A major reason for the continuing conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians is the illegal occupation of land as settlements by rightist groups known as “settlers.” Cumulatively, these settlements are driving Palestinians from their own communities, poisoning relations between them and Jews, and fostering violent conflict.
On September 24, 2014 the Jerusalem District Planning Committee took unusually decisive action against right-wing squatters intruding near an East Jerusalem Palestinian community.
This community, Abu Tor, is sheltered by a 100-acre “Peace Forest” that was created in 1967 in the former “No Man’s Land” between Israel and Jordan. On a hillside overlooking the ancient city, the Peace Forest was planted to symbolize “the hope for peace and serenity between all Jerusalem’s residents.”
The action by the Jerusalem Planning Appeals Committee cancelled a plan by the settlers’ group Elad (which in Hebrew means “To the City of David”1) to set up a camp in the Peace Forest. Elad members had been using the Peace Forest for paintball games, which frequently mimic armed conflict.
The Appeals Committee also reprimanded the municipal government of Jerusalem for not demolishing illegal structures that Elad had erected in the Peace Forest.
One of those structures was a facility for lodging Elad staff. The committee concluded that “the lodging facility will require development work involving harm to natural areas.” It denounced the Jerusalem council’s secretive evasion of the proper process for debate and public planning.
The Appeals Committee found that the municipality had also illegally approved a development project for the forest that violated the master plan for the area. These demolitions had been ordered two years earlier, under Israel’s Planning Law.
The Appeals Committee’s decision was a result of an appeal launched by Yosef “Pepe” Alalu and the Peace Now organization. Alalu termed the decision “courageous,” viewing the paint ball antics as motivated by Elad’s scheme “to take control of the area.” He is a member of the Meretz Party, which emphasizes the defence of human rights.
After the rescue of the forest, Peace Now, the largest peace group in Israel, applauded the decision. It deplored that “The Jerusalem authorities and other authorities regularly co-operate with the Elad Association and allow it operate even in the price of bending the law.”
The basic purpose of Elad is to keep East Jerusalem from being the future capital of a Palestinian state. Invading a park is just one of its actions, which have been denounced as “provocative” by the US State Department. It has created the “City of David” as a tourist attraction near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest shrines of Islam. Through secretive land deals, it has displaced Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
The forests of Palestine and Israel are few and threatened despite their great ecological significance in preventing the spread of deserts in an arid land. Like those in the occupied territories, most were created by afforestation efforts going back to the British mandate. Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority have since added to them.
In addition to Israel’s peace movement protecting the Peace Forest from Elad, the Palestinian custodial staff recently rescued one of the region’s largest woods, the Jerusalem Forest, from a wildfire. The Palestinians work for the Israeli Holocaust museum, Vad Yashem, and were honored for rescuing this national shrine. Increasingly, protecting the environment is a way that democratic-minded Palestinians and Jews are pulling together to work for peace.
John Bacher is a peace and environmental activist-writer in St Catharines, Ontario.
1 “City of David” is the Israeli name for the northern part of the Silwan neighborhood, of which Abu Tor is also a part. It is not to be confused with Bethlehem, which was also referred to historically as the “City of David.”