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Israel fast tracks plan to take over 'highly sensitive' area near Al-Aqsa

April 25, 2017 6:44 P.M. (Updated: April 26, 2017 11:59 A.M.)
Planned location for the visitor center (Peace Now)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The Israeli government has fast-tracked a controversial plan to take over a plot of land in a “highly sensitive area” -- some 300 meters away from Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City -- for the purposes of establishing a visitor center, according to Israeli NGO Peace Now.

According to a statement from the group, Israel’s Jerusalem municipality deposited the plan for public review Monday, seeking to confiscate 1,300 square meters of space in “a highly sensitive (area), located at the heart of the historical basin of Jerusalem,” which is in the Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and adjacent to the Ras al-Amud mosque.

"Dragged by settler organizations, the Israeli government is willing to go out of its way to approve this sensitive plan through a highly unusual procedure,” the statement said, stressing that establishing the visitor center so near to a mosque and the Old City in the current political context, “is to play with fire.”

“A visitor center in this sensitive area will have far reaching implications on the future of the two-state solution and the possibility for a compromise in Jerusalem,” Peace Now warned.
Planned location for the visitor center (Peace Now)

Israel’s Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) avoided the usual channels in advancing the project, through only seeking approval from the Local Planning Committee, which is a political body within the Jerusalem municipality and comprised of elected members, according to Peace Now.

The group explained that the regular procedure requires that a detailed plan be approved by the Regional Planning Committee, which is comprised of professional representatives from different government bodies.

The public now has 60 days to file objections to the plan. Once the land is approved to be confiscated for public use, the JDA can apply for a construction permit directly from the Local Planning Committee, without the need to approve the construction plan and without public review or publication, Peace Now said.

In response to a request for comment, spokesperson for the Jerusalem municipality Rachel Greenspan rejected the claim that the land would be confiscated, saying that "the area in question is zoned for open, public space within the cemetery," and not designated for burial. She said it was currently being used for parking.

However, Peace Now said there was no approved plan designating the land for public use, and the if a construction permit is granted, it will be based on an plan that defines the area as a “preserved cemetery” which allows for the construction of “monuments and structures related to the cemetery."  Peace Now said it seemed that "according to the municipality’s interpretation, a visitor center could be considered a 'cemetery-related' structure, which does not require special planning."

Greenspan also insisting that the plans were "undergoing the routine processes for approval," and  that "any claims that proper procedure and processes were not followed to the letter are untrue in no uncertain terms."

She added that there "is no intention to harm the mosque or the area adjacent to it."

Regardless, Peace Now argued in their statement that “The construction of a visitor center in the Mount of Olives is part of the wide efforts put by the (Israeli) government to change the public domain in the area of Ras al-Amud and the Mount of Olives. It is part of a governmental plan of over one billion shekels to ‘deepen the Israeli hold of Jerusalem,’ through the development of touristic and archaeological sites in and around the Old City."

The group went on to warn of the “increased presence of Israelis as tourists in the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem -- while ignoring the complexity and the importance of these same sites to other cultures and other nations -- is another type of settlement, with far-reaching implications not only for daily life in East Jerusalem but also on the future of the conflict and the possibility to reach a compromise in Jerusalem.”

The fate of Jerusalem has been a focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades, with numerous tensions arising over Israeli threats regarding the status of non-Jewish religious sites in the city, and the "Judaization" of East Jerusalem through settlement construction and mass home demolitions.
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