Jewish, Armenian Old City neighbors unite to contest renovation plans

"Historic cooperation" between Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter neighbors, says Armenian attorney; "The chances of having an agreement are very low, unfortunately," says Kevorak Nabaladian.

September 9, 2019 01:00
3 minute read.
Jewish, Armenian Old City neighbors unite to contest renovation plans

An Armenian priest enters a church at the monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City June 8, 2010. The Armenians in Jerusalem now fear their 1,500-year-old Christian presence may disappear. Their society and extensive landholdings risk becoming collateral damage in a demograp. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Jerusalem municipality is hoping to reconstruct the Armenian Patriarchate Road, the sole vehicular access road that serves the Jewish and Armenian quarters.

Residents of the Jewish Quarter met municipality representatives last Thursday for a public presentation about the proposed project, after an anonymous letter was disseminated among residents that spread rumors about city plans.

Aner Ozeri, director of Old City Development at the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), told residents that while no deal had yet been struck between the city and residents of the Jewish and Armenian quarters, there are plans under discussion with the goal of moving forward sometime next month.

Ozeri, who came to the meeting with maps and schematics, explained that the road’s current infrastructure was built nearly 50 years ago, and that today it is inadequate for residents and tourists. He said that people swarm the Old City throughout the year for festivals, celebrations and state ceremonies.

There were 3.3 million tourists to Israel in 2014, with 74% visiting the Western Wall and 68% visiting the Jewish Quarter, the two most-visited sites. In 2018, tourism exceeded four million people, and 2019 is showing a 10% rise.

The proposal is part of a city development plan, first considered four decades ago and that has largely not changed. The plan involves visually unifying all the Old City gates, Ozeri said, but did not disclose anything further due to the negotiations.

The plan will be carried out, if approved, by the municipality and JDA. It will require 24/6 construction and 24/7 closure of a 300m. section of the Armenian Patriarchate Road. Renovations would extend from the police station near the Tower of David Museum until the Zion Gate, likewise requiring partial closure of the road that continues to the Batei Machse Road reaching the Dung Gate.

Ozeri said construction will last approximately three-and-a-half months, and should begin immediately following Sukkot.

The plan would likely require the residents living on the road to relocate during construction. The city told Armenian Quarter attorney Kevorak Nalbandian that it would be willing to pay up to NIS 5,000 per month to each relocated family. However, he said this would not cover the cost of the short-term rental.

“They are giving an injection of a minimal payment, if at all,” Nalbandian said. “The chances of having an agreement are very low.”

This is not the first time the city has attempted to move forward with this infrastructure project.

In 2016, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin put a moratorium on a prior version of the plan, which involved twice as much reconstruction and was scheduled to be worked on only during daytime hours, requiring as much as four years of work.

Shosh Selavan, chairperson of the Jewish Quarter community council, has been negotiating with the municipality to agree on an efficient, though not ideal, transition for residents of the two most-affected quarters, and for tourists.

“Instead of a wider-scale, full infrastructure reworking, we are seeking to... get the work done in the shortest possible time, thus reducing the amount of inconvenience,” Selavan told The Jerusalem Post.

There were many residents who spoke at the meeting, taking the opportunity to mention other Old City challenges with the JDA and municipal staff, including poor transportation, crowded parking lots, emergency services, delivery of goods, getting repairs done, and students commuting to the several schools in the vicinity, all of which are ongoing issues.

Many stood up to protest the plan, described by some as tantamount to asking for “suicide” and “chaos.”

Yossi Ben-Shahar, former head of emergency services for the Jewish Quarter, said he sees any such plan as “life endangering and unfeasible.” One of his concerns is the logistics involved in bringing several ambulances to the Jewish Quarter or Western Wall for a possible multi-injury occurrence, in getting the injured out of the Old City to a hospital, and having emergency access to the Christian Quarter.

Historian and lawyer Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dr. Yaakov Hisdai turned to the audience and asked, “Is there anyone in this auditorium who is in favor of the plan?”

Not a single hand was raised in the full auditorium. Then, loud applause broke out.

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