High Court permits the closure of public space in Silwan to prevent violation of the Sabbath and Jewish festivals

Emek Shaveh: The High Court upheld the decision by the Nature and Parks Authority and the Elad Foundation from 2015 to close the gates to what were previously accessible public areas in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. Despite the fact that the City of David Archaeological Park is located in a Palestinian neighbourhood where the vast majority of the residents are not Jewish, the judges decided that opening the gates on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals would undermine the character of the site.

The City of David national park is located in the heart of a populated urban area. Vast swaths of the park’s land are the public areas within a Palestinian neighborhood that suffers from chronic deficiency of such areas. In 2015, the Elad foundation, a settlers’ organization that manages the national park under the auspices of the Nature and Parks Authority, erected gates that enclose archaeological territories called Areas E and Area G (numbers 7, and 3 on the attached map). These public territories had remained accessible to residents since the British Mandate period, if not before.

The gates erected are locked outside the park’s hours of operation, preventing passage between the two parts of the neighborhood. As Elad observes the Sabbath, the site is closed on Saturdays and Jewish festivals. As such, residents’ freedom of movement has been compromised and their use of public space prevented from the afternoon until the morning, as well as on Saturdays and Jewish festivals. Since most of the Muslim residents of Silwan work in West Jerusalem, their free day is Saturday, and the use of public space and the lawn on site is restricted specifically on their day of rest.

In the decision from last week (21.1.20), the High Court ruled that the City of David may not be operated on Saturdays or Jewish festivals, as this “would hurt the public feelings due to the activities entailed, such as running electricity, managing staff on a large scale, running a fee collection system, and more.” Despite the fact that the Attorney General confirmed the claim by residents of Silwan and Emek Shaveh that the areas closed used to be accessible to the Palestinian residents for decades, and despite the fact that the vast majority of national parks are open to the public all year round (apart from Yom Kippur), the judges decided that opening the gates anew after they had been closed in 2015 outside of visiting hours will undermine the character of the place on the Sabbath.

The court disregarded the fact that in contrast to other sites, the City of David national park is located in a Palestinian neighborhood that is home to tens of thousands of residents. In its decision, the court opened a gaping precedent for religious coercion in other national parks. Rather than ruling that the gates erected prevent residents’ movement through public space, the court ruled that, “Even if a violation of sorts may be identified on the margins of the petitioners’ right to freedom of movement, it is a reasonable and proportionate violation that leaves no room to intervene in the Authority’s decision.”

Emek Shaveh’s response: The High Court is not only complicit in violating freedom of movement for Palestinian residents of Silwan, but also ruled that the violation of Sabbath and Jewish festivals in the heart of the neighborhood is more serious than the violation of the basic right to freedom of movement.