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(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken a more active role in determining the fate of east Jerusalem demolition orders by giving his military attache the final word on whether the Jerusalem Municipality can destroy illegal buildings in the Arab sections of Jerusalem, MK Uri Ariel informed the Knesset Law Committee on Sunday.
Ariel made the disclosure during an urgent discussion on the fate of Beit Yonatan, the illegal seven-story residential structure built in Silwan in 2002 by Ateret Cohanim, a nationalist-religious movement seeking to settle Jews in the city's Arab neighborhoods.
"The prime minister has issued a directive that all [prospective] demolitions in east Jerusalem be brought to his attention [via the military attache]," Ariel complained to the committee. "The state of affairs in which the military attache is involved in this matter is intolerable and unreasonable to an extreme degree. It must be ended."
Ariel explained that the commander of the Jerusalem Police district, who knows about all demolition orders in the city, informs the chief of police, who informs the prime minister's military attache.
"If the military attache does not want the demolition to be carried out, it won't happen," said Ariel. "His hand is the one on the switch. This is a problem of proper administration. If necessary, we will correct it by legislation."
Diplomatic sources responded by saying that house demolitions, when they are carried out, are done "only according to law."
However, the sources said, the prime minister does have a say regarding the timing of the demolitions, and can take into account such considerations as security, public order, and even international ramifications.
A left-wing activist welcomed the new arrangement.
"Until now, the status of demolitions in Jerusalem has been odd, in that no one from the Prime Minister's Office was involved at all," he told The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity.
"Now, it's quite clear that Netanyahu understands this is not just a municipal problem and that any house demolition in east Jerusalem could provoke negative responses both domestically and internationally."
By the same token, right-wing elements in Jerusalem criticized the new policy. One activist charged that it was reflective of a "heavy political agenda," and would allow more political nuances to enter the debate.
"It's a bad decision," the activist told the Post. "It means the prime minister will now be intervening in matters that should be purely municipal and this only opens the door to more political considerations. Nothing good can come of that."
The law committee convened at the urgent request of four right-wing MKs, Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin (Likud Party), Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) and Ariel (National Union).
They charged that municipal legal adviser Yossi Habilio had singled out Beit Yonatan for political reasons and insisted on carrying out a court order to seal the building and expel the seven families living there, while ignoring hundreds of court-ordered demolitions against illegal Arab construction.
Orlev charged that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz was behind the city's insistence that Beit Yonatan be sealed.
"On the one hand there are more than 300 court orders for demolitions [against Arabs]. On the other, there is Beit Yonatan," Orlev said.
"The elected officials say that the decision to seal Beit Yonatan is stupid. The mayor says the same. But the legal adviser is unwilling to consider the mayor's alternatives. This constitutes a political agenda on the part of the lawyers, but we will set things straight and put the lawyers in their place."
The original order to seal the building and expel the residents was issued on February 11, 2007. Since then, the residents have appealed against the decision seven times in all of the court echelons - from magistrate's court to district court to the Supreme Court. In each case, the court upheld the original decision to seal the building and expel them.
The city, however, has postponed carrying out the order, even though Habilio has insisted that it be implemented.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who attended the law committee meeting, said he was working on a new plan for Silwan, to change local zoning so that all buildings may be four stories high instead of two, the scheme that currently prevails. Barkat explained that the law would apply equally to Jewish and Palestinian construction.
Under his proposal, the first four stories of Beit Yonatan would be legalized, while the top floors would either be sealed or demolished.
Barkat said his proposal would legalize 90 percent of the currently illegal structures in that area of Silwan.
"It is important to provide a uniform and equal arrangement," he said. "We should act according to a simple rule which can be easily explained."
The right-wing MKs did not respond to Barkat's proposal. They returned to the immediate fate of Beit Yonatan and insisted on hearing explanations from Mazuz and Habilio as to why they insisted on carrying out the court order.
Having accused the two of "selective enforcement" and discrimination against the Jewish sector in favor of the Arabs, the right-wing MKs ignored figures presented by Meretz Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalo, who told them that since 2000, some 800 Palestinian homes have been demolished in their entirety, as opposed to none in the Jewish sector.