The Mount of Olives Under Threat From Jewish Settlers

April 13, 2023
Mount of Olives with the Garden of Gethsemane and the Jewish Cemetery

The recent inauguration of the sixth government formed by Binyamin Netanyahu has revived the project of colonization of the Mount of Olives by Jewish fundamentalists. Ultimately, it is the Christian presence that is threatened in the Holy Land, in an atmosphere of almost general indifference.

Facing the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Mount of Olives is probably one of the most striking places in Jerusalem: the place of Christ's agony and His glorious Ascension to the right hand of the Father, the Mount still houses the one of the holiest Jewish cemeteries in Israel. It is indeed there, according to the prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) that the Parousia will take place.

The Mount of Olives is also one of the few places in East Jerusalem that is not yet under the control of Israeli settlers: but for how much longer? Because a takeover seems planned, on the pretext of establishing a national park.

But, unlike the Palestinians who have very little recourse at their disposal in the event of expropriation, the dozen shrines present on the Mount of Olives belong either to the Holy See or to various Orthodox patriarchates which do not intend to let them go.

To achieve their ends, the Jewish settlers rely on Elad, an organization that invests in tourism and archeology to “strengthen the Jewish bond with Jerusalem,” and which happens to be funded by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Over the past two decades, Elad has won several tenders to operate and develop sites in Jerusalem, under the control of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). All while expropriating many Palestinians from their homes.

In February last year, The Times of Israel reported that a plan to expand the borders of the existing national park to include a swath of the Mount of Olives was under review, pending approval, by the town planning committee.

The Latin Catholic patriarchate then strongly protested, and the matter ended there. Until the beginning of 2023, marked by the inauguration of the new government of Binyamin Netanyahu – the most right-wing in the country – a team strongly won over to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The Mount of Olives project has become topical again according to the Jerusalem Municipality website. It now is planning for a “promenade” for Jewish pilgrims visiting the sacred cemetery, a route supposed to celebrate the harvest festival (Sukkot), which would pass through land belonging to the Latin patriarchate. To this end, property owned by the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth, who run an orphanage, would be expropriated, at least in part.

The leaders of the various Christian denominations present on the Mount of Olives are sounding the alarm: if the Jewish settlers increase their hold, access to the sanctuaries will be threatened, and the annual Palm Sunday procession will be called into question.  

“It’s greenwashing, pure and simple. This will mean that the Christian presence on the mountain will be limited to being within the walls of the churches, and the settlers will control everything else,” warns Daniel Seidemann, lawyer and founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which analyzes the political impact of urban development in the city.

Unfortunately, in this thorny issue, the Christians are not presenting a united front: in the past, the Orthodox have been accused by the Palestinians of collaborating with the Jewish settlers by agreeing to sell or rent goods and lands to them.

The presence of Christians in Jerusalem is threatened more than ever, and the silence of the media committed to defending the rights of minorities is surprising. While several million pilgrims go to the Holy Land each year, fewer and fewer Christians live there. A century ago, Christians constituted a quarter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as opposed to being less than 2% today. And tomorrow?