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Palestinians on high alert as Israel prepares to hand over East Jerusalem nature reserve and Muslim cemetery to settlers

Israel/Palestine
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Just outside the walls of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem, a years long demographic battle between the Israeli state and Palestinian residents of the city has found new life in recent weeks.

Right-wing settler NGO Elad, also known as the City of David Foundation, celebrated a win last week when the Interior and Environment Committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, advanced a bill that would allow for the construction of Jewish settlement housing to be built inside areas zoned for national parks within municipal boundaries.

The bill, which was introduced last year, proposed that settlement construction be allowed inside the boundaries of archaeological national parks where a “neighborhood” had existed before the park was declared, referring to conglomerates of Jewish settlers living on Palestinian land.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that the Elad-managed City of David national park, built on lands of the Palestinian town of Silwan, “seems to be the only park in all of Israel that meets these criteria for residential construction.”

Palestinian activists have condemned the bill’s hypocrisy, pointing to the fact that the nearly 4,000 Palestinian residents of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan, where the City of David site is located, have been prevented for years by the Israeli government from any type of building or construction work under the pretext of preserving the national park.

Jawad Siyam of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center spoke to Mondoweiss, and criticized Israeli attempts to further entrench its settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem, specifically Silwan, and its “Judaization” of the city.

“This is all done with the intention of emptying Jerusalem of Palestinians and part of the plans to make Jerusalem a Jewish-majority city,” he said.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at left-wing Israeli NGO Ir Amim, echoed Siyam’s sentiments in a statement to Mondoweiss.

“National Parks have been hugely misused by Israel in East Jerusalem as a one of the means to severely limit Palestinian residential areas in order to realize the Israeli demographic policy of ensuring a Jewish majority in Jerusalem,” Tatarsky said, adding that the policy creates pressures that “encourage” East Jerusalemites to leave the city.

One of the starkest examples of such policies, Tatarsky noted, is the City of David national park, which is run by Elad.

According to Tatarsky, the Israeli government’s restrictions on Palestinian construction in Wadi Hilweh has resulted in it being “one of the most neglected neighborhoods of the city.”

“In reality through the national park, Israel is trying to put the [Jewish] past over the neighborhood’s Palestinian present, it tries to put the touristic park over the reality of a Palestinian neighborhood,” he said.

‘Dubious means’

While the approval of the Elad-backed construction bill marked an effort by the organization to receive official government approval for its plans in Wadi Hilweh, Tatarsky told Mondoweiss that the organization has been illegally settling Israelis in Silwan with the government’s knowledge and approval for the better part of 30 years.

“Over the last 30 years Elad has gotten control – many times through dubious means and with the backing of Israeli authorities – of Palestinian homes in the neighborhoods,” Tatarsky said.

“Many times the families who lived in the homes lost title to it because of Israeli legislation which made it possible to take their property away from them. Today Elad controls some 70 housing units in the neighborhood which is home to over 4,000 Palestinians,” he added.

According to Tatarsky, the proposed bill is designed specifically to help Elad circumvent restrictions on construction in national parks, in order to expand its settlement compounds in the neighborhood.

He noted that one of the supporters of the bill is the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), whose director for the Jerusalem district was a former high ranking member of Elad.

Haaretz quoted the INPA as saying it “attaches great importance to advancing the bill that will legally regulate the integration of residential buildings within a national park area around the walls of Jerusalem and the City of David.”

Tatarsky raised the point that while in theory the bill’s passing could enable the Palestinian residents of Wadi Hilweh to finally build on their land, in reality, it remains highly unlikely.

“Whoever is familiar with the realities of the planning policy in the city knows that whereas Elad will be able to swiftly promote its construction plans, Palestinian efforts will have to face many hurdles (political hurdles disguised as bureaucratic ones) and it is very doubtful that they will benefit from the legislation,” he said. Then he went on, “Expanding the settlement in Silwan will have direct consequences disrupting the lives of the local Palestinian population. In the long run it will further solidify Israel’s hold around the Old City making it ever more difficult to arrive at a future agreement which will allow for a Palestinian capital in the city without which we can not arrive at an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Entrance to the Bab al-Rahma Cemetery (Photo: Saleh Zghari)

The Bab al-Rahma cemetery is one of the oldest and most important Muslim cemeteries in East Jerusalem (Photo: Saleh Zghari)

Disrupting the dead

Though the bill will still need to pass through three Knesset readings before going into final preparations, the consequences of Elad’s new settlement plans around the Old City are already being felt by local Palestinians. This time, by the deceased.

In recent weeks, the INPA has resumed digging at the Palestinian Bab al-Rahma cemetery, part of which sits in Silwan just beyond the wall of the Old City, adjacent to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The Bab al-Rahma, or “Gate of Mercy,” cemetery is the final resting place to generations of Palestinians and others from the Arab world, its origins dating back more than 1,000 years. As one of the most important Muslim cemeteries in Jerusalem, Palestinians from Silwan and other parts of East Jerusalem have long buried their dead there.

Locals told Mondoweiss that INPA staff began digging up graves and empty land in the cemetery, and that in May, authorities placed metal fences around the parts of the cemetery that it intends on confiscating in order to create a trail for tourists in the City of David national park.

Mustafa Abu Zahra, Head of the Committee for the Preservation of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem, told Mondoweiss that Israeli attacks on the cemetery began as early as the 1970’s, and have resurfaced over the years.

According to Abu Zahra, at least one quarter of an acre of the cemetery — where several hundred Egyptian soldiers who fought in historic Palestine are buried —  has been confiscated by the INPA, preventing Palestinians from accessing the area.

“Many times they have destroyed parts of the cemetery, especially in the Egyptian part. Any time we try to build new graves in the cemetery, the Israeli Nature Parks Authority comes to destroy them,” Abu Zahra said, adding that he fears the cemetery will eventually be completely confiscated and closed off to Palestinian use.

“The Israelis want most of the cemetery to be destroyed and made part of the park. The main corridor of the cemetery will be used as a main pathway through the park, connecting the City of David to the Masjid Al-Aqsa compound,” he said.

Abu Zahra, who sees himself as one of the most vital protectors of the cemetery, says that the cemetery acts as a barrier that “protects” Al-Aqsa. He fears its confiscation would highly endanger Muslim claims to the holy site.

“This cemetery sits right under the wall of Al-Aqsa. So if they take this cemetery, the whole area surrounding Al-Aqsa will be under Israeli control,” he told Mondoweiss.

“Bab al-Rahma is one of the most important parts of Jerusalem history,” Abu Zahra said, “Israel is trying to kill any part of Muslim or Palestinian culture in Jerusalem.”

“This is a violation of international law, and part of Israel’s ongoing Judaization of Jerusalem. This cemetery represents our culture, our life, our history, and Israel is trying to erase all of this,” he said. 

yumnapatel
About Yumna Patel

Yumna Patel is a multimedia journalist based in Bethlehem, Palestine. Follow her on Twitter at @yumna_patel

Other posts by .


About Saleh Zghari

Saleh Zghari is a Palestinian filmmaker and freelance videographer based in Jerusalem

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12 Responses

  1. Kay24
    Kay24
    July 12, 2018, 1:47 pm

    They accuse the Palestinians of wanting them wiped out from this earth, but it is they who keep the viciousness going, slowly trying to wipe out indigenous people, by stealing their lands, and taking over Muslim cemeteries. Imagine if Arabs had taken over Jewish sacred grounds, they would be howling like a pack of wolves. I guess there is no point looking at Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, for help, they are busy plotting and planning with these evil people, and being cozy with them. This is such a sad situation.

    • annie
      annie
      July 12, 2018, 2:25 pm

      I guess there is no point looking at Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar

      i read this morning https://twitter.com/ShibleyTelhami/status/1017198026262241281

      MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman reports on Hardball, based on Israeli sources, that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is now relying on Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, for security.

      • Kay24
        Kay24
        July 13, 2018, 1:40 am

        Annie, I saw this too, and it sounds so surreal, to think how low Saudi Arabia can go. They are now sleeping with their enemy, just like the UAE and Qatar. All this because they want to conspire with the US to give Iran the same treatment the US gave Iraq, I guess. They have a common enemy, and they don’t care if the Palestinians are killed, or if their new buddy keeps stealing their lands, as long as they can all hold hands and sing kumbaya. Disgusting lot, and they deserve each other.

      • Misterioso
        Misterioso
        July 13, 2018, 10:42 am

        @Annie Robbins

        MBS is digging his grave. It’s only a matter of time. The “Arab street,” including Saudi Arabians, detests him.

      • annie
        annie
        July 13, 2018, 12:12 pm

        i hope so.

      • Rashers2
        Rashers2
        July 13, 2018, 2:58 pm

        Mmmmmm. @Kay24 rightly points out that this is all about Iran and a perceived “common enemy”. The premise that my enemy’s enemy is my friend is expedient only for as long as the threat(s) to me and my enemy’s enemy are both alive. As soon as one or other or both threats recede, things revert to their previous state – if you don’t believe that, just consider what became known as the Cold War.
        For some years, I have pondered how the increasing cosiness between the Ziofascists and my host country and its Sunni Gulf neighbours – and, among others, “clients” such as the Egyptians – will play out in those Arab countries in terms of the consent of the people to those who rule them. The Sunni Gulf monarchies rule by means of social compact with their indigenous populaces – popular consent in exchange for patronage and, certainly outside KSA, a “light touch” and judiciously-practised blind eyes. To the generality of fellow Sunni subjects, they are benign autocracies and there is little discernible groundswell of sentiment for radical change. Whether this will remain the case may depend rather on whether the indigenous populations are more Saudi/Qatari/Emirati/etc. than Muslim or identify more with Islam than with any political nationality. If the latter transpired to be the case (which has not yet been seriously tested) then, to borrow from Mr. Berlin, there could be trouble ahead, which could force the ruling dynasties rapidly to readjust to a more traditional stance towards the Zionist state and the whole I/P question or risk the precious consent of their subjects evaporating virtually overnight. What would constitute a “serious test” of religious vs. national affiliation is anyone’s guess although I have long believed that one potential such test would be a direct and immediate threat to the Noble Sanctuary; which brings us right back to Abu Zahra’s observations quoted in the article above.

  2. kev
    kev
    July 12, 2018, 3:33 pm

    Consider the real danger: This bill will allow Israel to first declare a national park on an area AS A WAY of displacing and dispossessing Palestinians, or preventing construction by Palestinians AND THEN allowing settlers to build in the area. Like declaring an area a closed military zone, acquiring it for a military base, then building settlements on it, this is another tool in the toolbox to allow increasing dispossession of Palestinians in order to build settlements for Jews. Just another tool of ethnic cleansing and Apartheid.

  3. Misterioso
    Misterioso
    July 13, 2018, 10:54 am

    https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/WATCH-Irish-senate-debates-criminalizing-Israeli-settler-trade-562223

    Jerusalem Post, July 11/18
    “Israel summons Irish ambassador over settlement criminalization bill vote”

    EXCERPT:
    “Israel summoned Irish ambassador Alison Kelly to its Foreign Ministry on Thursday morning to protest her country’s advancement of a bill that would criminalize trade with east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

    “The bill mandates that an Irish citizen found guilty of engaging in trade with areas of Israel beyond the pre-1967 lines could be jailed for up to five years and fined up to a quarter of- a-million euros.

    “The Senate, known as the Seanad Éireann, passed the bill 25-20 in a second reading. It now moves through eight stages that include a committee meeting and a vote in Ireland’s house of representatives, known as the Dáil Éireann. It becomes law only with the signature of the Irish president.

    “Such a law would mark the first time a European Union member state has banned commercial activity over Israel’s pre- 1967 lines. The EU has issued guidelines for countries wishing to label such goods, but has not taken any steps to ban them.”

  4. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block
    July 13, 2018, 1:26 pm

    Don’t Israelis know Jewish history? Don’t they know about Jewish cemeteries desecrated during the Holocaust?
    Not the first time I’m asked this question. Years ago, reading about settlers poisoning wells that Palestinians used to water their animals, I thought: Don’t Israelis remember the medieval accusations of Jews poisoning wells? and now they are actually doing it.

    • Rashers2
      Rashers2
      July 13, 2018, 5:58 pm

      @ Elizabeth Block, I can hear the despairing frustration in your questions but the stark answer maybe either “yes” or “no” – it doesn’t really matter whether they KNOW about history. What matters is that the present regime and that majority in Israel which supports it and its aims don’t care about history. All they want is Eretz Israel, from the River to the Sea (in the case of many, from the Nile to the Euphrates), populated and governed by Jewish people. For many Zionists, history ended with the Roman expulsions and re-started +/- 1,800 years later with the project to colonise Palestine…

      • Talkback
        Talkback
        July 14, 2018, 4:11 am

        There is no contemporary evidence that anything like an exile took place. It’s a myth. Not created but fostered especially by Zionists.

  5. Misterioso
    Misterioso
    July 13, 2018, 2:15 pm

    BREAKING NEWS:

    https://uscpr.org/episcopaliandivestment/

    “Episcopal Church Votes to Divest from Israeli Human Rights Abuses” July 13/18

    “The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, with more than 3 million members has voted to divest from companies involved in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights!
    The Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network (EPF PIN) put in amazing work over many years to get to make the Episcopal Church the 10th Christian denomination in the US to take economic action for justice in Palestine. Thanks in large part to their mobilization, the church also passed ground-breaking resolutions:

    “Asserting the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination
    Condemning Israel’s violence against protesters in Gaza
    Calling on the US government to reinstate funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)
    Supporting the rights of Palestinian children
    Demanding equal access to Jerusalem and opposing Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”

    “USCPR was proud to have Anna Baltzer, Director of Organizing & Advocacy, on the ground at the General Convention supporting EPF PIN. Many other Palestine solidarity groups were there, as well.

    “All the groups were working together to organize powerful testimonies (like this one from FOSNA’s Tarek Abuata) from Palestinian refugees, students, elders, clergy, and others, strategize outreach, and share why the church taking economic action is so important.
    We’ve come a long way. In 2014, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the first mainline church to divest from companies profiting from the occupation and just last month, they voted in ten pro-Palestine resolutions.

    “Now, divesting from Israel’s abuses of Palestinians’ rights is the norm – even in institutions like the Episcopal Church, which had previously voted down such measures more than once.
    As icing on the cake, USCPR recently learned that the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation – which has more than $400 million in holdings and has already divested from Hewlett Packard, Veolia, and Caterpillar – will now screen out all companies contributing to the occupation of Palestine and other occupations around the world.

    “These institutional shifts are a sign of changing times, and confirmation that years of hard work are producing results. The movement’s strategy to mainstream the struggle for Palestinian rights is paying off. Folks are understanding that being progressive means standing with Palestine!

    “USCPR puts a lot into supporting church divestment efforts for justice in Palestine, including sending staff to big annual meetings like this year’s Presbyterian and Episcopalian ones, sharing lessons learned from one annual assembly to another, supporting church groups, and putting together delegations of Palestinians and allies to give powerful testimony at assemblies.

    “As we celebrate, we are mindful of the reason these milestones matter: Israel’s continued violence, oppression, discrimination, and exile of the Palestinian people everywhere, every day. This win reminds us of our power, and the necessity to continue working until the Palestinian people achieve full freedom, justice, and equality.”

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