Israeli officials have halted the expansion of two crowded east Jerusalem neighbourhoods by planning a national park on the only land available for them to grow, Israeli NGO Bimkom said on Tuesday.
The group, also known as Planners for Planning Rights, accuses Israel's National Parks Authority and the Jerusalem municipality of using the park plan to block the expansion of the nearby Arab neighbourhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur.
Efrat Cohen-Bar, an architect with Bimkom, which helps vulnerable communities on issues of planning and building, said the group had been working with the local community to build new homes and schools in the valley that runs between the two neighbourhoods.
The plan gained initial approval from a local committee, but the group then learned that the National Parks Authority wanted to claim 550 dunams (136 acres) of that land for a new park.
"In one of our meetings they told us that the plan was to block these two neighbourhoods, though they never mentioned that reason again," Cohen-Bar said.
Most of the park will fall "deep, deep inside occupied territory," she said, with the plans leaving no space for Issawiya to expand and almost none for A-Tur.
"The municipality declared that they are going to prepare another plan for Issawiya but I can tell you there is no land for that, they are going to basically just increase the density," she said.
"The district engineer said we are going to plan Issawiya and he said that there is enough land to expand, but this is a lie, this is not true."
Issawiya and A-Tur lie on the Arab eastern side of Jerusalem, in an area captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move not recognised by the international community.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem its "eternal, undivided" capital, but the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state and the international community regards Israeli construction in occupied territory as illegal.
Cohen-Bar said the park plan appeared to be a clear attempt to prevent the Arab neighbourhoods from expansion and mark land as Israeli.
"I consider those new national parks in east Jerusalem... like a settlement, it's another way to make those lands Israeli," Cohen-Bar said.
Jerusalem city council made no direct comment on the NGO's allegations, and said it was pushing forward with plans to preserve the valley in its natural state in order to attract visitors.
In a statement sent to AFP, spokesman Stephan Miller said the area had high value in terms of landscape and archaeology and represented "the eastern gateway to Jerusalem."
"The aim of the plan is to preserve the area in its natural state while restoring and reconstructing the view by dealing with the problematic aspects in order to prepare the land and give access to visitors," he said.