In recent years, the Peace Forest has been the focus of a process of accelerated development. The settler organization the Elad Foundation, which strives to Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and develop ideological tourism in the Eastern part of the city, has significantly intensified its activity in the Peace Forest, and various governmental bodies, together with the Jerusalem municipality, are joining forces with it to help.
Recently, construction was initiated for a large visitors’ center (Beit Shatz) in the Peace Forest on behalf of Elad. Within its grounds, Elad has also initiated the longest zipline in the Middle East, a commercial and ideological project, anticipated to draw tremendous numbers of visitors to sail through the air over the Peace Forest from one side of the promenade to the other. These plans are just one aspect of the developments in the area. An examination of Elad’s plans for the Peace Forest reveals an emphasis on tourism driven by the goal to strengthen a Jewish narrative, while pushing aside the Palestinians and the multi-layered and multicultural story of Jerusalem.
Elad’s Activity at the Peace Forest
Elad’s Educational Center in the Peace Forest – Around 2005, Elad launched operations in the Peace Forest. After it took over the Ranger’s Compound (displacing a non-profit organization for children with special needs), it began operating an educational-ideological center with tours, sports activities, tourist attractions, segway tours, paintball, navigation activities, and more. At the Ranger’s Compound, the organization built illegal structures, where it hosts groups, and even offers sleepover activities for pre-army preparation programs and other groups that participate in an ideological-tourism “educational series.”
Camping Compound – In 2012, the Jerusalem municipality issued a building permit to Elad for the establishment of a camping compound for hosting groups in the Peace Forest (and in effect to retroactively approve activities Elad had already been engaged in over the years and to upgrade the compound), but following a legal petition by Peace Now and members of the city council from the Meretz Party, the permit was rescinded. The appeals committee within the district planning and building council had criticized the municipality for enabling Elad’s various uses of the forest, but left an opening for the establishment of a smaller campground, that is more limited in scope, for individual tents. Indeed, in the last year, Elad inaugurated camping grounds adjacent to the Ranger’s Compound.
The “Hasmonean” Tunnel – Sometime around 2005, Elad was given the keys to the aqueduct (known as the Hasmonean Aqueduct, even though the date of construction is unclear) which was in use for thousands of years. The aqueduct traverses the Armon HaNatziv ridge (from the southern slopes of Olei Ha-Gardom Street to the northern slopes of the United Nations compound, beneath the Sherover Promenade). The aqueduct was in the past open to the public for free, but has since been renovated and entering it is contingent on prior coordination with and payment to Elad. We have no information regarding how the organization came to operate the site.
Beit Shatz Visitors’ Center – In 2005, the Israel Land Authority, without issuing a public tender, gave Elad an abandoned and dilapidated building adjacent to the Sherover Promenade and the United Nations Compound. Elad had requested to establish a visitors’ center there, and even began construction work (which was halted by a municipal order.) In order to avoid the planning process and circumvent the need for an urban building scheme which entails hearings and an objections process etc., the municipality decided to use a pretext to enable construction of the visitors’ center based on an allowance for covering an existing building with Jerusalem stone in the context of sanitary upgrading, permitted in the area by a plan already in effect (9/עמ). In this process for obtaining a building permit, no advertising, objections or any other form of public discussion are required.
A sum of ILS 43,185,000 was allocated from public funds to establish the visitors’ center (from the Ministry of Tourism, Jerusalem Municipality, Jewish National Fund, and the Jerusalem Development Authority). Elad, for its part, will invest just ILS 3,185,000 in the project (less than 7% of the overall costs).
Building Permit for the Zipline – The Jerusalem Municipality has approved an ambitious tourism project for Elad that is predicted to become a tremendous source of revenue for the organization: an 800-meter zipline extending from the eastern end of the Sherover Promenade (near the residences of Jabal Mukabbar and the UN Headquarters), to the Ranger’s Compound in the Peace Forest. A building permit was hastily issued, and unaccompanied by any public discussion, with no special building plan; rather, it was claimed to qualify under the category of “sports facilities,” permitted according to plan no. 9/עמ, intended to preserve the Old City Historic Basin.
Allocation of Lands to Elad without Tender – The Israel Land Authority gave Elad approximately 15 dunam in the Ranger’s Complex without issuing a tender, after the latter had taken control of the area without contract. The excuse for the allocation without a tender was that the organization was already operating tourism enterprises in the area and that it had a contractual rental agreement with a nearby site. The nearby site is Beit Shatz (which is approximately one kilometer away from the Ranger’s Compound) but this, too, Elad received without a process of bidding for public tender. The Freedom of Information Movement tried to obtain additional information regarding the circumstances of the allocation of these lands to the Foundation, as well as regarding additional lands allocated to the organization, but Elad petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, demanding that a gag be placed on publicizing the information (the petition is still pending).
Additional reading:: When the green zones meet the green line