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

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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.

Spearheading the national park drive is Evyatar Cohen, head of the Jerusalem district in the National Parks Authority and a former staffer for Elad, a hard-line settler group. The NPA, however, dismisses charges that the park is driven by any political motive. "The National Parks Authority is not a political body and its only interest is preserving nature and landscape values," says spokeswoman Osnat Eitan.

She stresses that "the importance of the area stems from the view to the desert, the heritage valuables in the area and the desert vegetation there despite many years of neglect. All the other eastern slopes of the mountain have undergone urban development, thus the importance of preserving this as an open area and in planning it as a national park."

The Jerusalem municipality, which is strongly backing the project, says the area of the park has "high archaeological importance," with sites dating back two millenniums. But Emek Shaveh, a group of dovish Israeli archaeologists, disputes that and counters that archaeology is being misused to boost Israeli claims in the larger battle for East Jerusalem.

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