(photo credit: Abe Selig)
Facing renewed protests over plans to build an archeological park in an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood, the Jerusalem Municipality on Tuesday reiterated that the plan was totally legal and asserted that the demolition of homes anywhere in the capital was an issue of law, not politics.
"Attempts to politicize this issue or attack the municipality for upholding the law will not influence the law itself," an aide to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "This is a classic example of people trying to change the context of this issue and dilute the facts with misinformation. Quite frankly, it's irresponsible."
The long-running dispute centers around municipal plans to build in a small section of Silwan, adjacent to the prominent archeological park at the City of David. The area is known to Israelis as the King's Valley and to Arabs as al-Bustan.
Plans for the park are contingent on a years-old municipal plan to demolish 88 illegal Arab homes in the area, which was frozen in 2005 as a result of international protests, but which Barkat now plans to pursue.
A press conference on Tuesday held in a protest tent that has been erected at the site centered around what many of the speakers decried as Israeli "ethnic cleansing" of east Jerusalem's Palestinians and "violations of international law."
"The Israeli government is carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in east Jerusalem," said Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Laureate from Ireland who told the crowd of around 50 journalists and Silwan residents that she was there to support the residents' struggle.
"If this was happening in any other country in the world, the international community would be up in arms...It's a Judaization of the area."
Maguire also accused the Israeli government of "digging up Muslim graves to build a Jewish museum of tolerance" - a reference to municipal plans to allow the Simon Wiesenthal center to build on a site that has been used as a parking lot for the past half-century.
"What a disgrace," Maguire told the crowd.
Following Maguire, Attalah Hana, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, tried to veer the conversation away from religious rhetoric.
"Our struggle is not religious," Hana said. "We are not here to fight the Jewish people, we are not against the Jewish religion, we are against the Zionist movement, which is trying to throw us out of our homes. We're here to stand up for people who are being oppressed."
However, Hana added that while Muslims were being persecuted now, "we know that later it will be the Christians.
"We are not guests here," Hana continued. "We will continue to fight racism, and pushing people out of their homes is the highest form of racism there is. We were born in Jerusalem, we will stay in Jerusalem and we will die in Jerusalem."
But the municipal spokesman refuted those claims, telling the Post that, "The Jerusalem Municipality doesn't discriminate between the eastern part of the city and the west, nor does it discriminate against any particular population.
"The fact of the matter is that these homes are built on public property, which is needed for public use. That said, any Jerusalem resident may file an appeal with the court for a delay or even a cancellation of the decision."
The issue boiled over in March, on the eve of the first visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after a planning committee rejected a petition by local Arab residents in the area to keep their homes.
Over 1,000 people live in the 88 homes in question, local residents say.
Although only a couple of homes in the area face imminent demolition, according to official city documentation, false reports came out after the recent planning committee ruling, claiming that Israel was on the verge of razing dozens of the homes.
This set off US criticism and a virtual public relations fiasco for Barkat during the Clinton visit.
Clinton called Israel's demolition of the illegally built Palestinian homes unhelpful, and in violation of the US-backed peace plan. Barkat called the top US diplomat misinformed.
"The international and Arabic press were not interested in the facts," Barkat told the Post in a March interview. "The Palestinians successfully spun the story in this round, but the facts are stronger than spin."
Palestinians and left-wing Israelis routinely complain it is difficult for Arabs to obtain building permits in Jerusalem, forcing them to build illegally, while the municipality insists it is evenhanded in enforcing building codes in all parts of the city.
Barkat acknowledged the need for better city services in east Jerusalem, as well as long-term planning, but said that was no excuse for illegal building.
According to city figures, 32 homes have been demolished in Jerusalem since the beginning of the year, 14 in the city's west and 18 in east Jerusalem.
This pace is similar to the pace of demolitions during the five-year tenure of former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, when between 100-130 illegal homes were razed each year.