the minister to get the expansion plans shelved.
Following news of the plan, Danny Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert and founder of the left-wing Terrestrial Jerusalem watchdog, tweeted: "[The] importance of this cannot be exaggerated.
"If I am not mistaken, this creates a rift and the most serious crisis between Israel and the major world churches in Jerusalem since 1948.
The Jerusalem Walls National Park originally opened in the 1970s.
When deciding on the borders for the project, the state carefully avoided much of the Mount of Olives where over a dozen historical Christian holy sites are located, including the Bridgettine Sisters Monastery, the Church of Viri Galilaei, the Grotto of Gethsemane, and the Garden of the Apostles.
A “phase two” plan to expand the park was considered by authorities at the time but was ultimately dismissed due to the sensitivity of the land they were seeking to incorporate.
An INPA spokeswoman told the Times of Israel that declaring areas as national parks had allowed it to launch projects aimed at beautifying the area.
“As part of our activities, we are running a joint venture with the City of David Foundation [in which] schools and youth work, among other things, to clean, restore terraces, and plant trees," she said.
"The results of these projects speak for themselves - the neglected places become lovely nooks that first and foremost serve the residents of the area.”
However, the City of David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, was set up in 1986 with the aim of using the Israeli legal system to expel Palestinians in East Jerusalem and “Judaise” the city.
Once considered an extremist organisation by Israeli politicians, Elad has now firmly established itself at the heart of the establishment.
While tourism and archaeology form the bulk of Elad’s endeavours, the organisation does not hide the fact that illegal Israeli settlements are its primary focus.
“We are a foundation whose goals are to house Jewish families in the City of David,” Elad’s founder and director David Be'eri told a court in 2020 during legal proceedings to forcibly evict an 82-year-old Palestinian man from Silwan.
“These are the foundation’s stated objectives with the Registrar of Associations for which we receive donations. This is a main part of the foundation’s goals.”
Expanding the Jerusalem Walls National Park under the latest plan would also grant Israeli officials the ability to carry out projects above church properties on the Mount of Olives, such as the controversial cable car project, backed by the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem and Elad, to ferry passengers between East and West Jerusalem.
'Vandalised and desecrated'
In December, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a statement warning that "Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups," referring to Israeli far-right activists.
They said that since 2012, "countless incidents" of verbal and physical attacks have been recorded against priests and that some churches were "vandalised and desecrated", deepening the fears Palestinian Christians have over their safety.
"These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land," the statement said, referring to Palestine and Israel.
In a joint op-ed in the British newspaper the Sunday Times, also published in December, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Hosam Naoum, the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem, warned of the decline of Christian presence in Palestine caused by Israeli-far right groups' attempts to drive them out.
They noted that a century ago, there were an estimated 73,000 Palestinian Christians in what was then Mandatory Palestine, making up 10 percent of the population. In contrast, they said, in 2019 just 2 percent of Israel and Palestine's population are Christian and only 2,000 Palestinian Christians live in the Old City of Jerusalem.
"It is for this reason that when you speak with Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem today you will often hear this cry 'in 15 years’ time, there’ll be none of us left!'," they wrote.
In October, Middle East Eye reported on confrontations between Israeli forces, the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem, and INPA staff with Palestinians over the latest plans to build a biblical-themed park atop the Muslim al-Yusufiya cemetery, which lies adjacent to one of the historic walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Hamza Quttaineh, a Jerusalemite lawyer advocating for Palestinians in Israeli courts, told MEE: “there are huge machinations undertaken by the occupation municipality, along with the INPA and the judicial system, that provide the legal coverage needed for the Judaisation project encompassing the historical wall of Jerusalem’s Old City".
In its report on Sunday, the Times of Israel wrote that "by gradually moving Jewish families into the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods 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 will be able to encircle the area with Jewish residential, archaeological and environmental projects, watchdogs fear."
In a joint statement to the newspaper, the left-leaning organisations Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim, and Peace Now said that “there is a direct link between what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah and the expansion plan.
“We object to the cynical misuse of heritage and environment protection as a tool by Israeli authorities for justifying settlement expansion, for re-shaping the historical narrative, and for determining ownership over the historical basin.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.