Yes, Nir Barkat’s radical redevelopment plan for a neighborhood immediately below the Old City walls would have benefited everyone – Israel, tourists, the environment and most especially the local Palestinian residents. But did the mayor really think that would be enough to ensure it got the go-ahead?
There’s still plenty of green open space as you head down from the Abu Tor neighborhood toward the jumble of buildings in the Silwan neighborhood below the Old City.
After days of heavy rain, the glorious sound of rushing current just below the surface accompanies you along the descent, with the surplus rainwater forming intermittent pools on the lush grass.
But as you move lower, the parkland – where King Solomon is said to have been moved to write the Song of Songs, with its dynamic allegories of spring – abruptly disappears.
Nestling beneath the Old City, this storied place may have been the ancient site of Solomonic inspiration. Silwan may have been largely unspoiled as recently as a few decades ago. But today, it is a typical, sprawling, overcrowded “Arab east Jerusalem” neighborhood.
Big signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic throughout the area proclaim a major city-planned transportation overhaul. Smaller signs, in Arabic and occasionally English, urge “No to the Judaization of Jerusalem.”
Give or take a handful of Jewish residences, marked by fencing, security and flags, the hundreds of buildings are all home to Palestinians. Most of them illegally built, they vary wildly – from sturdy, lavish Jerusalem stone constructions with entry buzzers and parking bays, to rudimentary, seemingly unfinished dwellings crammed uncomfortably close together.
In a city where inspectors swoop down in some neighborhoods on unauthorized tiny balconies and minor living-room expansions, this part of the capital has expanded left, right and up without such attention. Plainly, it has not benefited from any formal developmental master plan. Plainly, it is in desperate need of such a framework.
And so it was that fresh, enthusiastic, get-the-job-done Mayor Nir Barkat alighted upon Silwan as the locale to first make his mark – the venue for a project intended to bring new regulation to building in east Jerusalem, for the declared benefit of both the city and its residents.
Impressively, and on the face of it improbably, the mayor assembled a diverse support group for his intervention.
He gained backing from some on the political Right because his central idea of legalizing buildings of up to four stories would also enable the ongoing habitation of one of Silwan’s few Jewish residences, the seven-story Beit Yehonatan, which was supposed to have been sealed up by court order well over a year ago.
At the same time, many on the political Left bolstered him for the parallel reason: The four-story rule would constitute retroactive legalization for the vast majority of Silwan’s illegal constructions, obviating the need for what are always contested, tense house demolitions.
The mayor evidently also impressed potential critics with his earnest assertion that this was not some kind of a trick – that he was not seeking to oust long-time (Arab) residents and/or bring in new (Jewish) residents under the cover of redevelopment.
The “package deal” approach – avoid trouble by partially legalizing Beit Yehonatan, and avoid more trouble by legalizing most of the Arab building – was evidently paying dividends.
So everything is moving smoothly forward toward the zoning and regulation of Silwan? Not quite.
IF BARKAT’S four-story idea would have left most of Silwan intact, the same could not be said for the “Gan Hamelech” section of the neighborhood – the “King’s Garden.”
Here, according to City Hall, not a single one of the nearly 100 homes – all of them Palestinian – has any legal standing. Here, no construction whatsoever was ever approved. Here, ironically until Israel captured the area in the 1967 war, the parkland was almost completely unspoiled. And here, the mayor’s plans were radically more interventionist.
City Hall told The Jerusalem Post
three weeks ago about Barkat’s proposals for Gan Hamelech – the starting point and centerpiece of his wider Silwan revamp. The aim was to elevate the King’s Garden into “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” – a flourishing Arab neighborhood playing host to a vibrant flow of Israeli and foreign tourism.
This week, with timing made particularly unfortunate by the protests that erupted in Jerusalem and Hebron recently over the new government list of National Heritage Sites, the mayor formally unveiled the plan, prior to its intended submission later this month to relevant planning authorities. The unveiling, however, did not proceed quite as envisaged.
Word is that Barkat had been working on this “pilot project” for most of the period he’s been in City Hall – bidding, as ever, to win a wide coalition of support. He aimed to knock down every one of Gan Hamelech’s illegal structures and rebuild from scratch – a development of modern buildings, with commercial premises on the ground floor and new homes for the old residents on up to three floors above. He planned to add recreation areas and health clinics for the residents, and hotels for the incoming tourists. And, through more effective planning and zoning, he intended to revive at least some of that lost Solomonic parkland and restore the area’s ancient beauty.
According to City Hall, local residents overwhelmingly supported the idea. Indeed, it was said, some were concerned that typical Israeli bureaucracy might mean that it would not go ahead.
If so, that’s not what many locals had been telling reporters, including our own.
“When they told us they wanted to build a park here, we said fine, we’re not against a park,” Fahkri Abu Diab told the Post
’s Abe Selig last month. “But they should build it around our houses, not on top of them – and the city did not agree to that.”
“I wouldn’t trade my home for the White House,” echoed another resident.
Whether or not the locals were privately more supportive than they dared be publicly, however, official Israel had plainly not been supportive at all.
That municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio – a perennial thorn-in-the-mayoral-side – was opposed to the project, was unsurprising. Havilio insists that Barkat implement the court order to seal Beit Yehonatan before he will so much as consider the legal implications of wider changes in Silwan.
Of slightly more surprise to City Hall was that State Attorney Moshe Lador weighed in on Havilio’s side – a partnership that prompted threats from Barkat to implement not only the Beit Yehonatan order, but numerous other demolition orders in the Silwan area if his plans for redevelopment remained stymied by the legal establishment. Well aware of the possibly violent fallout from such action, Barkat was said to have already told staff to begin coordinating such demolitions with police.
But what might have been most surprising, and should certainly have been most troubling for the mayor, was that the national government – initially, in the form of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman – was not backing his “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” vision either.
When Barkat went to see Neeman to set out the King’s Garden plan months ago, City Hall sources say, the minister pledged his support and referred him to the relevant Justice Ministry departments for the necessary assistance. But after that first meeting, absolutely no such assistance was forthcoming. And Neeman’s office subsequently declined Barkat’s requests for another meeting to discuss the issue further.
THE CONSENSUS-building mayor was doubtless approaching the Gan Hamelech-Silwan building-run-riot conundrum with the very best of intentions. He may truly have believed he had the local Arab residents on his side. He certainly thought his redevelopment design would improve their lives. He insisted he had no secret agenda to bring more Jews into the area. He may have felt that although Israel extended sovereignty to east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, it hadn’t exercised that sovereignty for anyone’s benefit in this particular area, and that if he could concretize sovereign authority and responsibility, while also bringing order and harmony to Silwan, he could do the same everywhere else in the east of the city.
But officials in City Hall also recognized that Gan Hamelech was, as one of them put it, “the second most incendiary place after the Temple Mount.” And so there must have been an acute awareness of the capacity of those for whom consensus is anathema to exploit any hint of imposed change.
The precedents were everywhere. The construction of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, on a site adjacent to a Muslim cemetery in downtown Jerusalem, has been relentlessly, and sometimes hysterically opposed – complete with appeals for United Nations intervention – as an ostensible grave abuse of Islamic sensibilities. This, even though it turns out that the Supreme Muslim Council of British Mandate Palestine made plans to build a commercial center directly atop the site and secured rulings from prominent Muslim clerics approving the construction.
Even more relevantly, first-term prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s approval of an unassuming second exit to the tunnels alongside the Temple Mount in September 1996 prompted Palestinian-Israeli clashes that left 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians dead.
And then there was that cabinet decision last month to extend “heritage” status to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. The decision had no practical consequence whatsoever, yet it was seized upon as a pretext to foster Palestinian violence.
If that was the response to a government declaration with no significance on the ground, it should not have been hard to imagine the potentially catastrophic exploitation of Israel carrying out close to 100 imposed demolitions in a neighborhood above which the silver-gray dome of Al-Aksa rises like a moon.
IN SUCH a context, a mayor brave, or foolhardy, enough to venture into the Silwan battlefield would certainly need to have the prime minister at his side, shoulder-to-shoulder, insisting that the cause was worth the struggle, however bitter. But Barkat didn’t have the prime minister. He didn’t even have the justice minister. Or the state prosecutor. Or his own city legal adviser.
And so, shortly before he held his press conference on Tuesday to unveil the Gan Hamelech project, Barkat’s phone rang, and the prime minister made explicit what ought to have been obvious all along: Forget it, Mr. Mayor. It’s not going to happen.
Publicly, Barkat subsequently acknowledged only that he had been asked to shelve rather than scrap the plan – until the affected local Palestinians give it their formal approval. The mayor would be advised not to hold his breath.
The Palestinian Authority has already been weighing in, complaining that Israel was gearing up to make more Palestinians homeless while expanding construction for settlers. The UN’s Special Coordinator’s Office has been warning that “demolishing Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem demolishes confidence among Palestinians and, frankly, internationally.” Suddenly, those scheduled meetings of the local planning authorities aren’t looking quite so imminent.
Whatever was said out loud by the prime minister to the mayor, the
subtext was clear: We in this government would like nothing more than
to redevelop Silwan in a way that benefits the locals, draws happy
tourists and confirms that Israel runs things in that part of town. But
whatever the local residents are telling you privately, they’ll never
publicly endorse a redevelopment program involving mass demolitions
overseen by Israel. The Palestinian leadership won’t let them.
Barkat is reputed to have told City Hall colleagues early in the Gan
Hamelech planning stages that “my success as mayor will be judged
according to this project.” For his sake, one would hope not.