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Parks in Arab East Jerusalem 'not for the public' Open in fullscreen

Charlotte Silver

Parks in Arab East Jerusalem 'not for the public'

West Jerusalem has much more public space available than Arab East Jerusalem [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2015

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Feature: Israel's policy of "protecting" public land in East Jerusalem is cover for its expropriation, critics charge.
It's been three years since, under the auspices of the National Park Authority, Israel demolished one of East Jerusalem's only playgrounds for Palestinian children.

Residents rebuilt the playground for the youngsters. Now, Israel is getting ready to tear it down again.

At the end of August, the Madaa Silwan Creative Center in Wadi Hilweh received notice that its playground and sports field - which has served as one of the few places where Palestinian children can play - would again be demolished.

Wadi Hilweh, the heart of the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, lies just metres outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

"All the kids in the neighborhood use this land, they play soccer and other games. We built it by our hands for our children," Ahmed Qaraeen, a resident and activist in Wadi Hilweh, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

'Special open spaces'

They don't want our children to have fun things or to have a future
- Ahmed Qaraeen
According to the demolition order issued by a Jerusalem Court earlier this year, absolutely no construction is permitted inside land designated as "special open space" - which includes all of Wadi Hilweh.

That means all building activity in these zones falls under the authority of the National Parks Authority, which in Wadi Hilweh - also known as the "City of David" - is managed by Elad, a private organisation founded with the explicit goal of removing Palestinians from East Jerusalem and settling Jews in their place.

The offending structures in the park to which the most recent demolition order was issued includes a fence to enclose the playground; an animal stable built from iron rods topped by a tin roof; and a small shack.

"They don't want our children to have fun things or to have a future," Qareen continued.

The dearth of playgrounds for Palestinians in densely populated East Jerusalem is so egregious it's the subject of a new lawsuit which asserts that the number of playgrounds available to Palestinians in Jerusalem is just one percent of the national standard, and just over three percent of those available to Jewish children in the western part of the city.

There are small spaces between the tightly packed homes in East Jerusalem that might be turned into playgrounds.

But more and more, these spaces are zoned as "national parks", thereby handing all authority for any construction to the National Parks Authority.

Bimkom is an Israeli organisation devoted to fair planning policies in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. According to its report, for the past decade the NPA has encroached into East Jerusalem, assisting in expropriating Palestinian land with the stated purpose of "preserving" it.

The NPA has no obligation towards the wellbeing of residents. Indeed, former city engineer Uri Shitrit described Palestinians as a population "hostile" to the objectives of the national park in East Jerusalem.

"The National Park is a tool, a tool in a box of tools to get this land," Efrat Cohen-Bar, a researcher with Bimkom, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Arbitrary enforcement

While Jerusalem's planning policies are already designed to curtail the expansion of Palestinian homes, Cohen-Bar says such policies are not always enforced.

The National Park is a tool, a tool in a box of tools to get this land
- Efrat Cohen-Bar
The National Parks Authority devotes its resources to monitor so-called "illegal" construction in East Jerusalem, said Cohen-Bar. It petitions for demolition orders or can issue "cleaning orders" on its own.

When Silwan's playground was first demolished in 2012, the NPA arrived at dawn with bulldozers and an order to "clean up" the area.

The advantages to NPA's management of East Jerusalem include the elimination of any legal obligation to provide for community residents' needs, or to compensate owners for the loss of lands zoned as a national park.

While Wadi Hilweh has been zoned as a national park since 1976, Elad didn't assume control of it until more than two decades later.

Elad manages the land and its projects with vigilance. Bar-Cohen calls its founder, David Be'er, the "keeper" of the land, pointing out that Be'er maintains strict, hands-on control of projects.

"He's keen to make sure Jerusalem is Judaised," she says.

"When there is a demolition in the area of the national park, you see him helping them do their work. He's in the area every day."

While Elad has helped settlers procure apartments and pushed through the construction of a massive new archaeological visitor's centre, the loss of the respite provided by the playground will serve to further isolate Palestinians from the city.

Qaraeen believes the city wants to turn their playground into a car park, and open up a new street to connect Wadi Hilweh to other Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

While children are still enjoying the playground during the last days of summer, Qaraeen doesn't know how much longer they will have it.

"We are waiting for them to destroy it," Ahmed Qaraeen says. "They could come any moment."

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