For the first time since 1967, the Jerusalem Local Building and Planning Committee discussed a large housing project and master plan for infrastructure for east Jerusalem’s Arab residents, located in Arab e-Sawahra, between Jebl Mukaber and Abu Dis.
The project included 500 new apartments on 1,530 dunams (153 hectares) as well as a school, country club, and new highway. Also included in the project was a plan to retroactively legalize 2,000 apartments in the neighborhood.
Due to infighting in the coalition, a vote on the project was postponed for two weeks to a month.
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Despite the fact that the master plan was initiated by the municipality, it faced nearly universal opposition by the coalition. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is facing challenges from the haredi factions, who are furious over his pick of City Councilor Rachel Azaria (Jerusalemites Movement) to be an additional deputy mayor.
City Councilor Meir Margalit (Meretz) hailed the project as the first time the municipality had taken meaningful steps to solving some of east Jerusalem’s persistent problems.
He said the project was expected to win initial approval, but that at the last minute the vote was delayed, ostensibly to give Barkat time to smooth over the coalition crisis and bring the haredim on board with his project.
“This is all dependent on internal politics in the municipality and the relationship of the mayor with the haredim,” said Margalit, who said the atmosphere at the meeting was “very tense.”
If it doesn’t pass, “Arabs are going to come out of this very frustrated,” said Margalit. “If they start to build illegally no one can blame them.”
City Councilor Elisha Peleg (Likud) denied that the vote had been pushed off for political reasons.
“It’s an initiative from the municipality not from the residents, but there’s no reason for the municipality to initiate a project that’s illegal because it’s in a green area,” said Peleg, referring to the Master Plan for Jerusalem that designated large swathes of the Kidron Valley as “green” parks where residential buildings are illegal.
Peleg also accused the municipality of only planning for one part of the population.
“Planning for Arabs and not Jews in east Jerusalem is simply not acceptable, it’s officially racism,” Peleg said. “If they say that Jews can’t build because it will threaten the peace agreement, then why should Arabs build? Why doesn’t Obama get mad at Netanyahu that they’re planning houses for Arabs in east Jerusalem?” NGO Ir Amim applauded the size of the project, which is the largest project to ever be discussed for Arabs in east Jerusalem.
“It’s more of a gesture, but still very, very far from answering the full needs of housing in east Jerusalem,” said Orly Noy, the spokeswoman for the organization. “The housing problem is such a big one in east Jerusalem that certainly 500 units are not going to be the full answer, but even as a gesture, it’s certainly a positive one.”
Also discussed at the meeting was a master plan by the residents of the Al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan, which was presented as an alternative to the mayor’s controversial Gan Hamelech/King’s Garden plan, which calls for the demolition and transfer of 22 of 88 residential buildings in the area.
The plan was discussed for three minutes and then rejected, said Peleg.
On Wednesday, there is an additional hearing about the legality of the mayor’s Gan Hamelech Plan. Previously, the judge had said that the case could not proceed until the Local Planning and Building Committee discussed the alternative plan put forward by the residents.