As far as the Jerusalem Municipality is concerned, Silwan resident Moussa Ouda says, 59 is “just a number.”
But for the 52 year-old father of five, that number represents his home, his life and his future in this east Jerusalem neighborhood, which lies in the shadows of the capital’s Old City and is now the focal point of a municipality plan to redevelop the entire Gan Hamelech section of Silwan.
“Here it is, right here,” Ouda said on Tuesday, pointing at a municipality map of El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech. Every house on the map had been given a number, and Ouda’s home was No. 59.
“Is that all I am, all that my home is?” he asked, angry and frustrated. “I’m not a number!”
Yet according to the map, Ouda’s house is one of 88 such numbers, all of them homes that – in accordance with plans formally presented by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday – are to be torn down to make way for a national park and a large construction project that would see Gan Hamelech rebuilt and the Arab residents who live there rehoused in new multi-story buildings.
While Barkat has said that his plan enjoys the “broad support” of left-wing, right-wing, Jewish and Arab constituents, its success now hinges on Gan Hamelech’s residents, who like Ouda on Tuesday made it quite clear that they did not see eye-to-eye with the mayor, and were firmly opposed to any plan that would see their homes demolished.
While Barkat was to officially announce the launch of his plans during a press conference at city hall on Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu intervened an hour beforehand and asked the mayor to postpone the plans until an agreement was reached with the residents.
The mayor obliged, and while the plans were still announced at the press conference, they have been shelved until such an agreement is forged.
When that might happen, however, remains unclear, as Gan Hamelech’s residents on Tuesday showed little sign of budging.
“What we want is permits for our [existing, unauthorized] homes,” Ouda said. “Not new ones. We’ll never leave our homes.”
Then, going into his home to retrieve Jordanian documents he said were from 1950 and proved his family’s ownership of the land his home was built on, Ouda said he had built it in 1995, and wondered why the municipality didn’t stop him before it was finished.
“Why didn’t they stop me when I had built to here,” he said, gesturing to the first 15 centimeters of the structure. “Or here,” he said, going a little higher.
“Only now, when I’ve raised a family here, and made my life here, do they tell me that it’s going to be torn down.”
Still, Ouda’s statements in many ways parallel the mayor’s.
According to municipal data, illegal building in Gan Hamelech increased drastically in the mid-to-late 1990s – before 1992, there were only a handful of homes on the otherwise green parkland, which had served as a garden for thousands of years and is said to be where King Solomon composed the Song of Songs.
While Ouda may have Jordanian title to the land, his home, like the 87 others in Gan Hamelech, was built without any permits and according to Israeli law, should be torn down.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Barkat said that he saw in the situation an opportunity to deal with the problem of illegal building in the area, restore the garden to its previous state and provide the residents with a “better quality of life.”
The question that remains, however, is whether they want it.
“I’d prefer to live in half of a room in my house than to move into another one,” said Ouda.
He added that he had served time in prison, but refused to say why.
“I did what I did,” he said. “But I got out, I got married and I
started a family. I turned my life around, and if they come for my
home, I’d rather go back to jail than give it to them. This is my home
and I will give my life for it.”