The struggle to establish facts on the ground in Jerusalem focuses on the "historic basin" or "holy basin" -- the Old City and its environs -- where tens of thousands of Palestinian residents currently live. It is an area laden with religious, historic, national and cultural emotion, and therefore very sensitive.
Along with attempts to create Israeli settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods, the Israeli national and municipal authorities create facts on the ground by declaring public areas in Palestinian neighborhoods as Israeli archaeological sites and national parks, thereby restricting Palestinian use of these spaces.
Archaeological excavations have been an important instrument of control since Israel gained control of East Jerusalem in 1967. Since then, the Israeli Antiquities Authority or various Israeli universities have initiated all excavations in the Old City and its environs. Following government budget cuts, private players, especially the settler organizations, began to take part in excavations. The Elad organization, for example, which is active in settling many Jewish families in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, is employed as a subcontractor of the Israeli government to administer the archaeological site City of David (also located in Silwan). Elad developed the project and the City of David National Park, today one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. Elad also initiated additional archaeological excavations in Silwan, including digging a tunnel that is supposed to connect the City of David with Temple Mount. These excavations often run under the homes of Palestinian residents without their knowledge, causing heavy damage to private and public property in the village.
Until 2001, the Jerusalem Walls National Park, surrounding the Old City walls, created by the Israeli government in 1974, was the only national park in the historic basin area. Following the outbreak of the second intifada, Emek Tzurim, a second national park was established. In May 2009, Ir Amim disclosed government plans, done in cooperation with settler organizations, to surround the Old City with nine national parks, gardens, paths and sites, intended to change the status quo in the city.
The plan seeks to create a territorial contiguity of Jewish historic sites, and connect them to strategic settlements around Jerusalem. This includes the Ben Hinnom Valley in the south, Mt. Zion, City of David/Silwan, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem Walls, King's Valley, Zedekiah's Cave, Garden of the Tomb, Emek Tzurim, the Qidron Salient and Mt. Scopus, connecting at its end to the E1 area north of Maale Adumim.
Establishing the national parks in East Jerusalem increases Israeli control of the area, while severely curtailing future Palestinian development by redesignating areas reserved for Palestinian development as green zones, where building is not allowed. Furthermore, given the fact that the Elad setter organization operates both the archaeological site of the City of David and the national park of Emek Tzurim, Ir Amim is concerned that control of the future national parks will also be given to settlement organizations to promote its political agenda in the area.
As a result of these trends, the balance of control in the Old City and its environs is gradually changing. Settler groups are playing an increasingly important role in the administration and development of some of the most important sites in Jerusalem. This is all done with the overt or covert support of the Israeli government. This policy threatens to transform the conflict from a controllable and resolvable one into a hopeless and dangerous confrontation.
Ir Amim's Role
Over the years, Ir Amim has worked to question the involvement of a private organization with a clear political agenada in excavations in this sensitive site. On July 13, 2008, the Magistrate Court upheld an appeal by four Palestinian residents from Silwan against the Jerusalem Municipality's decision to expropriate five plots of land for the construction of parking lots. The court declared that photographs and other evidence reveal that contrary to their definition by law, in reality these plots of land are not "empty lots". The petitioners were represented by Attorney Sami Ershed, who used to serve on Ir Amim's board.
In July 2010, Ir Amim submitted a petition to the Israeli High Court, requesting that the control of the CIty of David National Park be removed from the private settler association, Elad, and be returned to the administration of the Israeli Parks and Nature Reserves Authority.