Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Homes of East Jerusalem Palestinians Threatened by "National Parks" Policy

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Homes of East Jerusalem Palestinians Threatened by "National Parks" Policy

Article excerpt

ON THE JERUSALEM PLANNING map, the aerial view of the Sawaneh district and its cluster of homes is obscured by green ink, part of a swath of color besieging the walls of the Old City on every side.

Over the past decade, these colored zones have spread over the map of East Jerusalem, creating a patchwork that engulfs ever more Palestinian neighborhoods close to the Old City.

The green ink may look innocuous on paper, but on May 17 it heralded the arrival of giant bulldozers and more than 100 Israeli security officials. Two homes were demolished, making 23 people homeless and leaving 12 more families in immediate danger of losing a roof over their heads.

The single-story home of Aref Totanji, 50, was one of those targeted. "We have nowhere else to go," he said of the 16 family members who lived with him, including his seven-month-old granddaughter.

As Israeli authorities declare "national parks" over residential areas, thousands of Palestinians living in overcrowded neighborhoods close to Jerusalem's Old City are being trapped in a similar planning nightmare.

Human-rights groups accuse Israel of increasingly using such parks as a tool to grab control of Palestinian land and demolish homes, under the guise of archaeological preservation and tourism development.

Enass Masri, a field researcher for Bimkom, a group of planning experts helping Palestinians negotiate Israel's labyrinthine planning system, said the goal of national parks in Israel was to protect green spaces and heritage sites. In Jerusalem, however, the policy had been subverted.

"Uniquely in East Jerusalem, the national parks include residential areas," she said. "They are a monster making these families' lives a misery."

According to Bimkom, the Jerusalem municipality has been seeking to transfer control over a growing number of Palestinian neighborhoods to an ostensibly environmental agency called the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The consequences for Palestinians living in these parks was devastating, said Masri, because this process made demolitions easier to secure. In addition, the loss of open land in East Jerusalem to the national parks was stripping Palestinians of any hope of developing housing for the next generation.

Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions said: "The national parks are a great way for Israel to conceal its real agenda. They are seen as a good thing-ecological and benign.

"It's much less easy to understand that they constrict Palestinian development, fragment Palestinian living space, and justify house demolitions."

The families in Sawaneh, next to the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz, discovered only two years ago that they were living in the Jerusalem City Walls Park, even though it was officially established four decades ago.

It was the first park to be declared after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, in violation of international law, in 1967.

But only in the past year have the residents noticed Israeli officials taking an interest in their neighborhood. Regular surveys have been carried out and inspectors have issued clean-up orders.

Totanji's neighbors, Nureddin and Sharif Amro-two brothers who are blind-had parts of their homes demolished last year, including a kitchen, sitting area, garden wall and chicken coop. Electricity cables and sewage pipes were also damaged.

All the families have been warned that they are in the way of a planned "Bible Trail" running along the eastern edge of the Jerusalem City Walls Park.

The land on which all the homes are built is privately owned by two Palestinian families.

No suggestion has been made that there are archaeological remains under either the homes in Sawaneh or in a large green space close by that also falls within the national park.

The families suspect that the authorities may be targeting their area now because it includes the last large parking space within walking distance of the Old City. …

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