Hugh Naylor
The National
January 12, 2012 - 1:00am

It is littered with rubbish thrown there by the residents of the two Palestinian neighbourhoods that bookend the 75-hectare slope, and it is besieged by the din of cars and lorries rumbling down the nearby road that connects central Jerusalem with the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.

Yet in this most disputed of cities and regions, no tract of land is too nondescript or unsightly for anyone to care. That is why Israeli authorities want to convert the swath of land into a national park - the latest method by Israel aimed at dispossessing Palestinians of their claim to Jerusalem and putting land in the West Bank permanently beyond their reach.

"This will be a disaster for us because there's simply no more land left for us," said Abu Mumar Darwish, 61, an elder of Issawiya, one of the communities that abuts the slope.

Issawiya's 14,000 residents live in overcrowded quarters and would like to build new homes in the vacant patch of land, which has been designated as the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park. But like the rest of Jerusalem's 275,000 Palestinians, they are in practice forbidden from such building by the city's Jewish-run municipality.

Critics charge that the recent trend of creating national parks in east Jerusalem present a far more subtle way of restricting Palestinian-residential growth than by home demolitions, which still occur regularly. Under the guise of preserving "green spaces", they also form a network of Jewish settlements and barriers designed to prevent the area from ever becoming the capital of a hoped-for Palestinian state.

"This is part of changes that Israel is making to the city that, if allowed, will make it difficult for Jerusalem to be a capital of a Palestinian state and make it difficult for there to be a two-state solution - which is the only solution to the [Israel-Palestinian] conflict," said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority.

Seven areas in east Jerusalem have been declared national parks or are in the process of being designated one, according to a report released this month by Planners for Planning Rights, or Bimkom, an Israeli non-governmental organisation.

The creation of national parks and the transfer of land from the control of the Jerusalem municipality to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a national body, is a "tool for limiting the development of Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem". The designated areas are the only ones left in the city for residential growth in Palestinian neighbourhoods, which are hemmed in by settlements and Israel's separation barrier.

The areas are located in Jerusalem's urban heart, creating what looks like a swiss cheese of enclaves between Palestinian neighbourhoods that envelope the Old City's religious sites, revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The Bimkom report noted the transfer of authority would still allow Israel to severely restrict the areas from Palestinian use. But this had the added advantage of sparing the Jerusalem municipality from having to expropriate the land, most of it claimed by Palestinians, which meant it would not have to compensate land owners.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specialising in conflict resolution in the city, said the city's developing crescent of national parks serves a broader ideological purpose for Jewish settlers.

The new parks are part of an eight-year plan pushed in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, as a way to "placate" settlers angry at his dismantling of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip that year, Mr Seidemann said.

He said the parks are meant for "ringing the area with settlements but also to radically transform the nature of the public domain through the area by creating a series of national parks, archaeological areas, and walking paths through here".

Management of one park is outsourced to the privately run settler organisation Elad, a right-wing group that runs the controversial City of David, a national park archaeological dig, in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. The organisation is notorious for pushing settlers into the area's Palestinian homes.

An official from the office of Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did a spokesperson from the national parks authority.

Palestinians and some Israeli officials expressed particular fear that Israel has special plans for the area proposed to become the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park.

"What is behind this national park idea is the intention to control Palestinian land in East Jerusalem in order to build a Jewish settlement there in the future," said Meir Margalit, a liberal Jerusalem city councilmen.

He and others noted the area delineated for the national park was actually larger than the Issawyia, the adjacent community.

Moreover, its strategic location on the eastern outskirts of the city makes it one of the last open spaces connecting Palestinian communities in east Jerusalem with those in the West Bank.

Issawiya residents had been in negotiations with municipal officials over residential expansion into the area but discovered in November that the park was in its final-planning stages.

Under the plans, the park sprawls over the areas they hoped to build on.

They have enlisted lawyers to fight against the plan, but Riyad Hamdan, 60, another village elder, was not optimistic.

"They will take it," he said. "Today, it will be a park, but after a few years, trust me, you'll see a new settlement here."


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