Analysis: Barkat still seeks ways to save Beit Yehonatan

Jerusalem mayor attempts to sidestep Attorney General in drive to save Silwan structure illegally built by right-wing families.

November 21, 2010 02:25
4 minute read.
A Jewish-owned home in the neighborhood of Silwan

311_Jewish home in Silwan. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Not for the first time, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is trying to ignore explicit instructions from an attorney-general or a state attorney to execute a court order to seal up the illegally built Beit Yehonatan apartment building in Silwan and evacuate its occupants.

This time the victim of Barkat’s wiles is the new attorney- general, Yehuda Weinstein.

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He has already succeeded in tap-dancing past former attorney-general Menahem Mazuz and current State Attorney Moshe Lador, not to mention the law, by ignoring their orders as well.

On Wednesday, Weinstein told Barkat and the Jerusalem District Police in no uncertain terms that Beit Yehonatan must be sealed up and its occupants evicted at an “early date.”

The idea is anathema to Barkat. From the day he entered office in 2008, the mayor has been doing everything possible to save the structure built illegally by right-wing families seeking to increase the Jewish presence in the neighborhood, part of which is located on the biblical site of the City of David.

Weinstein tried to assuage Barkat by adding in his letter that the mayor should also identify Palestinian buildings in Silwan guilty of gross building violations and take action against them as well. Not only would this demonstrate that justice is blind, but it would also comfort right-wing supporters of Beit Yehonatan who have accused the attorney-general of showing favoritism to the Arabs, who have built many more illegal structures.

But in a reply to Weinstein sent shortly after Barkat received the attorney-general’s letter, the mayor, somewhat obliquely, indicated that he had other ideas altogether. The municipality, under Barkat, has drawn up new plans for Gan Hamelech, the site of the biblical garden of King Solomon in the southeast corner of Silwan, and for the densely populated, old village center of Silwan on the western slope of the hill, where Beit Yehonatan is located.

His idea is to rezone the two areas, register the ownership of the land and the houses, including those built without permits and demolish only those illegal ones standing in the way of badly needed, modern infrastructure, including roads. The plan for Gan Hamelech calls for removing the roughly 110 illegal structures currently occupying the land, building a new housing, commercial and tourism project for all the squatters on about half of the original garden and creating an archeological park in the other half.

But Barkat has made his development plans conditional on the fact that the state prosecution agrees to suspend all demolition orders, or seal orders in the case of Beit Yehonatan, from start to finish of the planning process, which could take many years and may never succeed. The state prosecution has agreed to treat all requests to stay demolition orders sympathetically but refuses to commit itself to a total moratorium.

As long as it does not, Beit Yehonatan remains in danger, as Weinstein’s letter to Barkat on Wednesday proved conclusively.

Instead of telling Weinstein that he would carry out the court order without delay, as the law bids him to, and as he already should have done in the past when ordered to by Mazuz and Lador, Barkat effectively told the attorney-general that he would follow his own timetable. Not only that, but he added that the Knesset State Control Committee agreed with him on this matter.

Barkat wrote that he had told the committee “he needed the cooperation of the attorney-general and those who are answerable to him in order to advance the plan according to the policy that will be agreed upon by all the elements dealing with the matter and according to the priorities which they determine. I should add that this position won the support of the committee which called on the government to help implement the recommendations of the state comptroller regarding the replanning of Silwan.”

The cooperation that Barkat was referring to was Weinstein’s agreement to freeze all demolition orders in Silwan.

Barkat added that members of the Knesset State Control Committee and attorney Hovav Artzi, a senior Justice Ministry official, would meet to discuss the demolition orders and building violations in all of east Jerusalem and devise a uniform policy and an order of priorities.

Barkat was as much as telling Weinstein that not he, but a Knesset committee whose active members on the subject of illegal construction in Silwan all belonged to right-wing parties except for its chairman, Yoel Hasson, who belongs to the right wing of Kadima, would determine the priorities for implementing court orders, rather than the attorney-general, whose mandate is to be the government’s interpreter of the law and its foremost law enforcement officer.

Barkat’s letter makes it clear that he hopes to use the Knesset State Control Committee as a sword and a shield to protect him from having to implement the attorney-general’s insistent and repeated demand that Beit Yehonatan be evacuated and sealed up.

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