Monday, April 21, 2014

Parks as Weapons: New Strategy of Right

It is no secret that the Israeli government has always been concerned with demographics. It is in no way special in this; even relatively reputable academics such as Samuel Huntington have written unabashedly about the "threat" of the growing Hispanic population in the U.S., which he claimed neither speaks nor wants to learn English and is tipping the balance of population from Protestants to Catholics. The Russians took care to settle its nationals in every republic in the Soviet Union, managing to form a majority in Kazakhstan and a large minority even in the Baltic states, especially Estonia. French limits on immigration and Australian policy towards the Aborigines, I'll only mention. Yet there are legitimate concerns, legitimate means -- and then there's the latest policy in Jerusalem.

On the one hand, Israel has always wanted very much to enlarge Jerusalem and develop it as its capital. On the other hand, it wanted as few Palestinians (who refused Israeli citizenship) and as high a percentage of Israeli Jews as possible within the municipal boundaries. The size of Jerusalem tripled in territory after the Six-Day War -- and efforts were immediately begun to build new Israeli neighborhoods in the area available: not surprising.

Mount Scopus Slopes National Park
Since then, Israel has continued to build for Israelis and persisted in making acquiring building permits as difficult as possible for Palestinians, if not impossible. A variety of means have also been developed to make it difficult to acquire permanent residency status -- but easy to lose it. Yet despite its best efforts, the percentage of Palestinians residing in the city has continued to climb (it now stands at 37%) while the percentage of Israeli Jews has correspondingly dropped. This, apparently, has prompted an inventive new weapon in the demography battle: the transformation of all possible land available to the Palestinians into national park land. Apparently the hope is that with virtually no chance of building on park land, the Palestinians will simply move out.

Thus, the Jerusalem Municipality has been promoting a plan to develop the slopes of Silwan into a park it calls, "The King's Garden" which will entail the bulldozing of about 44 Palestinian homes. The area is to become a park, a tourist attraction, to lure visitors from the old city and what is now called "the City of David" into the neighborhood of Silwan -- but under a different name, and with the dubious advantage of making the displaced residents relocate (to be fair, the municipality claims it will help them build new housing -- elsewhere). In an area of East Jerusalem between the neighborhood of Wadi Joz and A-Tur, a small national park has been established (Emek Tzurim) that makes it impossible for the surrounding neighborhoods to expand but makes the area a comfortable spot for tourists and for the ultra-right wing NGO "Elad" to bring tourists (for a profit). Now an even more grandiose plan is underway: to take a huge swathe of land  (700 dunam) between A-Tor and Issawiya and make that, too, a park (Mount Scopus Slopes National Park)-- although even the Minister of the Environment and the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel agree there is absolutely no special flora or fauna of note to justify such a decision. This area is a barren region of slabs of rock and unremarkable shrubbery that might have been used to build the schools and public buildings of which both neighborhoods are in need, but the Minister of Building prefers to block it off.

According to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory. That means that Israel has a responsibility to maintain the land and see to the needs of its residents. But someone who thinks that Israel is now the legitimate sovereign of East Jerusalem must also acknowledge that it must see to the needs of the people of East Jerusalem, be they permanent residents or citizens or anything else. The developing policy of seizing land in East Jerusalem for fictive parks, simply to make it unavailable for Palestinian housing, is a cynical and unjust policy that should be condemned and stopped.

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