A furious mayor of Jerusalem, opposed by city and state legal advisers and snubbed by the justice minister, has ordered his staff to begin coordinating with police in preparation for the demolition of dozens of illegal buildings in the southeast Silwan neighborhood, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Mayor Nir Barkat has spent seven months drawing up a plan for the radical redevelopment of a section of the neighborhood known as “Gan Hamelech,” or the King’s Garden, where about 100 Palestinian families live in an area that was never zoned for building.
He has drawn up an immensely detailed blueprint for redevelopment, which would include new housing for all the Palestinian residents there, tourism facilities and a restoration of some of the parkland. And, after extensive negotiations with representatives of the residents, he is very close to reaching a full agreement with them on the plan, the Post was told over the weekend.
However, because of opposition from municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, and with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman now refusing to meet with him over the matter, Barkat is gearing up to implement a long list of court orders dealing with illegal construction in the area – including the evacuation and sealing of the seven-story Jewish-owned Beit Yehonatan, but also encompassing dozens of Arab-populated properties.
Barkat had hoped to turn the area into the “Abu Ghosh of east Jerusalem,” a pilot project for how the capital’s east could be redeveloped, the Post was told. Instead, because of what he considers the narrow-minded approach of the legal bureaucracy – with Havilio and Lador insisting that Beit Yehonatan be sealed before any further changes are made – Barkat is going to send in the bulldozers.
Sources inside city hall have repeatedly said that to solve the issues at hand in Gan Hamelech and the wider Silwan area will require “creative legal thinking.” They accuse the city attorney and the state prosecutor of taking an untenably narrow legal viewpoint by pressuring Barkat to deal with Beit Yehonatan alone, while the mayor is trying to find a broader solution for the much larger problem of illegal building in east Jerusalem.
The mayor is said to be adamant that the redevelopment he has in mind is not designed to pave the way for more Jews to move into the area.
Barkat’s dispute with Havilio and Lador has involved the publication of a heated exchange of letters from all sides in recent weeks.
While Havilio and Lador have demanded that Barkat implement the court order for Beit Yehonatan – which was issued more than a year ago – Barkat has maintained that such a move would undermine his redevelopment plans, and that if he was forced to execute one court order, he would begin applying the letter of the law to additional illegal structures in the area.
According to municipality data, there are about 20,000 buildings in east Jerusalem that have been built illegally, including 657 in Silwan alone, that could be subjected to future court-ordered demolitions. Such directives have so far been issued for only a fraction of these buildings.
Barkat’s proposed solution for Silwan is to retroactively approve all structures in the neighborhood up to four stories, which would resolve the vast majority of the building violations there.
In Gan Hamelech, which was all but uninhabited until 1967, about 100 buildings sit on parkland where King Solomon is said to have composed the Song of Songs. A senior city hall source labeled it “the second most incendiary place after the Temple Mount.”
“But there is no real ownership in the area,” a city hall source told the Post last week. “All of the construction was built illegally and theoretically it should all be torn down.
“So there are really three options in [Gan Hamelech],” the source continued. “The first is to destroy all the buildings there, the second is to legalize all of them, and the third is to find a middle ground, which is what [Barkat] has been trying to do.”
The source called Barkat’s plan a “pilot project to begin regulating building in east Jerusalem” that is also seen as a means to improve the living conditions for residents there – which in Gan Hamelech include around 110 families, or roughly 750 people.
The mayor’s plans for that area also include the construction of a commercial center, with businesses operating on the ground floors of a series of luxury four-story residential buildings.
Additionally, the mayor’s plan calls for hotels, health clinics and day care centers for the local residents.
“It is doable,” the city hall source said. “We’ve been working with the residents for over seven months on different options, and while there are sticking points on details, they have all agreed to the plan in principle.”
However, on the legal front, Barkat’s plans have seen exceedingly difficult going.
Six months ago, he took his plans to Neeman, who is said to have agreed that they represented a “national interest.”
Since then, however, the justice minister has avoided discussing the matter, and he now refuses to meet with Barkat, the Post was told.
Four months ago, the mayor realized that he could not carry out his plans in Gan Hamelech without dealing with illegal building in the rest of Silwan, but that the legal opposition he was up against, including Lador and Havilio’s insistence that he act immediately on Beit Yehonatan, was preemptively ruining any chance for his plans to succeed.
In that vein, Barkat has now made it clear that he is prepared to begin carrying out their orders, but would not stop at Beit Yehonatan.
In the meantime, the mayor’s relevant municipal staff has begun mapping out all of the buildings in Silwan – detailing a house-by-house report of building violations – and police have been told to gear up for demolitions, unless Havilio and Lador change course.
“They don’t get it,” the source said of Lador and Havilio. “Everyone agrees with this plan except for them – the Right, the Left, the Arabs and the Jews. But if the outstanding court orders are going to be forced forward, as opposed to these creative plans to deal with the problem, then that’s exactly what’s going to happen. We’re prepared to send in the D-9s [bulldozers].”