City Front: Following the paper trail

A police investigation into corruption and fraud has led to a halt on major construction projects in the neighborhood of Ein Kerem

Synagogue prayers (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Synagogue prayers
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
One of the first victims of the alleged corruption affair related to a construction project in Ein Kerem is Tzahi Katz, former head of the Municipal Inspection Department at Safra Square. He resigned two weeks ago from the Jerusalem Municipality, on his way to a prestigious position as city engineer of Modi’in. But now, following the police decision to investigate the department at city hall, Katz’s new position has been put on hold by the mayor of Modi’in until further clarification. Katz himself is not suspected of corruption, says a source at the Jerusalem Municipality, “but rather of not being aware of serious irregularities in his department, enough apparently for his new employers to hold their horses until the situation becomes clearer.”
For the residents of Ein Kerem, the feeling is that finally somebody has heard them. Save Ein Kerem, the organization created by residents to mount concerted opposition to development plans that might, in their eyes, spoil the pastoral quality of their neighborhood, spread the news through their Facebook and social media sites. For the moment, two highly criticized projects are frozen, and it is not certain if or when they will resume. The first one, which led to the police investigation into the Municipal Inspection Department, is what is commonly referred to as “the new Lebanese restaurant.”
On the main street of Ein Kerem, near Mary’s Spring, large works were conducted on the ruins of what was until less than two years ago a Lebanese restaurant. Following an order from the municipal public health department, the restaurant was forced to close due to serious hygiene problems. New entrepreneurs promoted a project of renovating the place and enlarging it. But what seemed at first like a regular development project – suitable for a tourist location such as Ein Kerem – soon began to look like an oversized construction plan that didn’t suit the special character of the neighborhood.
In fact, the width of the new structure blocked a part of the street and infringed on the open space in the wadi, which the city plan stipulated was to remain an open public space. The residents contacted the district planning and construction committee at the Interior Ministry and asked for an investigation or at least an explanation.
A week later (in July), a delegation of the committee went to look into the situation, and the results were rather dramatic. The representative of the Israel Lands Authority said that the signature of their representative on the project permits looked false.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (also represented on the district committee) was no less upset, since it discovered that a preliminary preservation dig, which is required by law any time large works are undertaken, had not been implemented. As a result, it seems that some antiquities had been destroyed.
At the end of the delegation’s visit, a police investigation was requested. The work stopped immediately, and the police entered the picture, while the municipality issued a warrant forbidding any further work in that location.
The residents felt some relief, though this was not their first struggle against what they regard as a serious threat to the charming quality of their neighborhood.
Just a few months before the Lebanese restaurant affair, they organized a protest against two other development projects in the heart of the neighborhood, which eventually led to their cessation for a few months and a revision of their size. The irony is that the projects – an immense warehouse (whose purpose no one could reasonably explain) and a large traffic circle – were both planned and financed by the government through the Government Tourist Board. It turns out that they had been conducted in violation of the government’s own permits.
But there is no doubt that the Lebanese restaurant affair opened a Pandora’s box, and nobody knows where it will lead the parties involved.
Besides the embarrassing Katz situation, there is an ominous feeling at Safra Square regarding the outcome of the investigation into the Municipal Inspection Department. For the moment, dozens (some say even hundreds) of files have been confiscated, the archive’s locks have been changed, and at least five employees have been questioned at police headquarters.
The police have been forbidden to release any information about the investigation. All that is known for the moment is that it is suspected that changes were made to approved construction plans in order to enlarge them, in complete opposition to the decisions approved by the local planning and construction committee. If the suspicion is confirmed, it would mean that projects will be constructed differently from what the municipality approved.
As to how it was possible to pull off such a felony, a source on the local planning and construction committee explained that until now, the system was very simple. “Due to the lack of suspicion of any potential foul play,” he explained, it was very easy to falsify. “The plan of a project is simply attached with a paper clip to the permit (a blue paper), where all the permit signatures appear.
Apparently, what some entrepreneurs allegedly did “was simply attach a different plan, the one they wanted, to the permit – that’s all.”
As a result of the situation, Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, president of the local planning and construction committee, made a ruling that a stamp should appear on both pages – the plan and the permit – in a way that would show that the plan’s page was the approved original. That will perhaps solve the problem for now, but what remains to be checked is how many cases of fraud and altered projects have already been constructed or are under construction.
The result of such malpractice is not only the loss of income for the city but also serious harm to many public open spaces, depriving the residents of their right to access and enjoy them. Not to mention that any plans not checked and approved by professionals on the committee might also be hazardous (such as the case of the Versailles wedding hall, which collapsed killing 23 people and injuring 356 in May 2001).
For the residents of Ein Kerem, this is just a first but small victory. What still concerns them is that their neighborhood is continually under the threat of greedy entrepreneurs, while the municipality is not sufficiently aware of the need to protect it.
In that respect, another project on its way to being implemented, which raises a lot of opposition among Ein Kerem’s residents, is the planned construction of 12 luxury apartment buildings in the valley separating Ein Kerem and Kiryat Hayovel. Though the 12-story towers are planned in a valley so they will not obstruct the view of the landscape for either neighborhood, the residents of Ein Kerem are concerned about additional residents and their needs.
For the moment, no one knows how the municipality is preparing itself for additional kindergartens, schools, roads, infrastructure and all these issues. However, besides the feeling of embarrassment among employees and high-ranking officials in the planning and construction department due to the police investigation, there is the sense that perhaps this will bring some order to the department which, only 10 years ago, following the Versailles disaster, was investigated and corrupt elements were weeded out.