Barkat defends Silwan project

Mayor stresses benefits to Arab sector, slams Barak's talk of delays.

By ABE SELIG
June 22, 2010 12:23
4 minute read.
Silwan

311_Silwan. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s redevelopment plan for Silwan faced fresh criticism on Tuesday as Defense Minister Ehud Barak – who is currently in Washington for talks with US officials – questioned the timing of the initiative.

The plan includes the demolition of 22 homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood and was approved on Monday by the municipality’s local planning council.

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Less than a day after State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the White House viewed Barkat’s plan as one that “undermines trust” needed for progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, Barak said the plan “lacked common sense” and a “sense of timing.”

“The King’s Garden project, which has waited for 3,000 years, can wait another three to nine months if the state’s policy considerations necessitate it,” Barak said.

The defense minister added that upon his return from the US, he planned on taking the matter up with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

But his criticism had already garnered a strong response from the municipality on Tuesday, with a statement from the mayor’s office suggesting that Barak “check the facts” before censuring the project.

“Rather than support the municipality’s efforts to strengthen the city and tackle the serious neglect the eastern part of the city has inherited over the years, the defense minister acts without checking the facts,” a statement from the mayor’s office read.

“The new plan for Silwan allows for thousands of additional housing units for the Arab sector and the resolution of hundreds of construction violations. Barak should be the first to support the plan,” the statement continued.

Additionally, Jerusalem City Councilman Hilik Bar – who chairs the Jerusalem faction of Barak’s own Labor party – released a statement echoing the mayor’s stance on the matter, saying Barak “should have checked the details of the plan thoroughly before making such statements.”

“The King’s Garden plan is an important project that could have an impact on both the value of the land and the houses in Silwan, and improve the quality of life of its residents,” Bar said.

“And as someone who desires the benefit and welfare of the Arabs of east Jerusalem, and who sees [the pursuit of that] as a way to correct a historical injustice that has been done to some of them, in my opinion, Silwan residents and the residents of [King’s Garden] should seriously examine the solutions offered by the mayor,” Bar continued.

“Understand that instead of just destroying the houses – as the courts would have it – this plan proposes to regulate the building in an orderly fashion, once and for all, and in a proper and responsible manner,” he said.

“The residents of Silwan are residents of Jerusalem, with equal rights,” he added. “And we must do everything to enable them to live in this town legally and orderly.”

Municipality officials have indeed stressed that the plan is for the benefit of the residents of King’s Garden, which would see an overhaul of many municipal services in the area and the addition of new homes, storefronts, restaurants and community centers once the plan is implemented.

Yet residents of the area have continued to balk at the plan, and in particular, its call for demolitions.

Furthermore, Palestinian Authority officials stepped up their opposition to the plan on Tuesday, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly asking the US to “directly intervene” to put a halt to the project.

“I sent a notice this morning from the Palestinian president to the US, in which he asked the American administration to intervene directly so that the Israeli project is canceled,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted by AFP as saying on Tuesday afternoon.

“We vehemently denounce the decision, which will result in the demolition of 22 houses in Silwan,” he continued.

Orly Noy, a spokeswoman for Israeli NGO Ir-Amim, which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that her organization viewed the plan as “a political issue at its core... And politically, it’s a very dangerous policy to keep trying to unilaterally dictate the reality in the most sensitive area of the conflict.”

According to Noy, “this place holds a really frightening potential of violence for all sides involved, and while I think the residents of Silwan are handling their battle very wisely, and are trying to keep violence out of it, can it get out of hand? Of course it can.

“This is part of a cumulative process over many years, in which residents have had to live with the threat of their homes being demolished while they’re at school or at work,” she went on. “It’s a constant threat and at some point it could explode, which is one among many reasons why this place should be handled responsibly and carefully.”

In an apparent response to Washington’s concerns over the demolitions, Netanyahu also addressed the plan earlier Tuesday morning, and a statement from his office said the government was open to finding a negotiated solution for the redevelopment project.

“The Prime Minister’s Office expresses the hope that dialogue will continue with those who built their homes on public land in violation of the law, and that an agreed-upon solution will be found that will keep in line with the law,” the statement read.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report. 


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