Whatever the political wisdom of the government's decision to deepen the Jewish presence in Jerusalem's Holy Basin surrounding the Old City, including Arab neighborhoods such as Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and Jabal Mukabar, from time to time the policy violates the rule of law.
One instance concerns Beit Yehonatan, a seven-story building constructed by the Ateret Cohanim organization in a densely populated area of Silwan, located below the Old City's southern wall.
Ateret Cohanim, which for many years focused on Jewish settlement in the Muslem quarter of the Old City, has in recent years become one of two religious nationalist organizations, along with Elad, which has been trying to increase the Jewish presence in Silwan.
While Elad has concentrated Jewish settlement in the historic City of David, which includes about 5.5 percent of Silwan's land area and 8.3 percent of its population, Ateret Cohanim has tried to build or purchase homes wherever possible. Thus, Beit Yehonatan is not located in the City of David.
Ateret Cohanim purchased the land legally. However, it erected the seven-story structure, now occupied by seven Jewish families, without a permit.
There was no way it could obtain a permit for the building it had in mind because, in 1976, a town planning scheme entitled Eastern City Plan 9 (AM/9) was approved, designating the area including Silwan a "special public area" where all residential building was prohibited except with special permission. Even before that, Silwan residents could not build houses of more than two stories.
The municipality issued orders to evacuate the occupants of the building and seal it up. The occupants appealed, and since then, the case has been in every echelon of the judicial system. Every court decision has backed the order to seal the building. The final ruling was handed down in July 2008 and upheld in appeal by Jerusalem District Court.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the court issued an "active order," that is, one calling for immediate implementation, it has not been carried out, even though the Jerusalem Municipality's own legal adviser, Yossi Habilio, has insisted that the city do so without delay.
The impending threat to Beit Yehonatan has galvanized some right-wing MKs into what they believe could be a last ditch effort to stay the order. Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin (Likud) and Uri Ariel (National Union) all filed urgent motions to discuss the matter. The first of two meetings was held in the Knesset Law Committee on December 13. The second will be held on January 4.
The MKs could not justify their insistence that Beit Yehonatan be spared on legal grounds. Instead, they accused Habilio of discriminating against the Jewish violators of the planning law in favor of Arab violators. They pointed out that there are some 300 orders against illegal construction by Arabs in Silwan. They did not point out that the Arabs have been unable to build legally since AM/9 went into effect 33 years ago.
While the other MKs accused Habilio or Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz of discriminating against Ateret Cohanim, Orlev charged that they were distorting the law and using it to achieve political aims. "They are following a political agenda," warned Orlev, adding ominously. "We will make order and put the law authorities in their place."
JERUSALEM MAYOR Nir Barkat is pushing for a plan that would enable everyone in a designated area of Silwan, including the City of David and Beit Yehonatan, to build up to four stories. That would retroactively legalize much of the illegal Arab construction in the village as well as at least four of Beit Yehonatan's seven stories.
However, no one can say when the plan will be given final approval. In the meantime, the city has ignored an urgent court order for 17 months.
Israel extended sovereignty throughout an expanded municipal Jerusalem after the Six Day War, and there is wide support in Israel for maintaining Israeli sovereignty over the Holy Basin. That interest can only be advanced by upholding the rule of law, and only undermined by trampling all over it. Beit Yehonatan is a glaring case in point.