Rumors of looming evacuations swirling around east Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood will not be realized, after Mayor Nir Barkat and the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization came to an agreement on Sunday evening that will keep the seven Jewish families of Beit Yehonatan and the Old Yemenite Synagogue’s Abu Naeb family in their homes for the time being.
Barkat’s decision to postpone the evacuation of Beit Yehonatan prompted Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to announce that he will hold a special discussion on Beit Yehonatan this week.
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On Saturday night, Barkat sent a strongly worded letter to Ateret Cohanim threatening that he would give the order to evacuate, with the cooperation of the police, “on the same day” that the Yemenite Synagogue is evacuated. After discussions on Sunday, the municipality and Ateret Cohanim came to the agreement that both evacuations would be postponed.
Both the Jewish families in Beit Yehonatan and the Arab families in the old synagogue, located just 100 meters apart, are living with court orders demanding their evacuation.
The Jerusalem District Court found in February 2007 that the Beit Yehonatan building was constructed illegally and therefore should be evacuated and sealed. Continuing appeals to the higher courts were rejected, most recently on Sunday, when the Supreme Court threw out the latest appeal to cancel the evacuation order.
The Old Yemenite Synagogue, a crumbling building located a few houses away, was first inhabited by the Abu Naeb family 72 years ago, and today has five apartments: brothers Ahmad and Nasser Abu Naeb occupy the top two apartments and their mother lives in the bottom floor apartment. The two other apartments are used by other members of their family.
“We didn’t sleep all last night because we were scared,” said Ahmad Abu Naeb, 26. He said that he was staying home from his job as a cook at the Hotel Malachi because he was afraid the police would evict his family while he was out.
“We’re not leaving this house; only our dead bodies will leave,” he said.
Abu Naeb warned that widespread riots would commence if the police or Ateret Cohanim tried to force the family from the house.
“There will be a war here,” he said. “It won’t happen easily.”
Ateret Cohanim and the Hektish, a community council that represents the old Yemenite Jewish community that was evacuated by the British in 1938 due to pogroms, filed a civil suit against the Abu Naeb family, which they won last January. According to the court order, police must evacuate the building no later than January 3, 2011.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the evacuations would take place, but the exact date hadn’t been confirmed. “Things are more or less open to find an agreement, so there won’t be a tense situation,” he said.
“[The Old Yemenite synagogue is] not the same concept as these other illegal buildings,” Ateret Cohanim director Danny Luria said. “[The mayor] just wants to show the public that he’s being fair between Jews and Arabs.”
Ateret Cohanim has generally counted on the mayor as a supporter, as he has refused to implement the evacuation order despite warnings from the attorney-general. Previously, Barkat has testified before Knesset that he cannot evacuate Beit Yehonatan when there are hundreds of buildings in the municipality that have similar demolition orders outstanding against them.
“The linkage [between Beit Yehonaton and the Yemenite Synagogue] is unfair and it’s immoral,” said Luria, who called the letter a “pure threat.”
“The families [of Beit Yehonatan] definitely feel singled out,” he said. “For the last year, he’s been talking about hundreds of Arab buildings and suddenly it comes down to one versus one.”
According to a prominent source in the municipality, the city has identified over 100 structures, including Beit Yehonatan, which have court orders against them. The city came up with a list for the orders to demolish or evacuate the buildings. The municipality has permission for 15 demolitions a year, and Beit Yehonatan does not fall in the top 15, the source said.
“The public doesn’t understand the difference between a civil case and a criminal case; eventually, if you have to move people out of the building, it’s the same results,” said the source. Barkat wants to wait for the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, under the aegis of the Interior Ministry, to approve his far-reaching Gan Hamelech plan, which would retroactively legalize 90 percent of the buildings in Silwan.
“Once you rezone and everyone has to comply to the rezoning, then you can execute [the orders]. We could have acted as ‘rosh katan
’ [deliberately following a narrow interpretation of the rules]. But the result for Jerusalem would have been bad if we didn’t get involved, and that’s our role, to look at the wider picture,” said the source.
The decision angered Jerusalem legal adviser Yossi Havilio, who sent a stinging letter to the municipality protesting the postponement. “The attorneys-general, both present and prior, and the Attorney-General’s Office have stated time and again that the order should be performed immediately,” he wrote.
Havilio, who has strongly supported the evacuation and sealing of Beit Yehonatan over the past few years, will finish his term as the city’s legal adviser in March.