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Israel ‘using tourist sites to assert control over East Jerusalem’

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Israel is quietly extending its control over East Jerusalem in alliance with rightwing Jewish settler groups, by developing parks and tourist sites that would bring a “drastic change of the status quo

Israel is quietly extending its control over East Jerusalem in alliance with rightwing Jewish settler groups, by developing parks and tourist sites that would bring a “drastic change of the status quo in the city”, according to two Israeli groups.

Ir Amin, a group working for a shared Jerusalem, said the purpose of the “confidential” plan was to link up several areas of East Jerusalem surrounding the Old City with the goal of asserting Israeli control and strengthening its claim to Jerusalem as its capital city. Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it, a move not recognised by the international community.

The accounts come ahead of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in Jerusalem tomorrow for a week-long pilgrimage, during which he is likely to hear detailed concerns from Palestinians over their future in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Under an eight-year plan, worth 75m shekels a year (£12m), a series of nine national parks, trails and tourist sites based on apparent Jewish historical spots would be established, most under the control of settler groups working together with the Israeli government. The sites would also create a link to Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The parks would be a “biblical playground” built on public and private land and would be fenced in, the group said.

“This act will limit the possibility of territorial compromise in Jerusalem to its northern and southern parts only, outside of areas surrounding the Old City,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and founder of Ir Amin.

He said the programme was supported by the Israeli prime minister’s office and was being conducted without any public debate or transparency. “This policy fans the flames of the conflict and threatens to change it from a national conflict that can be controlled and solved, into a pointless regional confrontation,” Seidemann said.

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinians, who live in the east, make up a third of the city’s population.

Peace Now, another Israeli group, released similar information about the plan, based on a government budget document, saying it feared the proposal was “possibly preventing the ability to reach a two-state solution”.

An Israeli government official told AP the new development was to benefit all Jerusalem. “The government will continue to develop Jerusalem, development that will benefit all of Jerusalem’s diverse population and respect the different faiths and communities that together make Jerusalem such a special city,” the official said.