New Settler “Visitors’ Center: in Ras El Amud

On April 28, the Jerusalem Development Authority – an Israeli governmental organization – deposited a plan for public review (Plan #0470484) towards the goal of taking a 1.3-dunam plot of land in Ras el Amud and turning it into a visitors’ center for the Mount of Olives cemetery.

The plan received wide coverage in the Israeli and Palestinian media, including maps and photos of the site and planned construction (Jerusalem PostHaaretz+Arutz Sheva (far-right outlet); Ma’an). Our analysis of the details and implications of the plan is below; for additional excellent background and analysis, see this report from Peace Now.

Where is the site?

The site is located on the Jericho road, opposite Haram al Sharif. On its east, it is adjacent to Ras el Amud’s neighborhood mosque. On its west, it abuts the Jewish cemetery of the Mount of Olives; however, the plot is not part of the walled cemetery. Used as a parking lot primarily for worshipers attending prayers at the mosque, it is accessible from the Jericho road, but not from the cemetery.

What is the plan about?

The plan envisions using the site as a visitors’ and religious services center integrated into the (Jewish) Mount of Olives cemetery, to include lecture halls, souvenir shop, resting areas etc. It would in no way benefit the local Palestinian neighborhoods

While the manner in which the plan was filed is highly irregular (see below), its core objectives are clear: to establish a claim to an open space in a key location by turning what is privately owned property into a “public site,” in the service of further cementing and expanding the Jewish/settler presence in Palestinian areas in and around the Old City and Mount of Olives.

The anomalies in this plan have led us to speculate that the seizure of this site may in some way be related to the controversial planned cable car to go from West Jerusalem to the Dung Gate and Silwan, and from there to the Mount of Olives. The location of the site fits in perfectly with the proposed route of the cable car. That plan was first proposed by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in 2013; it has returned to the headlines in recent weeks, with statements by Israeli officials that the project is now going forward.

Who owns the plot?

We don’t know, and if Israeli authorities know, they aren’t saying. Statutory plans such as this require the plan’s sponsor to cite the land ownership. However, the place designated for the citing the identity of the landowners in the documentation of Plan #0470484 has been left blank, which is highly irregular.

Who is sponsoring the plan, and who is in back of it?

Officially, the Plan is jointly sponsored by the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality, by means of their jointly controlled/managed development arm, the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Unofficially, there are clear indications that the real initiators of the plan are the East Jerusalem settlers, most likely Elad:

  • It is Elad that operates the current makeshift visitors’ center opposite Gethsemane, a few hundred meters to the west of the designated site.
  • Elad has a prominent role in the management of the Mount of Olives cemetery and its restoration, and has a websitededicated to it.
  • The Plan’s architect, Aryeh Rahmimov, frequently does the planning for the settlers.
  • The plan’s documents cite that one of its goals is to be a part of the settler trails, existing and planned, lacing the Mount of Olives and Silwan.

All of this is ample evidence that once again the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality are using their authorities in order to allow – and help – the settlers to take charge of the public domain in and around the Old City, in this case taking private property and making it “public”.

What is the significance of the Plan at this stage?

The manner in which this plan has been filed is so irregular – even bizarre – that it is difficult to answer that question. Generally, the Municipality does not have the authority to carry out an expropriation of this kind; indeed, the plan in effect designates the site for expropriation and proceeds as if that expropriation has taken place, notwithstanding the fact that the plan itself does not actually execute any such expropriation. We have never encountered this before. In addition, planning in this area is so sensitive that the existing town plans (primarily Plan AM/9 which is above all else a preservation plan) are very strict and require a protracted and very public planning process prior to any new construction.

It appears that the sponsors of the plan are running roughshod over all of these legally mandated and customary procedures, to allow it to by-pass them. The plan is a Specific Plan, and explicitly cites that it will allow the issuance of a building permit. It is clear that the Plan is part of a manipulation to leave all of the relevant authorities in the hands of the Municipality, bypassing the Regional Planning Board.

The nature of this plan is so extraordinary and irregular that its legality is very much in question. However the willingness of Israeli authorities to break and bend the rules indicates that they may not allow issues of legality to stand in the way.

What is the timeline for implementation of the Plan?

Given the bizarre/abnormal way in which this Plan is being handled, where normally it is possible to predict with reasonable accuracy the path a plan will take and to estimate the time it will take to be approved/implemented, in this case it is simply impossible to do so. Indeed, based on how what has been seen so far, it is possible that the threat posed by this plan could materialize in the near future.

At the same time, it appears that even without approval, some implementation of the plan may already be proceeding on the ground. Sources close to the settlers have indicated that they anticipate construction to begin in the near future.

Why is this Plan significant?

Plan #0470484 is not routine, and has dire implications.

Increasing volatility. In recent years East Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City and its immediate hinterland, have been the site of sustained violence and clashes. This plan – involving settler land grab taking place in the shadow of the Haram al Sharif and adjacent to the local mosque –is guaranteed to generate violence and instability. Indeed, if one’s goal were to generate new violence and instability in this area, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more effective plan to do so.

Encircling the Old City. Until recent years, the settlements in Silwan, Ras el Amud and the Mount of Olives were dis-contiguous and disconnected. Today, new settlement activity in the Palestinian neighborhood of Batan al Hawa (in Silwan) threatens to link the City of David to Ras el Amud’s settlements, and two major settlement complexes are located on both sides of the Palestinian road into Ras el Amud. This new scheme now will link all of these to the Mount of Olives. The settlers have a declared intent of ringing the Old City will biblically driven settlement projects, and this is yet another indication that they are succeeding.

Unmasking the settler regime. This is yet another indication that the settlers’ DNA now drives the decision-making processes of the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality, and that government assets and authorities have been outsourced to the settlers – so much so that today there is little distinction between them.