Judging by the stormy atmosphere in the hall of the Lev Ha’ir community center last Wednesday, tough times are expected in the Mahaneh Yehuda and Nahlaot area very soon: Blocked streets, large demonstrations, maybe even a few residents lying in protest on the corner of Jaffa Road and Rehov Nordau, preventing any traffic from passing, not to mention a less dramatic but perhaps no less efficient measure – a lawsuit against the Transportation Ministry and the CityPass consortium.

“These people treat us like we are just air. In their eyes, the slave has done his job, now the slave can leave,” said Tomer Kaufman, an elected member of the of Lev Ha’ir community council, responsible for the structural design of the neighborhood.

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Two representatives of the city center merchants association said, “These people [the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan and the Transportation Ministry] have duped us. They deceived us for almost 10 years, and now they are selling us down the river for their own interests.”

A young man with long, curly hair added, “With all due respect to the law and the civil code, this is a battle on our home turf. We should act as if someone were threatening to demolish our homes because that’s exactly what it is.”

The threat experienced by the residents and the merchants is the decision to prohibit any cars on Rehov Agrippas and, instead, to open this narrow, crowded street that runs parallel to Jaffa Road through the market to 10 bus lines. Kaufman says this means a minimum of 800 buses per day. “That is a huge catastrophe in terms of noise and pollution,” he says.

According to Kaufman and a few other members of the local council, that decision is in total contradiction to what was agreed upon between the Lev Ha’ir council and the Mass Transit Plan and CityPass at the beginning of the project.

Kaufman says that nine years ago, the request to allow the preliminary work for the light rail project was presented to the residents of the neighborhood in a very convincing and friendly manner by the representatives of the Mass Transit Plan.

“I was present then, together with other members of the Lev Ha’ir community council, when they asked for our support of this project. Everybody understood then, and to this day, that without the cooperation and the support of the council, nothing would have been done here: the heavy work on Jaffa Road for all the infrastructure before laying the tracks; compensation for the residents and the stores that had to be demolished to make room for widening the street; the willingness of the residents to live amid the dust, the noise, the excavations of the streets,” says Kaufman.

“For us, unlike the rest of the residents of this city, it is not only difficult because of the traffic. For us it has been a daily nightmare for nine years! And the deal was that by the end of the work, Rehov Agrippas would be a street free of bus lines, to be used only for private cars with a few parking lots, to enable easy access to the market, the heart of this city. Now it turns out that they have been deceiving us. They are lying to us, they are breaking their own agreement.”

Ro’i Bibi owns the small TevaNet supermarket on Rehov Agrippas. He is also an active member of the Mahaneh Yehuda merchants association and a member of the Lev Ha’ir community council. “Since the roadwork started, my life and the lives of my customers and neighbors have become a never-ending nightmare. Perhaps these people don’t realize it, but there is such a thing as quality of life for shopkeepers, as well as for their customers. There is no pleasure in shopping or serving clients in all that noise, dust and total lack of aesthetics in dug-up streets and sidewalks. It really upsets me so much, but nobody seems to think about that aspect. As if shops in a market are doomed to exist amid dirt and noise.”

Bibi says it isn’t true that the merchants’ interests are not the same as those of the residents. He says that is just another lie propagated by the Transportation Ministry to create animosity between the two parties and weaken their struggle.

“There are rumors that real estate tycoons have their eye on this area and want to tear down the market in order to build here. That’s nonsense. The value of this area is totally connected to the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Today it has become a valuable place not only for Jerusalem but for the whole country. I have customers and tourist groups that come from Tel Aviv and even from abroad because they heard about Mahaneh Yehuda, which now holds its own among the most famous markets of the world. If this is demolished, who will want to buy a house here? But in the meantime, they – the real estate tycoons, the ministry, the Mass Transit Plan – are destroying our life here.”

Eli Mizrahi, the deputy head of the market’s merchants committee, is perhaps the person most identified with the spectacular renewal of Mahaneh Yehuda. For him, there is no doubt: “This is war, so there will be fighting like in war. We will block all the streets around us; no one will be able to move. They don’t realize who they’re dealing with.”

Mizrahi, Bibi and Kaufman insist that there is an agreement from 2001 among the local council, the Mass Transit Plan and CityPass that buses would not be permitted to travel along Rehov Agrippas once the roadwork on Jaffa Road was completed. Mizrahi, who was also at a meeting in the mayor’s office last week (before the meeting at Lev Ha’ir on Wednesday), says he was so outraged by the number of lies told by the representatives of the Mass Transit Plan and CityPass that he walked out and slammed the door before the meeting ended – something he swears he had never done before.

“I couldn’t stand all the lies told at the meeting, but the whole issue is not such-and-such a plan or another. The real issue is that the Mass Transit Plan and CityPass had promised Egged that in return for their agreement not to allow buses on Jaffa Road once the light rail began operating, they would have access to streets that had been closed to buses until now. That’s the issue that lies behind all this.”

Kaufman says he refuses to get into these “troubled waters” as he calls it. He reiterates that all he asks, in the name of the residents and the merchants, is that the agreements be respected.

Bibi adds, “If the light rail is such a great thing for the city, why do they need 10 bus lines at a distance of less than 40 meters from the light rail? What kind of great improvement is that?” The three men repeat that within a few days they will start to demonstrate “in such a way that there will be no choice but to listen to us.”

They add that a petition to the High Court is also being submitted.

Responds Shmulik Elgrabli, spokesman for the JTMP: “Since the first stages of the mass transportation plan, it was made clear to all parties that Rehov Agrippas would always be an essential public transportation artery.”

He adds that along the street, apart from a small private parking lot, there are no parking spaces, and that this was an additional reason to open Agrippas to buses, while its eastern part, which leads to two large parking lots – Klal and Kiah – would be open to private cars.

“We are continuing to seek, together with the municipality and the Transportation Ministry, an agreement with the residents and the merchants.”

A municipality spokesperson explains that changes had to be made to the bus routes to accommodate the light rail.

“The mayor has met with the residents the merchants of the market and those of the city center several times to find the best solution for all,” says the spokesperson.

“This is the solution that seems to the most accommodating to to all the parties involved. It is clear that all other solutions would cause more harm to the parties involved, and cause difficulties to residents who wish to do their shopping in the market.”
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