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In Jerusalem, national parks seen by Palestinians as a land grab

Seven existing and planned parks in sensitive East Jerusalem, chosen in part for their archaeological significance, would expand areas of Jewish control where Palestinians envision a future capital.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / January 20, 2012

The Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, is seen from the Mount of Olives, Tuesday. An Israeli government plan to create parks around Jerusalem, chosen in part for their archaeological significance, is seen by Palestinians as a land grab.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Jerusalem

An Israeli government plan to create a greenbelt around Jerusalem, preserving the ancient city's natural beauty and archaeological wealth, is fueling opposition among Palestinians and their supporters as the project moves into a critical stage.

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Israel says the parks plan is necessary for the public's benefit. It also fits into Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's vision for bolstering tourism in Jerusalem, which, despite its storied history, gets only a fraction of the visitors of Paris or New York.

But critics say the parks amount to a land grab that consolidates Israel's grip on disputed East Jerusalem. The territory was annexed by Israel after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and declared part of its "eternal, undivided capital." But it is envisioned by Palestinians as the capital of their future state.

"People say, 'It's just a park,' but these parks change totally the political scope of Jerusalem and have a direct impact on the lives of Palestinians," says Hagit Ofran, who monitors Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas for the dovish Peace Now movement.

Efrat Cohen Bar, an architect at the progressive Israeli planning group Bimkom, which recently conducted a study of national parks in East Jerusalem, terms them "green settlements," which have the same effect of keeping Palestinians off the land and expanding Israeli control. Israel denies that as a motive behind the project.

The battle for East Jerusalem

The national parks strike at the heart of the battle over East Jerusalem because they are on or near territory with nationalistic, religious, or strategic resonance. Together, they could link and expand areas under Jewish control, from the old city through the heart of East Jerusalem to the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.

The next phase of the parks plan would turn East Jerusalem's largest remaining open area into Mount Scopus Slopes National Park, overriding Palestinian objections that the land is vital to relieve a housing crunch. It is to be created on what residents say is the only land available for the expansion of the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Isawiya.

"This park will choke the people of Isawiya into a given area and prevent them from having a natural life," says Isawiya leader Darwish Darwish. "It prevents any development and progress." Isawiya's 15,000 residents currently live on 150 acres – an area smaller than that of the planned park. Some 112.5 acres owned by Isawiya residents and 75 acres owned by residents of nearby Al-Tur are slated to become part of the park without any compensation to the owners, who would retain ownership.

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