(photo credit: AP)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has never made a secret of his plans to incorporate the ancient and current Jewish presence in the overwhelmingly Palestinian village of Silwan into his plans to turn the city into a world tourism attraction.
As such, he has supported the activities of the two right-wing religious-nationalist organizations, Elad and Ateret Cohanim, which are devoted to establishing the strongest possible Jewish presence in the densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
As part of that policy, Barkat has devoted much time and energy to finding a solution which would prevent the sealing up of Beit Yehonatan, the seven-story residential structure built without permit by Ateret Cohanim in the heart of the village.
The legal department of the Jerusalem municipality, which is independent of the mayor and city council when it comes to criminal prosecutions, ordered the demolition of the building several years ago. After appeals against the order by the residents of Beit Yehonatan were rejected in all three court echelons, a final court order to evacuate and seal the building was given in July 2008, four months before Barkat was elected mayor.
Barkat sought a solution that would benefit both Jews and Arabs by drafting a new development plan for a small part of Silwan closest to the walls of the Old City. One part of the plan called for increasing housing heights from two to four stories, which would legalize illegal Palestinian as well as Jewish construction (i.e. Beit Yehonatan). Another element of this package deal was that the city would demolish all the illegal Palestinian houses in the biblical area of Gan Hamelech (El Bustan) and rehouse the residents in apartments that would be built as a result of the plan to allow four-story buildings instead of two.
The one person who stood opposed to this plan – which would likely take many years to implement – was municipal legal adviser Yossi Habilio. Habilio said the city must not evade a court ruling under any circumstances and that too much time had already gone by.
Recently, Barkat asked State Attorney Moshe Lador for his opinion on his dispute with Habilio. Lador told him in no uncertain terms that he must implement the court order immediately.
In response, in an angry, eight-page letter to Lador, Barkat said that if had to implement the court order against Beit Yehonatan, he would also implement demolition orders against more than 200 other illegally built structures in Jerusalem. It was clear that a large number of these illegal structures were Palestinian.
Just like the story of Samson, Barkat implied, if Beit Yehonatan had to go down, it would take dozens of Palestinian buildings down with it. Or, Barkat’s version of the “price tag” to be exacted for the harm done to the Jewish residents. A few days later, Habilio wrote to Hovav Artzi, the Justice Ministry official in charge of enforcing land legislation, including illegal construction, and told him that he had investigated the matter and found that there were only 40 court orders to demolish structures in Jerusalem, and that 13 of them were in west Jerusalem.
Habilio added that some of the demolition orders included in Barkat’s list of more than 200 did not involve Jerusalem at all, but areas in the Jerusalem district such as Beit Shemesh, Bar-Giora, Moshav Ora and several others towns and villages.
While that fact explains some of the differences in the statistics presented by the two adversaries, a more important reason has to do with the different types of expulsion orders that Barkat and Habilio were talking about.
Habilio was referring to court ordered demolitions of illegal structures which the city had taken upon itself to demolish. There are about 40 such structures including Beit Yehonatan.
In his letter to Lador, Barkat said he was referring to expulsion orders which the Ministry of Interior was supposed to implement but which it had asked the city to carry out. Barkat did not make clear if any of these orders had been issued by the court or whether they were administrative orders issued by the Ministry of Interior. He also did not explain why the Ministry of Interior had asked the city to carry the orders out. A government expert told The Jerusalem Post
that he was not sure the Interior Ministry could even ask the city to act on its behalf to demolish illegal buildings.
In Lador’s letter to Barkat, he had made it clear that what made the Beit Yehonatan case so urgent was that the court had ordered the sealing up and evacuation of the building almost one-and-a-half years earlier. He did not say there was the same urgency to implement demolition orders that were not issued by the court.
Asked to explain the significant difference in the figures provided by Barkat and Habilio, Deputy Mayor Kobi Kachlon (Likud) wrote, “Habilio is misleading. In fact there are more than 10,000 building deviations which he does not enforce. That is his own personal failure.
“His letter is misleading and full of inaccuracies. In contrast to what
Habilio says, the number of orders which the city is obliged to enforce
is much higher than 200 because there are many other [illegal builders]
who are supposed to demolish their own homes but have not done so.
Habilio chose to only mention those orders which the city is obliged to
implement… The fact that he ignored the main arguments raised by the
mayor and instead addressed paltry matters even more strongly
underlines the fact that the legal adviser of the city does not have a
comprehensive approach and lacks general and detailed information
including the list of all [demolition] orders that have been issued and
those that have been implemented, as one would expect from even a
He added: “During Habilio’s tenure, the number of building violators in
east Jerusalem has grown and the insistence of the city prosecution to
enforce orders according to the current criteria has proven a failure.
The rigid thinking of attorney Habilio prevents him from being part the
change in policy which Mayor Nir Barkat is leading to provide a proper
solution for the hundreds of buildings in Silwan and Gan Hamelech.”