United by their outrage over a road repaving project slated to begin next week in the Old City – which they say will put the lives of their most vulnerable community members at risk – leaders from the Jewish and Armenian quarters have successfully lobbied the government to temporarily halt construction.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin ordered the project delayed on Tuesday until the residents’ concerns are adequately addressed by the Jerusalem Development Authority and municipality.
“After an initial examination of the route of the development work for the Armenian Patriarch Road excavation, it became clear that there is no proper arrangement for providing access to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters for security and rescue forces,” Elkin said in a statement. “Therefore, I have instructed the Jerusalem Development Authority and municipality to freeze the project at this stage, until appropriate solutions are provided.”
Scheduled to begin July 10, the project to repave 600 meters of the road between police headquarters and Zion Gate – with work hours scheduled from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. – will take over two years to complete, and block emergency personnel from entering both quarters in a timely fashion.
The municipality and JDA intend to replace the badly pocked pavement with stone and build a public square for tourists next to an Armenian genocide memorial, which Armenian residents overwhelmingly object to.
Further complicating matters, the Israel Antiquities Authority will oversee the project amid expectations that artifacts will be unearthed during construction, which could further delay the project by up to four years.
Moreover, loud nightly and early-morning construction will force the 600 Jewish families and several hundred Armenian residents to use Zion and Dung Gates, instead of nearby Jaffa Gate, to enter and leave their communities, as well as eliminate a nearby bus stop and access to a meager parking facility they once enjoyed.
According to Magen David Adom EMT Eliyahu Simcha Rosenberg, the construction will also prevent first-responders from providing timely life-saving care in emergencies.
“There is no doubt that response times will be hurt,” said Rosenberg, who lives in the Muslim Quarter. “We don’t have advanced-care options inside of the Old City, and as a result, the time it will take until advanced care will arrive is going to be lengthened by several minutes because they will no longer be able to use Jaffa Gate.”
Elkin’s decision to delay construction followed a last-minute community meeting with municipal representatives on Monday night, which the press was barred from attending.
“I explained at the meeting that ambulances would have to wait for the police to clear the road, and it will delay emergency responses, which could cost lives in cases where a few minutes are absolutely vital,” Rosenberg said.
A 93-year-old Armenian resident who attended the meeting Monday night, and requested his name not be published, said he fears he will not be adequately provided for in an emergency.
“If I need an ambulance or something, it will be very difficult for them to treat me,” he said. “What’s going to happen if someone needs an ambulance?” Dozens of young mothers, including Chaya Weisberg, who has six children, echoed his concern.
“This is putting our kids’ lives at risk,” she said.
Shoshanah Selavan, chairwoman of the Jewish Quarter Community Council, said the municipality presented their plan 10 months ago to both communities’ leaders, but then ignored their collective concerns.
“I am very happy to hear that Elkin has listened to the calls of the Armenian and Jewish communities in the Old City, and that he realizes that the process was not done in cooperation with the neighborhood,” she said. “We now hope that [the municipality and JDA] will sit with us to work out all the rough ends, so that we can see if there is a way to continue” with the project.
However on Tuesday afternoon, hours after Elkin issued his mandate, the municipality issued a brief statement claiming: “At this point, the Jerusalem Development Authority has not received any new directives, and is continuing as planned.”
The municipality issued a statement last week saying the project is “necessary because the infrastructure in the Old City requires an upgrade,” adding that it had worked with Armenian and Jewish residents throughout the planning process.
“It is important to emphasize that the project is designed for the benefit of all city residents, and residents of the Old City in particular,” the statement said.
While Selavan conceded that she and leaders from the Jewish and Armenian communities indeed met with city officials on at least five occasions during the preceding 10 months to discuss the problematic plan, she claimed that their concerns were not adequately addressed.
“We had a lot of questions, and we presented them with all of our problems with it, and they were systematically ignored,” she said.
Longtime Jewish Quarter resident Ephraim Holzberg, who also strongly opposed the construction and helped lead the campaign against it, also praised Elkin for postponing the project until the communities’ needs are met.
“This is good news, because now we have a minister of Jerusalem who is very friendly and has a big heart,” he said.
Holzberg, who served as general manager of the Mamilla construction project, added that he hopes his previous proposal to construct two new roads near the Jewish and Armenian Quarters can serve as a viable alternative to the present plan.
Meanwhile, community activist Tova Hametz, who has lived in the Jewish Quarter for 16 years, and helps care for the 93-year-old man, said one positive byproduct of the fiasco has been uniting the Jewish and Armenian residents in a common cause.
“The most important thing is that we have decided together, as a community, that this project will not divide the Armenians and the Jews,” she said.
“It has united the communities stronger than ever before. We will unite against this project to protect each other.”