Was IDF college plan in East Jerusalem scrapped due to US pressure?
While Jerusalem Municipality officials say original location was simply 'unsuitable' for army, some claim plan to erect military colleges on Mount Scopus was cancelled as it was too close to Seam Zone. Meanwhile, city's residents launch battle against project's new location in Jerusalem Forest.
Municipality officials say the original location was simply "unsuitable," but some people claim the project was moved due to American pressure, as the Mount Scopus area is located on the East Jerusalem Seam Zone. The chairman of the Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee, Knesset Member David Amsalem of the Likud faction, has begun looking into this claim.
The Mount Scopus project, which was co-planned by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Defense Ministry and the IDF, was submitted to the District Planning and Construction Committee three years ago after being approved in 2005 by the government, which did not state an explicit location in Jerusalem.
The project would have brought to the capital the army's flagship institutions, where hundreds of senior officers are trained, and cover an area of about 2.7 acres. Hundreds of thousands of shekels have been invested in the planning of the impressive complex, measuring 42 square meters (452 square feet) in size, which was developed by architect Eli Ilan.
The District Planning and Construction Committee was slated to discuss the objections to the plan on March 7, 2013, but the issue was pulled from the agenda. Some say it had to do with US President Barack Obama's visit to Israel, which was slated to take place two weeks later.
The claims of foreign pressure were confirmed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who wrote on her Facebook page that the plan had got stuck because of American pressure and announced that the collages would be moved to the area of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
"It's no secret that all the planning bodies were concerned about an international reaction to the construction of a large base in the Seam Zone, near Palestinian neighborhoods," said a senior municipality source. "On the other hand, every time a plan is scrapped or delayed for fear of international reactions, you won't find a single official government source who will admit it."
'There was an order not to advance the plan'
About three months ago, Jerusalem's residents discovered that the municipality was advancing an alternative to erect the project in one of the only green areas near their neighborhoods: The Jerusalem Forest – the green symbol of West Jerusalem.
The news sparked a battle led by a coalition of environmental organizations, representatives of 12 neighborhoods and Knesset makers. The campaign, which has been gaining momentum, is being waged under the slogan, "Don't touch the Jerusalem Forest."
The issue was discussed Monday by the Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee. The debate raised a series of question on the authorities and army's planning of the project. The Jerusalem Municipality's chief engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, said he had no idea why the Mount Scopus plan was scrapped, but admitted that "there was an order not to advance it."
The army's representative, Lieutenant Colonel Avi Tenenbaum claimed, on the other hand, that the Mount Scopus plan was not dropped for diplomatic reasons, but because the construction area is too small. The committee members were surprised by this response, as the army had been an inseparable part of the planning and had accepted the launched outline.
Committee Chairman Amsalem said following the discussion that he intended on turning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and inquiring why the Mount Scopus plan had been scrapped and why the government's decision was not being implemented.
Meanwhile, the battle against the plan to erect the base in the Jerusalem Forest is at its very beginning. "The forest is in the heart of every Jerusalem citizen," says Yonatan Shaked, an architect and one of the campaign leaders. "We learned about it by chance from the newspapers. No one in the municipality informed the residents' representatives.
"Building in this area will critically harm the forest. The project includes a fenced base with watchtowers, which requires transportation and parking infrastructures – a two-way road, lighting on both sides. It will take up a huge chunk of the Jerusalem Forest, and there won't be any forest left."
Ephraim Shlain, an expert researcher on the Jerusalem Forest, says the forest's destruction will have destructive ramifications on the city itself. "Jerusalem's strong population lives in the neighborhoods adjacent to the forest. If you take people's oxygen and the corner they grew up in and love, they will leave," he warns.
KKL-JNF representative Inabl Zarhin clarified during the discussion that her organization was also against the Jerusalem Forest plan. The Jerusalem municipality's former legal advisor, Attorney Yossi Havilio, has been hired to represent the bodies opposing the plan. "We will file thousands of objections to the change," he told the committee members.
He found it difficult to accept the army's response that the Mount Scopus option was dropped because the area was too small. "The moment you submit a plan to the district committee, it means you have completed all the examinations," he told Lieutenant Colonel Tenenbaum. "If 2.7 acres are not enough today, what has happened since then?
"It's clear that the municipality will not initiate a plan that has not been accepted by the army. Did you mislead the committee? Or did you not understand what you signed on or changed your mind, or are you telling us an unrelated story?"
The IDF representatives replied, "It was probably a misunderstanding."
'Colleges will strengthen Jerusalem's sovereignty'
MK Amsalem said he would check after the discussion whether the Mount Scopus plan was indeed dropped following American pressure.
"Hundreds of thousands of shekels, if not more, have been invested in the planning. It was accepted by all the systems, and received the approval of the professional and planning ranks. I believe someone issued an order which has nothing to do with the planning," he stated.
"Transferring the colleges to Mount Scopus is also in order to strengthen Jerusalem's sovereignty and security. The Tzipori Center (in the Jerusalem Forest) is not the right place. It's one of the only serene spots in Jerusalem. I can’t understand this delusional idea."
The Jerusalem Municipality offered the following response: "We see the arrival of IDF colleges in the city as a strategic step for the city's future and for strengthening its Zionist sector and young families. The Mount Scopus area was examined in the past and was found to be unsuitable for the IDF.
"The Municipality is conducting initial examinations of the Tzipori Center's suitability out of a clear understanding that there is no intention to harm the forest, the Tzipori pool or communal aspects in the area. The initial examinations are being conducted both vis-à-vis the IDF and vis-à-vis the residents' representatives and the communal administrations in the area which are involved and will continue to be involved in the examination processes."
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said: "The military colleges are a key component in developing the IDF's senior officers' class. The overall considerations, both from the economic and environmental aspects, led to a renewed examination of the colleges' location in the Jerusalem area vis-à-vis the Jerusalem Municipality."