Change in National Parks Law to Harm Natural and Heritage Sites, Play into Hands of Silwan Settlers, and Perpetuate Harm to Palestinians

Essence of the amendment: On Wednesday, July 4, the Knesset Interior Committee will discuss a proposal to amend the National Parks, Nature Reserves, National Sites and Memorial Sites Law. [1] The amendment proposes to define a national park with residents living within as an urban national park, and to permit residential building therein. Today, areas designated as national parks or nature reserves are under the jurisdiction of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and construction within them is subject to approval of the authority and limited to the single function of operating the grounds. Residents living in an area declared as a national park are prohibited from building, except in very exceptional cases. The prohibition against construction is based on the assumption that a national park is intended to preserve a site’s landscape and history, and that these will be adulterated by construction.


The amendment to the law ostensibly seeks to address a well-known and difficult problem for residents living in a national park who are prevented from renovating and expanding their homes. However, a more in-depth examination of the proposed amendment indicates that it was intended to serve the settlers in Silwan and the Elad Association (see below), which since the early 1990s has invested enormous efforts in Judaizing Silwan. To the best of our knowledge, Silwan is the only place in Israel where a residential neighborhood has been declared a national park. The “Jerusalem Walls National Park,” which includes Silwan, was declared in 1974. Today, tens of thousands of Palestinians and several hundred settlers live there.


Who gains and who loses from the amendment: The bill is being promoted by the Elad Association, which is a settlement enterprise in Silwan that also operates the City of David National Park in the neighborhood in cooperation with the INPA. The people of Elad want to increase their control in three ways: to continue to operate the national park, to promote construction in the areas they own inside the neighborhood, and to maintain the existing situation in which the INPA demolishes Palestinian buildings, fences, warehouses, and  home additions because they were built without permits, all in the name of preserving the natural heritage in the national park.


It appears as though the right to residential building in the law would apply to everyone, but Elad has the money and the connections enabling it to promote plans for residential buildings in the building committees. In contrast, the Palestinian residents will find it very difficult to implement this right. We estimate that  only the settlers will be able to meet the restrictions and building conditions that the law will stipulate to both the residents and the settlers living in the national park. In this way, the authorities will succeed in promoting construction in accordance with the interests and policies of the Jerusalem municipality and the government of Israel, whose institutions support the Jewish settlement of Silwan in dozens of ways, to the detriment of the Palestinian residents.


Background on the declaration of the Jerusalem Walls National Park: The Jerusalem Walls National Park was a controversial national park from its inception in 1974. All the elements involved in declaring Silwan as part of the national park knew that the residents would be trapped under the Nature and Parks Authority Law (at the time the Parks Authority), and that no organization tasked with protecting the historical and natural heritage would address for their needs. Before the declaration in 1974, the Jerusalem district planner at the time claimed that this area should be defined as an open public area. Such a definition would have balanced the need to protect both antiquities and the historical and natural heritage with the need to enable residents to lead normal lives.


The solution to the problem already exists in the law: The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has the ability to pass a procedure in the planning and building committees in an orderly fashion, that will designate areas within national parks as fit for construction. In the past 20 years there have been 35 cases of the removal of lands from nature reserves and national parks, involving a total area of approximately 4,218 dunam. Eighty percent of the cases in which lands were removed involved construction in residential localities.[2] Silwan, which is a densely populated residential neighborhood, can be removed from the area of the national park, thus allowing construction for all its residents.


In conclusion: The amendment to the law is unnecessary, and its purpose is to augment and root more deeply in the law the existing discrimination between the settlers and Palestinians of Silwan. The motives of those promoting the amendment are political and their goal is to Judaize Silwan. The initiative to change the law attests to the self-assuredness and aggressive activism of the settlers and their representatives in the government, the Knesset, the courts, and legal? institutions such as the planning and building committees. It seems that at this time, more than ever, they are using the laws and the mechanisms of democracy to undermine it.

[1] Amendment – Definition of an Urban National Park and Submission of a Building Plan for Residential Purposes, 2017 (P/20/4135) by MK Nurit Koren, MK Roy Folkman, MK Uri Maklev, MK Shuli Mualem-Refaeli.


[2] S. Spector Ben Ari, Elimination of Areas from Nature Reserves, National Parks and Forest Reserves, Knesset Research and Information Center, January 2016, p. 5 (Hebrew).