The Jerusalem Municipality’s Local Planning and Construction Committee on Monday confirmed two plans to redevelop sections of the city’s eastern Silwan neighborhood, but also involving the demolition of 22 homes inside the El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech, section of the neighborhood – raising the specter of renewed friction over house demolitions in predominantly Arab areas of the capital.

Hours after the announcement of the plans’ approval, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington that America was “concerned” over the initiative.

“This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental in making progress to the proximity talks and ultimately in direct negotiations,” Crowley said.

“We’re concerned about it.

We’ve had a number of conversations with the government of Israel about it.”

Those comments came after Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told the Post earlier Monday that the US administration had been told in advance about Barkat’s revival of Silwan development plans this week. Oren said the subject was being discussed and that Israel’s hope was that it would not become a contentious issue between the two governments.

The two separate plans – one for El-Bustan and the other for “central Silwan” – were approved, as was expected, during Monday’s committee meeting, which included deliberations on 39 other construction projects in both eastern and western sections of the city.

Silwan residents voice protests to plan

While the committee members by and large supported both plans for Silwan, city council members from the Meretz faction, along with a handful of Silwan residents and other opponents to the plan, voiced their protests toward the end of the nearly six-hour-long hearing, when deliberations began regarding El-Bustan.

City Councilman Meir Margalit expressed concern that the plan would cloud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to the US in early July – during which he is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama – and inflame already-simmering tensions among the residents of east Jerusalem.

“The world is going to recognize that it’s dealing with pyromaniacs,” Margalit said. “And for the sake of the delicate balance of the city, the mayor needs to remove the plan from the agenda.”

The Meretz faction voted against the proposal on Monday, leading Mayor Nir Barkat to announce in the evening that the powers delegated by the mayor to the faction had been revoked, according to a municipality press statement. The statement did not elaborate on what those powers were.

The 22 house demolitions are a part of the larger plan for El- Bustan that would see the eastern half of the neighborhood cleared and restored as a green zone, or park land – for which the entire area was initially zoned, and where all 88 homes, until Monday, were considered illegal by the city and subject to demolition orders.

But with the plan’s initial approval – there are still two additional phases before it’s given a full stamp of approval – 66 of the homes are now eligible for retroactive legalization, and the 22 displaced families from the eastern side are to be accommodated in the re-zoned western half.

Neighborhood residents voiced their objections during Monday’s hearing, some of them shouting out in anger during the proceedings.

Fakhri Abu-Diab, an El-Bustan resident and activist in the area, told The Jerusalem Post by phone on Monday that the atmosphere in the neighborhood after the plan’s approval was a solemn one.

“It’s a difficult atmosphere,” he said. “All of us are upset and we’re fearful that the demolitions could now start anytime.

There’s a lot of anger and frustration.”

Residents will enlist international help to prevent demolition

Abu-Diab added that as in the past, residents would try and draft international support in an effort to prevent the demolition of homes.

“It’s possible to keep the houses, and to keep us inside our homes,” he said. “So yes, we will ask for support, both from inside and outside [Israel], and we will use all democratic, legal and legitimate means to keep our houses intact and keep us off the streets.”

Municipality sources, who have continued to stress that the plans for Silwan will only improve the residents’ quality of life, also expressed hope that further negotiations with the residents would bear fruit. They added that today, “most of the residents understand that some houses will need to be demolished,” and that “specific, individual agreements” had already been reached with a number of residents whose homes would be affected.

Beyond the demolitions, the plan for El-Bustan also includes re-zoning to allow for new shops, restaurants, art galleries and a large community center complete with day care facilities and gyms, to be added to the neighborhood.

Barkat, who began working on the plan over a year ago, had hoped to launch the initiative in March, when he formally presented its details during a press conference that took place just prior to US Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated visit to Israel.

Due to a last-minute request from Netanyahu, however – and amid heavy pressure from the US for a halt to all construction in east Jerusalem – Barkat instead used the press briefing to elaborate on the plan’s details before announcing that it would be shelved until further negotiations were conducted with the neighborhood’s residents.

The second plan approved by the committee on Monday dealt with “central Silwan,” a separate enclave inside the neighborhood where almost half of the homes have been built above the municipality’s height restriction of two stories and are thus considered illegal and subject to demolition orders. If the plan is implemented, residents of the area who are currently in violation of the height restriction would be able to apply for retroactive legalization of their homes as well.

The central Silwan plan has also been handled by city negotiators, who have met since March with neighborhood residents and a slew of municipal planning personnel to hammer out agreements on outstanding issues raised by the residents.

Those issues include repairs to local roads, solutions to parking problems, electrical issues, water distribution, sewage and firefighting services – all of which are either sorely lacking or in disrepair.

After the meeting adjourned on Monday, Barkat praised the committee’s decision on both plans, but emphasized his satisfaction with the plan for El-Bustan “There are three alternatives to [the issues at hand in] Gan Hamelech,” he said. “The first is to evacuate the entire area and demolish all 88 illegal houses built there in accordance with today’s existing city plans and the demolition orders issued by the court.”

The second, he continued, “is to bury our heads in the sand and grant sweeping authorization to all of the illegal building offenses in the area.”

However, he said, “the municipality chose a third option that balances various needs by which an unprecedented opportunity will be granted [to the residents, who will be able] to authorize 75 percent of the houses, and with a legal option that will be granted to accommodate the [residents of the] remaining 22 houses with proper infrastructure.”