Israel Initiates Settlement Of Land Title Procedure On Land Adjacent To Al Aqsa And Across Abu Thor

27 June 2022
The following alert has been jointly issued by Ir Amim and Bimkom.

On June 23, settlement of land title procedures were initiated in two new areas in East Jerusalem, one of which carries possible disastrous ramifications for hundreds of Palestinian homes in Abu Thor, while the other has an acute potential for escalating tensions due to its highly sensitive location in close proximity to Al Aqsa. The commencement of procedures were announced for two large blocs covering much of the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Thor as well as for an area adjacent to the southern external wall of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, just below Al Aqsa Mosque, known as the Umayyad palaces excavations or the Ophel archeological park (see map below and interactive map here).

Since the Israeli government announced its decision in 2018 to undertake settlement of land title procedures in East Jerusalem for the first time since 1967, there has been grave concern that these proceedings would be exploited to dispossess Palestinians of their lands and expand Israeli control over more territory. These procedures are being conducted within the framework of Government Decision 3790, which is intended to ostensibly promote socio-economic development in East Jerusalem through a 2.1 billion investment over a five-year period. Although characterized as a measure aimed at “creating a better future” for Palestinian residents, implementation of these procedures over the past year confirms that they are rather being used for the benefit of the state and/or Jews with budgets designated for Palestinians. These proceedings have largely been utilized to formally register land of existing Israeli settlements and/or seize more territory in East Jerusalem, ultimately leading to the establishment of new settlements and further Palestinian dispossession. See further data in the appendix below.

However, the initiation of the process in Abu Thor and in the Umayyad palaces excavations/Ophel archeological site is a dramatic development, severely increasing the risk of state appropriation of Palestinian properties and threatening to further destabilize the conditions in Jerusalem and the region.

A-Thori (Palestinian Abu Thor)
The blocs marked for settlement of title in Abu Thor span nearly 240 dunams, covering much of the Palestinian neighborhood, a densely populated area home to hundreds of Palestinian families. The severity of these processes in this area is likewise accentuated by its strategic location; Abu Thor connects the Hinnom Valley and the Peace Forest – both areas of increased touristic settlement activity spearheaded by the Elad settler organization. As in other East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods where settlement of title is being promoted, Abu Thor residents are likely to encounter obstacles built into the process, which could result in the loss of their properties. There is acute concern that the state would act to apply the Absentee Property Law on lands undergoing these procedures, leading to the potential registration of a large swaths of land in the name of the state. Yet, residents who choose not to participate in the process out of fear of application of this law are likewise at risk of losing their property rights since according to the Land Settlement Ordinance, any unclaimed asset will automatically become state property.  

Locating and obtaining documents required to prove land rights constitutes another obstacle considering the years which have passed and the multiple changes in government regimes which controlled the respective area. The Israeli authorities are well aware of these challenges, yet have not taken any measures to rectify them. As a result, numerous Abu Thor residents now face the impossible trap that could lead to the loss of their homes and cause further Palestinian displacement from Jerusalem.

Umayyad Palaces Excavation/Ophel Archeology Site
In parallel to this, the settlement of title process is being promoted in an extremely sensitive location comprised ​​of nearly 20 dunams of land situated just below Al Aqsa and adjacent to its southern external foundation, known as the Umayyad Palaces excavations or the Ophel archeological site. The bloc in question is located in the eastern part of the archeological park between the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Silwan where excavations have revealed architectural remains and findings from the First and Second Temple periods as well as from the Byzantine and Early Muslim periods. There is speculation that the Israeli government may be attempting to register this area as state land, which carries severe far-reaching implications.

Any moves carried out by Israel in areas which abut Al Aqsa are often perceived as a move to further assert Israeli dominance over the holy site and undermine the Waqf’s status as guardian of the Holy Esplanade. These concerns are only compounded in light of the growing efforts of the Temple Movements to overturn the status quo and the support they enjoy from the Israeli political establishment.

However, the implications are not only due to its proximity to Al-Aqsa, but also because of its location in the heart of operations to Israelize the Old City Basin and create a ring of Israeli control around this entire area. On its southern side, the site borders the City of David National Park located in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan, which serves as the hub of the Elad settler organization, who also manages numerous other tourist attractions and archaeological sites in the area.

Among its activities, it is overseeing a project promoted by the state for excavation of a tunnel connecting the entrance area of the City of David with the Ophel archeological park. The Mikveh (Ritual Baths) Trail, designed to recreate the path of Jewish pilgrimage to the Temple Mount 2000 years ago, likewise runs through the same site. It was inaugurated in 2017 and funded by Jewish Australian philanthropist, Kevin Bermeister, who is a known supporter of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. The project is part of his plan for the economic and touristic development of Jerusalem, which emphasizes its Jewish heritage and seeks to deepen Israeli control of the city. Directly across from the City of David’s visitor’s center, the controversial cable car is also slated to alight on Elad’s future Kedem Compound, connecting West Jerusalem with the constellation of Elad’s touristic settlement sites in Silwan.  

It should be noted that on May 29, Jerusalem Day, the government adopted Decision No. 1513 for Phase II of the Shalem Plan, "the National Plan for the Exposure of Ancient Jerusalem," which aims to "strengthen Jerusalem as an international center of religion, heritage, culture and tourism." This plan includes various archeology and tourism projects that are controlled and operated by Elad, including the planned excavation of the tunnel between the City of David and the Umayyad Palaces Excavations/Ophel Archeological Park. All of these measures are perceived as moves to significantly alter the character of this area with the aim of blurring the Palestinian environs, superimposing an exclusive Jewish narrative on the space, and solidifying the band of Israeli control around the Old City Basin.

Therefore, there is grave concern that the state is advancing the settlement of title process in the Umayyad Palaces/Ophel site to enable Israeli takeover of this territory through its formal registration as state land, while aiding state-backed settler groups in their aggressive efforts to gain control of these highly sensitive locations.

It is critical to underscore that these cases are neither isolated exceptions nor mere irregularities in the process. Rather, they are representative of a systematic and calculated tactic used to aid the Israeli government and settler groups in taking over more land in East Jerusalem to further consolidate Israeli control under the guise of an initiative theoretically intended for the welfare of Palestinians.

As such, the Israeli government must be called upon to immediately halt this dangerous process.
Appendix – data and overview of the settlement of land title procedures
The aforementioned blocs where the settlement of land title process recently began are the latest examples of how the Israeli government is exploiting these procedures to advance the interests of the state rather than aiding the Palestinian population.

Official documents published by the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, which summarized the implementation of Decision 3790 over the past three years, state that 158 ​​blocs in East Jerusalem are currently undergoing settlement of land title proceedings, yet data accounting for only 131 blocs (including those mentioned above) have been located by Ir Amim and Bimkom. The locations and sizes of the blocs can be found on a new interactive map (currently only in Hebrew), recently released by Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights based on information collected together with Ir Amim.

Such a discrepancy in the data is not surprising since there has been little to no transparency throughout the entire process. The procedures have often been initiated in and around Palestinian neighborhoods without sufficient notification of the residents. Moreover, the lack of transparency is not limited to residents alone. In response to a freedom of information request filed by Ir Amim, the settlement of title officer denied the request for maps detailing which blocs are undergoing the process. The parameters and criteria by which the settlement of title officer selects areas to conduct these procedures are likewise neither transparent nor made public. However, an examination of the locations where the procedures are currently underway reveals the driving rationale: settlement of land title is largely being promoted in areas where the state and/or settlers have a particular interest and likely have some capacity to lay claim to the land in the framework of the proceedings.

According to available data, the 131 blocs identified as undergoing settlement of land title spans some 3825 dunams of land in East Jerusalem and are at various stages in the process. Only two blocs have been completed, one of which is Umm Haroun-Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face eviction in favor of settler groups. The majority of the other blocs are primarily at the initial stages.
Similar to the cases of Givat Hamatos, Atarot, and Givat HaShaked, where the procedures are being co-opted for the benefit of establishing new settlements, another bloc of land was recently included in these proceedings in Ramot Alon, where an expansion of the settlement is underway. The boundaries of the bloc directly overlap with a new plan (TPS 766759) for the settlement’s northwestern extension towards the Palestinian town of Beit Iksa. While the plan is still in its preparation stage and has not yet been submitted to the formal planning process, it does already appear on the municipal website.
Among some of the other blocs where the process is taking place: part of the Shepherd Hotel compound in Sheikh Jarrah, areas within existing Israeli settlements/neighborhoods of French Hill, Gilo and Neve Yaakov, and plots of land flanking Sur Baher allegedly managed by the General Custodian, and more. 

See map of Abu Thor and the area adjacent to Al Aqsa below. For the map of Ramot, link here. For the map of Givat Hamatos, Atarot and Givat HaShaked, click here.

For an interactive map of all the blocs where settlement of title has been initiated, see here.

The blocs undergoing settlement of title in Abu Thor, Silwan and adjacent to Al Aqsa are shaded in green.
Click here for larger version of the map