“The National Parks are like green settlements,” said Efrat Cohen-Bar, an architect at Bimkom, a left-leaning organization trying to help the residents of Issawiya create a legal expansion plan. The designation as a national park, rather than a city park, is a meaningful difference, she explained. “It’s another way to make it nationally Israeli.”
But Elad Kandl, the director of the Old City projects at the Jerusalem Development Authority, believes creating national parks is the best way to preserve and protect the last open areas in East Jerusalem. The illegal building in the area threatens to destroy biblical tourism, he said, and the only way to stop illegal building is with the National Parks Authority, which has more power and money than the Jerusalem municipality. “We needed a government body that had teeth,” he said. He says the creation of the parks is not political, it is economic, and it is essential for preserving the area for tourism.
More than three million tourists visited Israel in 2011. Roughly 65 percent were Christian pilgrims who toured extensively in the future park system in the Kidron Valley, a place where olive tree terraces and undeveloped hillsides invite tourists to feel like they’re walking in Jesus' footsteps. Though it is simple for the local communities to paint the entire park system as a political land grab, Jerusalem needs some of this area to stay pristine and undeveloped for tourism purposes.
Slopes of Mount Scopus has become a flashpoint. Left-wing Jewish activists and residents hold frequent protests at the site to condemn the plan. On a number of occasions, municipality bulldozers, accompanied by National Park officials, have destroyed illegal roads built without permits. The city claims the work is routine debris removal, but residents suspect that work on the national park has begun before the Interior Ministry’s final approval. In January, police arrested two teenagers for throwing stones at the bulldozers, and a number of activists have been detained for disrupting the work.
A possible compromise exists. If the Jerusalem Development Authority creates a municipal park, administrated by the city, rather than a national park administered by the state, it would preserve the area for tourism in the short term while leaving the option open for future development. Issawiya residents and the planning organization Bimkom have already created an alternative urban plan for a city park which allows the neighborhood to expand onto roughly a quarter of the space, along its edges, while still maintaining the visual panorama JDA seeks.
“A national park, it’s hard to change that in the future,” said Bimkom’s Cohen-Bar.