The Israeli Government’s Creation of a Settler Realm in and around Jerusalem’s Old City
We have been chronicling the manner in which the Israeli Government has been systematically transferring the responsibility for Jerusalem’s most precious archaeological, historical and heritage sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and its visual basin for well over a decade. Initially, the settler organizations focused their activities on “house-to-house combat” – a systematic attempt to transform existing Palestinian neighborhoods into restored Biblical realms, Hence, the Wadi Hilweh quarter of Silwan has come to be known as the “City of David”, and the settlers have admitted that their goal is to transform Silwan into an extension of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Similarly, the Ateret Cohanim settlers of the Old City now refer to the Muslim Quarter as “the restored Jewish Quarter” of the Old City.
However, for almost twenty years, the center of gravity of the settlers’ efforts has shifted from house takeovers (which continue apace) to a concerted effort, enjoying the full backing of the Government of Israel, to take control of the public domain in and around the Old City, in an effort to physically imprint their settlement-oriented Biblical narrative on the terrain. Virtually all of the most important archaeological excavations in and around the Old City – some of the most important on the planet – are taking place under the auspices of, or thanks to funding from, the settler organizations. The city’s “national parks” – with the term “national” referring to only one of the two national collectives in the city – are under the direct or indirect control of the settler organizations or those doing their bidding. Massive tunneling under privately owned Palestinian homes is being carried out by the settler organizations and the Western Wall Heritage Fund. The list goes on and on.
There was a major turning point regarding these developments that took place in 2005. In the shadow of the withdrawal from Gaza, the Sharon Government approved an eight-year development plan for “the preservation of the Old City and its environs” for which tens of millions of shekels were allocated annually. The plan, in reality, was a thinly veiled scheme to consolidate the settlers’ control over the public domain in the Old City and its environs. The ministerial responsibility for the project was and remains vested in the Prime Minister’s office, and the implementation is carried out by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), a statutory body controlled jointly by the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality. In all matters in and around the Old City, the JDA’s cooperation with the settler organizations is so intimate that the JDA and the settlers are often indistinguishable.
In 2009, we created a detailed presentation of the settler-related schemes, which may be viewed here. In addition, in our recent book, “The Settlement Enterprise in East Jerusalem,” we give a detailed history of this attempt to establish settler hegemony over the public domain in the Old City and its environs, excerpts of which may be viewed here. And it is precisely the implementation of these schemes which were chronicled in the latest EU heads of Mission Report on East Jerusalem, mentioned above.
The Recent Developments
Last summer, we noted with concern the opening of the settlement floodgates in Jerusalem. At the time, we focused our attention on plans, tenders, etc. for the construction of new settlement homes.
In addition, it is now apparent that all restraints have been removed from settlement-related schemes in and around the Old City. The pace and scope of these schemes leave little room for doubt: much of the authority and control over the public domain in one of the most sensitive places in the world has been transferred to the settler organizations – lock, stock and barrel. Please note that with the sole exception of the light rail, which remains in large part a conceptual scheme, practical steps have been taken in recent weeks regarding each of them, and they are moving towards implementation.
To grasp the devastating implications of these projects on the ground, in terms of establishing far-reaching Israeli/settler control across the Old City and its environs, view them on the map (map can be viewed/downloaded here). This map graphically displays just how the Old City and its environs is becoming enmeshed in a web of settlement related schemes in and around the Old City.
1. The construction of a footbridge between Abu Tor and Mt. Zion, over the Hinnom Valley. This is a project initiated by the JDA connecting lands on which the Elad settler organization claims property to a piece of land owned by the municipality. The plan was approved on May 3, 2017. A building permit is yet to be granted. This is a project of the Elad settler organization of Silwan, and Elad’s claims to parts of the land are being challenged by Palestinian residents in court.
2. The establishment of a settler-run camping site in Abu Tor. The site is located on the southern side of Abu Tor, to the east of North Talpiot, at the entrance to what has been dubbed the “peace forest” — located between the Armon Hanatziv promenade and Abu Tor. This is a project initiated by Elad. Building permits that were issued for the project were subsequently cancelled by the appeals committee, but the committee stated that the permits will be approved if the camping site is restricted to non-permanent camping facilities, such as tents.
3. The establishment of a settler-run tourist center in Abu Tor. This center is in the same park as the camping site (the so-called “peace forest”). It is also initiated by Elad and is to serve as a facility for tours and an “educational center”. The project aims to expand tourist activities that are run by exclusively by Elad at this site. The permit was granted on March 22, 2017 but is yet to be issued.
4. The establishment of the Beit Schatz Tourist Center. This project consists of the rehabilitation of an old house, located on the Armon Hanatziv promenade, at the entrance to the UN Headquarters at Government House. Once again, this is another Elad scheme. It includes the construction of an auditorium inside the house and an observation balcony. It was approved on November 30, 2016. The approval was renewed on January 17, 2018, and the building permit is yet to be granted.
5. The establishment of an Omega/zip line in Abu Tor. This project is initiated by Elad. It is part of the same touristic/attraction center planned in the so called “peace forest” south of Abu Tor and consists of the installation of two 4 meter-high pillars. A building permit was granted on December 28, 2017. The zip line will traverse the visual basin of the Old City, and is more than 800 m in length. The scheme has encountered opposition from the JNF.
6. The establishment of a settler-run visitors center on the Mt. of Olives. This is a project initiated by of the Jerusalem Development Authority, that was approved on September 23, 2017.
7. The establishment of a promenade on the Mt. of Olives, connecting the settler enclaves of Beit Orot and Beit Hahoshen. This is a project of the Jerusalem Development Authority & the Jerusalem Municipality. Reportedly (or sources claim) the plan will be brought before the Municipal Planning Committee in the weeks to come (or by year’s end). The municipality is taking part in the project submission.
8. The establishment of a Holy Basin cable car. This is a plan for a cable car with lines connecting between Abu Tor/Mt. Zion and the settler-run Kedem Center in Silwan/Dung Gate, and with plans for further stations/lines connecting between the Kedem Center and the Mt. of Olives, the Kedem Center and the Siloam Pool, the Mt. of Olives and Gethsemane, and Gethsemane and Siloam Pool. This is a project of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Tourism Ministry & the Jerusalem municipality (see additional media reports here, here, and here).
9. The expansion of the Jerusalem light rail either under the Old City to the Western Wall Plaza. Under the plan the light rail will skirt the western and southern ramparts of the Old City to Dung Gate. This is a project of the Israeli Government/Ministry of Transportation. This is a conceptual scheme, and there are two routes under consideration – one under the Armenian and Jewish quarters leading to the Davidson Center, and the other skirting the southern ramparts of the Old City in Mt. Zion leading to Dung Gate.
10. The handing over of the Old City/Western Wall Davidson Center archeological park to the settlers. In February 2017, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit finalized an arrangement with Elad granting them the right to run the Davidson Center, after the Supreme Court asked Elad and the State to come to terms, based on the decision of the Jerusalem District Court that validated the decision of the Jewish Quarter Reconstruction and Development Company to transfer the management of the site to Elad (also here).
11. The ”urban park” of Silwan. Elad has acted to push for an amendment to the legislation applying to National Parks and Nature Reserves, which will make it easier for Elad to circumvent restrictions applying to construction in Silwan, which is part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park (see also Haaretz report in Hebrew here). The amendment (which passed preliminary reading) is not necessarily going to pass at the first reading, due to objections of the Ministry of Justice and the National Parks Authority, but the proposed law has sparked a discussion among government bodies in regard to “the need” to find practical solutions to enable expansion of Silwan settlers housing.
12. The transformation of Sheikh Jarrah. As we reported at length previously (see here and here), the approval of three construction plans last July by the Regional Council and a fourth one by the municipal council will establish built-up settlers contiguity in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and connect it to West Jerusalem. In so doing, the plans will alter the natural demographic line between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and harm contiguity within the Palestinian neighborhood.
Some Tentative Observations
The Settler Regime: While these are all recent developments, they reflect the culmination of a process that has been going on for many years. The data above further illustrate the predominant role played by Elad and the JDA in advancing settlers’ control over East Jerusalem, and the complicity of the State in doing so, as detailed in the Comptroller Report published on November 2016 (see our analysis here). Indeed, the settler “DNA” has been injected into virtually all of the governmental organs with any relevant authority in and around the Old City: the Israel Lands Authority, the Custodian General, the Absentee Property Custodian, the Israel Police, the Planning Committees, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Finance and many more. Similarly, many of the authorities of these governmental agencies have been outsourced to the settlers. The governmental adoption of the settler ideology and the outsourcing of governmental authority create a situation in which the public interest and the settler interest have become virtually indistinguishable. No new master plan has been created, and none is necessary – the brakes that slowed these schemes have merely been removed. Israel remains a feisty, albeit increasingly challenged democracy: when it comes to the Old City and its visual basin, it morphs into something highly reminiscent of a regime.
Recognition, Taxation and the Public Domain: public attention relating to Jerusalem has been riveted to two recent developments: US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (accompanied by the upcoming move of the embassy) and the conflict between the Israeli Government/Jerusalem Municipality and the Churches over land and taxation issues. On the face of things, these developments appear to be unrelated. However, a closer look reveals that they all share commonalities. The spirit is: Debate over the character and future status of Jerusalem has been taken off the table. It is a Jewish city, full-stop. It’s Christian and Muslim equities have been marginalized, and residents of the Palestinian sector are at best tolerated extras in a Biblical pageant, at worst unwelcome intruders.
The Geographical Implications: In recent reports, we have noted with concern the grave geographical implications of developments in the settlement enclaves in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. The recently advanced planning schemes in Sheikh Jarrah threaten to transform the settlement enclave into a geographical and demographic extension of pre-1967 Israel extending from the Green Line to Mount Scopus. Similarly, the developments in Wadi Hilweh, Batan al Hawa, Ras al Amud and Mount of Olives threaten to encircle the Old City from the south and the east. The new schemes so graphically displayed on the map – the cable cars, footbridge, omega, light rail spurs, promenades and trails – leave no room for doubt as to the overarching strategic goal of all this: the welding of the Old City and its environs to pre-1967 Israel.
Palestinians? What Palestinians? There is an additional common denominator shared by many of these schemes. Cable cars and ziplines whir above the Palestinian neighborhoods; tunnels run beneath Palestinian homes (often causing structural damage); promenades, trails and footbridges cut through and around Palestinian areas. All of these add up to mechanisms that cultivate denial or avoidance of the Palestinian presence. Literally and figuratively, the Palestinians are not to be encountered at eye-level.
From a Political Conflict to a Religious Conflict: The credibility of the two-state solution is in tatters. The international consensus around the two-state solution has been shattered by the failure of the Trump administration to embrace it. Lack of any forward political movement has led many Israelis and Palestinians to abandon all hope for its implementation. Generally, the demise of the two state solution is directly linked to developments on the ground: settlement expansion has so balkanized the map of the West Bank as to make the creation of an occupation-ending border very difficult, if not impossible. However there is a second threat to the two-state solution, and it is no less insidious.The two-state solution is predicated on the existence of a national-political conflict which may be resolved through statecraft. What we are witnessing in and around Jerusalem’s Old City is the ascendancy of absolute and exclusionary religious extremism – one the contains the seeds of a transformation of this conflict into a zero-sum religious clash, one which cannot possibly be resolved. A cable car terminal located at a settler center at the main entrance to a Palestinian neighborhood and 150 meters from the Al Aqsa Mosque and a process leading to a permanent status agreement appear to be mutually exclusive.
Crimes against Jerusalem: On occasion, events in Jerusalem transcend the calculus of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that is so dominant in the city. Cable cars, ziplines and light rail spurs are so alien to the true character of the city that they would be “crimes against Jerusalem” whether carried out by Israelis or Palestinians. This accelerated “Disney-fication” of the city is devaluing it, marring its skyline and undermining its unique character. No one who treats Jerusalem with the reverence it deserves could possibly pursue such schemes, and those concerned with the integrity of the world’s heritage sites would be well advised to engage those who are jeopardizing this jewel of a city, that is so dear to billions of people throughout the world.