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Mount Scopus Slopes National Park and the harm it causes al-'Esawiyah and a-Tur

Virtual tour of the 'national parks'

On 14 November 2013, the District Planning and Construction Committee of the Ministry of the Interior approved the establishment of Mount Scopus Slopes Park, a new national park that would encompass roughly 73 hectares on the eastern side of Mount Scopus. The park had been in planning since 2005 and was approved despite the professional recommendation of Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz. The minister, who oversees the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA), recommended that the plan not be advanced, saying he was “not prepared to be party to declarations whose goals have nothing to do with the environment”. 

The dispute over the approval of the park is mostly due to its impact on the nearby East Jerusalem neighborhoods of al-'Esawiyah and a-Tur. Both neighborhoods are plagued by a housing shortage, insufficient infrastructure, poor and deficient services and lack of land available for construction. Residents of the two neighborhoods have been trying for years to advance expansion plans with the municipality and the Ministry of Interior planning bodies. The only land reserves available for expansion lie in the area south of al-'Esawiyah and north of a-Tur. They are part of the area approved for the national park, thereby precluding the possibility of improving conditions in the two neighborhoods. 

Part of area covered by projected Mount Scopus Slopes National Park. Background: al-'Esawiyah neighborhood. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014.
Part of area covered by projected Mount Scopus Slopes National Park. Background: al-'Esawiyah neighborhood. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014.

The residents, Israeli NGOs Ir Amim and Bimkom – Planners for Human Rights and appealed the plan for the park. In September 2014 the appeals sub-committee of the National Planning and Construction Committee okayed the plan to build a park, but also determined that the District Committee had not given careful, detailed consideration to the needs of the neighborhoods whose development will be curtailed once the park is built nor did it address the way in which these needs will then be met. The appeals sub-committee therefore decided that the plan cannot be approved until “these considerations and their implications are investigated in full” and ordered that the plan be returned for further review by the District Committee.

In July 2015, even before the District Committee reached a new decision, the Jerusalem Municipality posted “Landscaping Orders for a Vacant Lot” for the area designated for the park. The law allows municipalities to use vacant areas in their jurisdiction for the benefit of the public by temporarily converting them into parks or parking lots. These orders are usually used for small vacant lots inside urban area. This time, the orders apply to a huge area of more than 70 hectares, in what appears to be an attempt to bypass ordinary planning procedure so as to promote the transformation of the area into a tourist attraction and to block local construction. 

One of the orders posted in the area. Photo: Muhammad Abu Hummus, resident of  al-‘Esawiyah, July 2015
One of the orders posted in the area. Photo: Muhammad Abu Hummus, resident of  al-‘Esawiyah, July 2015

Al-'Esawiyah planning on collision course with national park

After the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the built-up area of al-'Esawiyah, a village located near Mount Scopus, was annexed to Jerusalem’s jurisdiction. About one quarter its land (approx. 220 hectares) was likewise annexed. Israeli law was applied to this area and ever since, al-'Esawiyah has been considered a Jerusalem neighborhood. In 1991, the Jerusalem Municipality approved a master plan for the neighborhood covering an area of about 67 hectares. This plan falls far short of meeting the neighborhood’s development and construction needs, with severe ramifications for residents:

In 2012, al-'Esawiyah had a 15,500 residents. They lived in a built-up area encompassing about 80 hectares, with a high population density of up to 20 individuals per 1,000 sqm. In contrast, the nearby Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Tzameret Habira have a population density of eight persons per 1,000 sqm. Overall population density in Jerusalem is 6.5 per 1,000 sqm (the figure takes into account the entire area of the neighborhood, including open spaces, roads, commercial zones etc.). Due to restrictions on construction, al-'Esawiyah residents are forced to build without permits and risk demolition of their homes. According to B’Tselem figures, from 2006 through April 2014, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Interior demolished 35 residential units and 7 non-residential structures in al-'Esawiyah. Many residents live in spaces not intended for residential use, such as stores and cellars. Some of the neighborhood’s newly-weds are forced to live in their parents’ homes and other couples postpone marriage until they find a suitable residence.

Al-'Esawiyah neighborhood. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014
Al-'Esawiyah neighborhood. Photo: Keren Manor, Activestills, 15 May 2014

Basic public services in al-'Esawiyah are also deficient: Only about 2,500 of the 4,200 school-aged children in the neighborhood study in the four municipal schools (elementary and junior high) in the neighborhood; another 500 children study in private elementary and junior high schools that operate inside the neighborhood. The schools operate in structures ill-suited for this purpose. The neighborhood has no high schools at all. Because existing schools are full to capacity and there is no available land suitable for building new schools, some 1,200 students, mostly high school students, are unable to study in the neighborhood. Most high-school aged boys attend school outside the neighborhood, but for tradition-related reasons, few parents allow their daughters to do so. As a result, the vast majority of al-'Esawiyah’s young women find themselves outside the school system before getting a high school education, and the municipality does absolutely nothing to remedy this grim situation. 

The neighborhood lacks basic recreational facilities, such as a library, a youth club or a public garden, nor is there a single infant medical care center in the entire neighborhood. The roads are narrow, dilapidated and dangerous. Since the late 1990s, the neighborhood has been experiencing a population boom due to an influx of residents from other parts of the city, brought on by the low housing costs in al-'Esawiyah. People flocked to the neighborhood in ever growing numbers after the construction of the Separation Barrier in the areas near Jerusalem, with many residents who had been living in the West Bank moving into al-'Esawiyah in order to maintain their Jerusalem residency status. This increased crowding has put additional strain on the already poor infrastructure. 

In order to improve living conditions in the neighborhood, residents began a planning process for the neighborhood in 2004 in collaboration with Israeli NGO Bimkom. The process includes working with planning bodies in the municipality and the Ministry of Interior. Al-'Esawiyah is hemmed in from nearly all sides by institutions (The Hebrew University Mt. Scopus Campus, Hadassah Hospital and a military base), Israeli neighborhoods (French Hill and Tzameret Habira) and major arteries (e.g. national Route No. 1).  Therefore, the proposed master plan suggested expanding the neighborhood mostly southward, the only area not blocked. The 135-hectare plan was designed to meet residents’ needs for housing, public and educational facilities and sports and leisure spaces.

Although planning was carried out in cooperation with the authorities, these self-same authorities began promoting the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park plan in late 2005. The plan encompassed nearly the entire area the residents’ plan had designated for expansion. The national park was planned so that its northern border abuts the neighborhood’s outermost houses. In 2007, after lengthy negotiations between the al-'Esawiyah planners and the municipality and the NPA, a written agreement was drawn up whereby the national park’s border would be moved south, allowing the neighborhood to expand. 

Ultimately, the authorities did not uphold this agreement. In 2010, the original plan for the park was scrapped and a new, more extensive plan was submitted in its stead. As it went through the approval process in the Ministry of Interior planning committees, the area for the park was even further expanded. According to the current plan, approved in November 2013 (see above), the park encompasses the entire untaken area, reaching all the way to al-'Esawiyah’s outermost houses. It also includes a strip of land separating the neighborhood from the Hebrew University campus. Only 13.5 hectares – all already built-up – remain of the area designated for expansion in the new, and since shelved, master plan for al-'Esawiyah.

The national park uses the only land reserve available for the neighborhood’s development and expansion. Its approval seals the fate of the residents’ planning initiative, which grew through lengthy negotiations and trust-building with the authorities, sentencing the residents to a future of poverty and overcrowding. In 2015, the municipality began the process of drafting a new master plan for al-‘Esawiyah, inspired by the Jerusalem 2000 Plan, which determined that the master plans of all Jerusalem neighborhoods would be updated. The master plan is still in the drafting stages and it is not yet possible to determine whether it will meet residents’ needs.

Park interferes with plans for a neighborhood in a-Tur

The village of a-Tur, on the Mount of Olives ridge, was annexed to Israel and Jerusalem after the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and has been considered a Jerusalem neighborhood ever since. Most of a-Tur’s land was expropriated, with some remaining outside Jerusalem’s municipal borders and later, on the other side of the Separation Barrier. Over the years, most options for development in a-Tur were cut off by the Separation Barrier, highways, land owned by religious institutions and other Palestinian neighborhoods. 

The master plans for the neighborhood drawn up by the municipality fail to meet the needs of the residents, whose current population is approximately 23,000. The plans allocate much land to open spaces and public facilities, the majority of which serve the entire population of East Jerusalem, and preclude new residential construction. As a result, residents are plagued by overcrowding and are forced to build without permits, risking demolition. According to B’Tselem figures, from 2006 through the end of April 2014, 52 residential units and six non-residential structures were demolished in a-Tur. 

The plans hardly designate any land for the specific public needs of neighborhood residents, for commercial activity or for employment. There are only four pre-schools in a-Tur, offering care for just 5% of neighborhood children between the ages of one and five. The neighborhood has seven schools with about 2,800 male students and 2,000 female students. Schools suffer from a shortage of classrooms, open yards and toilets. There is no girls’ high school in the neighborhood. The local schools cannot accommodate all of the neighborhood’s children so about 1,200 boys and 2,000 girls must study outside the neighborhood, resulting in high dropout rates among girls. The neighborhood also lacks sufficient recreational, sports and culture facilities. Road, sewage and drainage infrastructure is deficient, old and decrepit. The construction of the Separation Barrier south of a-Tur has led to an influx of East Jerusalem residents who had been living in nearby Palestinian communities, further exacerbating existing difficulties.

The northern section of a-Tur is known as Khalat al-‘Ein. Existing plans define most of it as an open space where construction is prohibited, and allow only low construction in the rest of the area. Khalat al-‘Ein, is home to about 4,000 residents who live in approximately 700 housing units (some built without permits). The area constitutes the neighborhood’s almost only land reserve due to its relatively sparse construction and open spaces. Residents of a-Tur initiated a process of preparing a local master plan for Khalat al-‘Ein, which suggests doubling the number of housing units and addressing the shortage of public facilities, educational services and open spaces.

In March 2011, representatives of the Jerusalem Municipality provided a-Tur residents a written summary with regard to planning Khalat al-‘Ein, indicating that the municipality would help advance the plan. However, since that time, the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park was approved and it includes the northern section marked in the residents’ plan, where they planned to build public facilities and a community garden. In 2015 the municipality began drafting a master plan for a-Tur. It is still in the drafting stages and it is not yet possible to determine whether it will meet residents’ needs.

Park declared on basis of immaterial considerations

In Israel, the label “national park” (unlike “nature reserve”) is given mostly to archeological sites. Archeologists have given expert opinions to the effect that the findings in most of the area declared as the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park are of little archeological value and do not justify the declaration of a national park and choking development. The park’s explanatory notes focus on the fauna and flora in the area, but, after consulting with relevant ministry experts, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz said that the area is “devoid of particularly sensitive natural elements of value or unique archaeological relics that justify making it a natural park”.

The arguments raised during planning committee hearings in favor of the declaration focused primarily on the need to protect the landscape of the “desert gateway into Jerusalem” in sight of Mount Scopus. However, this landscape has already been disrupted by a military base, the settlement of Maaleh Adumim and major arteries. Construction was not denied or halted on any of these projects on the basis of a need to preserve and protect the landscape. In fact, the landscape will be harmed even further by the establishment of the approved settlement in Area E1.

In nearby areas that likewise lie at the desert’s edge and are home to similar archeological findings, landscape, flora and fauna, extensive construction has been approved for Jewish neighborhoods such as Pisgat Zeev and Ramot Shlomo. Additional land, immediately bordering the park, has not been included in the park’s plan despite being much more suited for it in terms of location and landscape than the neighborhoods’ potential development areas. This area includes land owned by the Hebrew University, the Israel Land Administration and the Church, and contains the Yehudai Observation Post, which overlooks the very landscape the national park is meant to protect.

Even supposing that there were a real need to protect nature and landscape on the slopes of Mount Scopus, this need should have been balanced against al-'Esawiyah’s and a-Tur’s pressing need for planning. This type of balance has been made in similar plans for landscape sites bordering on Jewish neighborhoods and communities in Jerusalem and its environs, such as Gilo, Givat Masuah or the moshav community of Ora. In this instance, the central strip of land in the national park would have sufficed for protecting the landscape and the land on either side could have been surrendered in favor of planning for nearby Palestinian neighborhoods. However, such a balance was not devised and the border of the national park was planned so as to abut the neighborhoods’ built-up areas. 

According to Bimkom, when planners for al-'Esawiyah met with the planners for the national park for in coordination meetings, the director of the Jerusalem district at the NPA expressly stated that the purpose of the park was to block Palestinian neighborhoods from expanding into the open space. This argument was not subsequently repeated. Instead, other justifications were given to demonstrate that the park is indispensible. The political involvement in the process that saw the approval of Mount Scopus National Park reinforces the concern that the park was meant to serve the unacceptable objective of limiting Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem.

Sources:

Bimkom, Survey of Palestinian Neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Planning Problems and Opportunities, Information Cards 2.1 and 2.2.

Bimkom, Mount Scopus Slopes National Parks – the al-'Esawiyah and a-Tur Neighborhoods, al-'Esawiyah Neighborhood.

Bimkom, From Public to National – National Parks in East Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 28-29.

Bimkom, Objection to Plan 11092A, Mount Scopus Slopes National Park.

Bimkom, Notice of Appeal against District Committee Decision to Approve Mount Scopus Slopes National Park Plan.Objection on behalf of the neighborhood of a-Tur/Khalat al-Ein and Ir-Amim, submitted 18 February 2013.

Ir-Amim, The National Park at Mount Scopus, Political Interests instead of the Residents’ Welfare, January 2012.

Prof. Rasem Khamaiseh, Guiding Outline Program for Preparing a Local Master Plan for an Existing Residential Neighborhood, Khalat al-Ein, a-Tur, submitted to Jerusalem Municipality on 27 May 2010.

Emek Shaveh, From Territorial Contiguity to Historical Continuity: Asserting Israeli Control through National Parks in East Jerusalem – Update 2014.

Emek Shaveh, Where Are the Antiquities? National Parks between the Old City of Jerusalem And Area E1, January 2012.