National park zoning used as pretext for ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem

Israeli forces take position in Wadi al-Joz during a demolition of a horse stable in January 2011.

Mahfouz Abu Turk APA images

Atef Totanji does not know when the Israeli authorities will demolish his family’s home. “But we know they will come,” he said.

For the past 15 years, Totanji has lived with his wife and six children in a two-bedroom house on Imru al-Qays Street in Wadi al-Joz, a neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem. On 17 April, they received a notification from the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality that the house would be demolished in two days’ time.

At 4 a.m. on Sunday, 19 April, the family packed up its belongings and moved them outside. Each truck that downshifted on the large hill beside their home caused a momentary panic.

But the Israeli bulldozers never arrived. The family’s lawyer, Ziad Kawar, was able to postpone the demolition until 26 May.

Kawar has appealed in the district court, a move that theoretically allows the residents of Wadi al-Joz to challenge demolitions planned in the area. But mounting a challenge would be a costly and lengthy process.


The Totanji family live beside a grassy valley that extends to the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. In 2000, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority designated much of Wadi al-Joz and the surrounding area as belonging to the expansive Tzurim Valley National Park.

The move has placed the 17,000 Palestinians living in Wadi al-Joz in a perilous situation. The Israeli authorities may decide to destroy their homes at any time.

Under the deal struck by Kawar, locals may seek to have 12 houses on Imru al-Qays Street rezoned so that they are no longer included in the national park. To do so, they would have to hire an engineer at an estimated minimum cost of $50,000, according to Kawar.

The residents have been told that an engineer’s assessment could take three months to complete. The assessment would then have to be submitted to the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem Planning Committee.

“I believe we have until the court date at the end of May,” said Kawar. “Then after that, the houses are fair game. The municipality can demolish as they like, and take their time or not.”

If a house is designated as being in an area reserved for a national park, the Israeli authorities may demolish it without providing any compensation to its owners or tenants.

War of attrition

Designating an area as being part of a national park may convey the impression that Israel wishes to protect the environment. In practice, however, the authorities have handed over areas given such designation to groups such as Elad and Ateret Cohanim, which are actively developing Jewish-only settlements.

Such a process has been underway in the Silwan area of East Jerusalem. Under the pretense of creating a national park in honor of the Biblical figure King David, the Israeli military has been forcing Palestinians out of their homes so that settlers may take them over.

All of Israel’s settlement activities in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank are illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids Israel, as an occupying power, from transferring its civilian population into the territory that it occupies.

Despite how he has managed to delay demolitions, Ziad Kawar is under no illusions about how the Israeli authorities and the settler groups with which they cooperate are waging a war of attrition against Palestinians. Kawar has represented Palestinian families from both Wadi al-Joz and Silwan.

Noting that Palestinians sometimes reach an agreement with the Israeli authorities, he added: “The settlers are happy with small gains because sooner or later, they will get the land.”

Jesse Rubin is an intern at the Palestine-Israel Journal and a freelance reporter living in Jerusalem. Twitter: @JesseJDRubin.