The residents of Gilo have a simple answer to the world's condemnation of the 900 new apartments planned for their neighborhood: Come and see it for yourself.
"I invite them to come and see the neighborhood of Gilo and to understand the geography," says community council director Yaffa Shitrit. "We're not a settlement, we're part of the city of Jerusalem. We're a neighborhood like Katamon."
Leaders from around the world have protested a building project with 900 new units that was approved by a local committee last week. But that project is just one of four major areas of development that will expand the neighborhood. The city is hoping to build 4,000 new apartments in the area in the next five years, increasing the population of Gilo by more than 50 percent.
The 34,800 residents of Gilo have different opinions on most issues within the neighborhood. Last week, 350 people attended an open meeting about the future of Gilo, arguing for more than five hours about littering, parks, youth, community involvement and transportation. But on one issue they all agree: "We're an integral part of Jerusalem," says Sheila Nagar, a doctor who has lived in Gilo for seven years. "We're not a settlement whose existence or expansion is an issue."
"They can build in Jerusalem as much as they want," says Haya Dehalika, a 24-year-old student studying chemistry and biology at the Hebrew University in Givat Ram. "I don't understand why building in Gilo is even an issue."
Gilo was founded in 1970 following the Six Day War as one of five neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem, including Ramot, East Talpiot, Neveh Ya'acov and Pisgat Ze'ev. All are located across the Green Line and are often referred to as "settlements" by the UN and international media, though Jerusalem counts the neighborhoods as part of the municipality.
Gilo is shaped like a pitchfork or the Hebrew letter shin, resting on the tops of hills next to Jerusalem's center. The expansions planned for Gilo will spread out down the slopes and towards the wadis.
Around every corner in the neighborhood are breathtaking panoramas of Jerusalem and surrounding Arab villages. "People are out strolling at all hours of the day," says Nagar. Walking the streets of Gilo, it's easy to see why. The quieter atmosphere of the suburb gives you impressive views of the city without the noise and commotion. At the crest of each hill, the neighborhood begs you to stop and look around - not just to admire the vistas but to catch your breath from the steep uphill grades.
"There's a lot of color in Gilo - all different aspects of the Israeli social spectrum are represented," says Nagar. "The diversity is what attracts a lot of people to the area."
ALMOST 40 percent of Gilo's residents are first-generation immigrants, and a growing haredi population is moving into the area.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of religious girls skip home from school, and older residents stroll the streets with their dogs, basking in the late afternoon sunlight.
"There are religious areas, there are non-religious areas; it's a really mixed neighborhood," says Tal Mayraz, the owner of Mayraz Real Estate Agency in Gilo. Different ethnicities aren't segregated like in other parts of the country, he adds. "Everyone is mixed together."
The commercial center of Gilo, called "Uptown," is home to the neighborhood's only mall and the more affluent part of the vicinity. But the economic downturn has hit this mall hard. Last Sunday, the stores were nearly empty of customers, and half were closed for good. The employees from the remaining stores gathered in the mall's open areas for cigarette breaks to marvel at the parade of foreign journalists. "Don't forget to interview Dani at the kiosk - he's the real star," says Pnina Gross, who works at a women's clothing store. The people condemning the new apartments are "just making a lot of noise right now," she adds. "It's just noise, and they're just making a big mess. I have no patience for this."
Located just below Uptown, Gilo Park has perhaps the country's most scenic basketball courts. Pick-up games have views of rolling hills that stretch towards the horizon behind the backboard. A lookout dedicated to Gilo resident Rotem Sharvit is one of the highest points in Gilo. Sharvit was killed in Lebanon in 1997 at age 20. The view from this lookout may be partially blocked with the construction of the C-Jerusalem Tower, which already boasts a billboard with the planned high-rise at a busy traffic circle.
Despite the diversity of the community, clear divisions exist between the richer and poorer areas of Gilo. The old absorption center in Gilo A, today low-income apartments, creates a ring around the community center of rundown buildings and cracked cement staircases. After the absorption center closed, the area was taken over by squatters and became a haven for prostitution and drugs. Following the First Gulf War, the government abandoned its plans to raze the buildings and kept the area as low-income housing. They moved many homeless protesters, who were camped in front of the Knesset, into the apartments.
In recent years, violence and drug abuse have greatly declined in the neighborhood. The Beit Yisrael urban kibbutz is also housed in the old immigration center, along with 50 students from the Beit Yisrael Mechina, a pre-army academy for religious and secular students who offer tutoring and youth programs to students from some of the rougher areas of the city.
"There's not really a lot of tension [between different groups] because it's such a big neighborhood," says Shlomi Tamssut, a counselor at Beit Yisrael Mechina who has lived in Gilo for five years, first as a participant in the mechina and as a counselor after his army service. "People here live their lives; there are not enough connections to create tension."
"It's a vibrant community," says Nagar, but adds that "they need to do more community building."
THE ORGANIZATION spearheading community initiatives is the Gilo Community Center. The center is always buzzing with activity, children with towels around their necks going to and from swimming lessons, women taking flower-arranging classes, and rehearsals for community theater productions. "Today there are 200 volunteers on the community council," says Yaffa Shitrit, the energetic director of the Gilo Community Council. "Even today, one young woman came whom we didn't even know and said she wanted to start a community garden. There's something here that interests everyone."
Shitrit started on the community council 17 years ago, after working for 10 years in banking and deciding she wanted to work with something more community-driven. Today, she is a tremendous force behind the city's expansion. The director strides through the halls of the busy community center confidently and can rattle off statistics about the city without thinking. "Here I found a connection between the money side and the city's economy, which I love, and the social side, which is what my soul needs," she says. "I wait every night for the morning to come so I can go to work."
She is passionate about the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life and raised her family. "We need to put Gilo on the map so people know more of what's happening in the neighborhood because it's not a regular neighborhood," she says. "We have a lot of people who volunteer here. I want that to be our banner - the number of volunteers."
Gilo's reputation in Israel is mostly colored by the shootings from Beit Jala during 2000-2002. The apartments facing Beit Jala were bullet-proofed following the intense shooting, and windows in that area have special bullet-proof shutters. A concrete fence protecting cars driving along the exposed roads was cleverly painted with the view on the other side of the fence.
"People think it's dangerous here, but it's not. It's the quietest place in Jerusalem," says Tamssut, the mechina counselor. "They don't know how big it is or the political aspects. They know what the news tells them, not what's actually happening."
GILO WAS named after the biblical city of Gilo, though the actual location of the ancient namesake is unknown, possibly in the southern hills of Hebron or the location of Beit Jala (which could be a corruption of the word "Gilo"). Gilo was founded on hills surrounding Jerusalem, but its expansion has always been a point of contention.
About 180,000 Israelis live in the "ring of neighborhoods" surrounding Jerusalem and in Jewish neighborhoods like Ramat Shlomo, French Hill and Har Homa, which are located across the Green Line. East Jerusalem is home to 208,000 Arabs. Construction in these areas has created problems in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since their founding. In 2007, a 307-unit complex planned for Har Homa was a significant obstacle for talks in Annapolis between then prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some Arab leaders accused the city of building a ring of settlements that effectively cut off Jerusalem from the surrounding Arab towns, making an east Jerusalem capital more geographically difficult for a future Palestinian state.
Aside from the political issues being debated in newspapers around the world, Gilo is also dealing with the day-to-day growing pains of expanding cities. "If they're really going to build 4,000 apartments, our fear is that we won't even be able to leave the neighborhood because it will be totally traffic jammed," says Shitrit. Gilo deals with all the traffic traveling between Gush Etzion and Jerusalem.
The neighborhood is currently working on a master plan with contractors to ensure that necessary traffic pattern changes are undertaken before the population explodes. No new buildings will begin construction until the master plan is completed in about six months. Shitrit says that to reduce congestion, they must have at least three main highways that exit the neighborhood.
Gilo's new construction will be high rises, with plans for eight-story buildings and a possible 30-story apartment complex. The new units will include some affordable housing, but a good portion will be quite expensive, as the solidly middle-class neighborhood wants to attract more affluent residents.
It's clear that a succession of high rises will change the face of the neighborhood. Buildings constructed immediately after the Six Day War, like the old absorption center, were built with fortress-like exteriors, reflecting the uncertainty about the security situation in the area. Later architecture in Gilo consists of four-story buildings with beautiful arched windows, narrow passageways and soaring arches, meant to mirror the architecture in the Old City and provide a cultural link between the center and the neighborhood.
"It's a great place to live," says high school student Liron Haim. "You go down two minutes and you're at the Pat intersection, and then right in the center of Jerusalem."
The building project that provoked international ire last week is the Western Slopes of Gilo, a 900-unit project that was approved by the local committee but still awaits further approval by the city. Other projects, such as 140 units on Rehov Duga, have already passed all bureaucratic hurdles and are currently under construction. So it's strange to residents that President Barack Obama and other world leaders are suddenly making a big deal out of this specific building.
"I think it was a strategy to give [Obama] incorrect information," says Shitrit. "It seems like someone gave them wrong information to kill [the new buildings] and to kill the neighborhood... I don't understand how the issue was raised or why it was raised. I have a feeling that they're missing some important information," he says.
"I pay [taxes] like the whole city does; I don't feel like [I live in] a settlement. The neighborhood doesn't behave like a settlementâ€¦ I especially don't feel like a settler," adds Shitrit. "Anyone who calls us a settlement doesn't know what a settlement is."
But overall, the international attention doesn't bother most residents. "They [international media] can talk all they want," says Mayraz the real-estate agent, who will not be involved in selling the new apartments. "In the meantime, they're continuing to build."
Apartment prices in Gilo range from NIS 800,000 to NIS 1.3 million, with a four-room apartment costing approximately NIS 1m.
Haim Zaken Construction & Investment Ltd. hopes to begin construction on 104 units within six to eight months on Rehov Duga in southwest Gilo.
"It's good land, close to Jerusalem," says Ronit Zaken, the marketing director, noting that they believe it will be easy to sell, especially to families looking for larger apartments. Everyone who is making noise about the new buildings in Gilo is "confused in their heads," she says. "It's private land, and we have a right to build there."
The planned 4,000 units could accommodate around 20,000 people, a huge expansion to the neighborhood. But rather than worrying about destroying the community feel, residents welcome the additional buildings.
"There's nowhere for families to grow. Even people who grew up here can't find a place to live, so they leave," says Arie Levi, an eight-year volunteer for the community council for education issues. "One school closed four years ago and two more may close in the next few years if the number of students continues to go down."
Shitrit is passionate about the need for expansion in Gilo for the residents who want to expand, as well as to attract people from central Jerusalem who are having even more trouble finding housing. "If you publicize an apartment for rent [in Gilo], within five minutes it's rented," she says. "I want there to be a lot of apartments available so that people will stand in line to buy them. I want the neighborhood to be so good that people will run here."