City Front: No-go zone

Barkat’s announcement that he was willing to give up Israeli sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem has raised fierce opposition.

Abu Dis, Jerusalem, security barrier_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Abu Dis, Jerusalem, security barrier_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On December 14, Barkat, addressing an alumni gathering at the Israeli College for Security and Investigation in the city, declared that the security barrier should become a border. He added that Israel should relinquish neighborhoods outside the barrier and, at the same time, annex the areas on the Israeli side of the fence not currently part of the city.
He went on to say that the municipality should be responsible only for residents on the Israeli side of the barrier. Barkat added that this had been his position for quite a while but this was the first time he had expressed it publicly.
The barrier surrounding Jerusalem includes areas that are not legally Israeli territory on the Israeli side, whereas it leaves other parts that do belong to Israel outside. A cumbersome and not very effective apparatus was set up to serve the neighborhoods left outside, such as a shuttle service for children to and from schools and special opening hours from one side of the fence to the other for workers and farmers.
All these measures were administered via a community center established for this purpose, which has suffered for years from a chronic lack of funds, despite the municipality’s support.
One problematic result of this situation is that in the neighborhoods belonging to the municipality but located beyond the fence, life has become a sort of Wild West. According to sources on the municipality’s planning and construction committee, there is a tremendous amount of illegal construction there, not to mention a high level of criminal activity and a distressing lack of sanitation services – cleaning crews and garbage trucks cannot enter most of these neighborhoods – lack of infrastructure and, above all, lack of municipal inspectors, who don’t dare enter for their own safety.
In addition, for the past several months the municipality and Hamas have been waging a fierce though a relatively quiet battle for control of these neighborhoods – and even in some cases, in neighborhoods within the fence. For example, recently in Beit Hanina the elections for the neighborhood council had to be canceled after it was discovered that all the candidates were openly identified with Hamas.
Faced with this situation – which council members are well aware of – Barkat reached the conclusion some time ago that the easiest, most logical solution would be to abandon the neighborhoods.
That way, say sources close to the mayor, the municipality would be able to focus more on the needs of the residents of the neighborhoods on the Israeli side and give them better municipal services.
It is important to note that the areas included on the Israeli side but not legally part of the city are much larger than the areas belonging to Israel on the other side of the fence.
DESPITE ALL these considerations, Barkat’s declaration was not well received.
Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) called it “unnecessary, hurtful and damaging, endangering our sovereignty over the city – in other words, the last thing this city needs right now.” He added that nobody on the city council or even in the Knesset could figure out what Barkat hoped to accomplish.
“It’s not a matter for a mayor” to decide, said Pindrus. “It’s not his responsibility. And in any case, since when does a mayor decide on such matters? Don’t we have a Knesset, a government, and if really necessary, even a UN Security Council for these things? I really don’t think we should be discussing these matters at all.”
Pindrus didn’t explicitly state that his party would openly oppose any step Barkat might want to take on this issue but emphasized that his party, including its highest spiritual leaders, were strongly opposed to renouncing Israeli claims to any part of the city. “We need to consolidate our sovereignty over Jerusalem, not to reduce it,” he said.
Pindrus and the haredi representatives found themselves in agreement with the Meretz Party, whose representatives on the city council are also opposed to Barkat’s “initiative,” albeit for different reasons.
Meir Margalit, holder of the Arab residents’ portfolio, said he wasn’t sure what Barkat’s intentions really were, as the mayor had perhaps not intended for his comments to be made public, but added that since he hadn’t retracted them, “We should consider seriously that this is what he is aiming for and we should react to.”
Margalit said that while he realized “these neighborhoods don’t look very glamorous and could even shatter Jerusalem’s image as a paradise for investors and tourism,” declarations such as these should be presented first to the city council and not at some other gathering, and wondered why Barkat hadn’t done so.
“In any case, it is clear that we have some obligations towards the population there; we cannot just abandon them. I want to remind us all that these people pay their taxes to the municipality and thus deserve all the municipality services they are entitled to. Just throwing them away is simply not a solution.”
But the fiercest opposition came from the National Religious Party-Habayit Hayehudi, which also represents the National Union party on the city council.
Deputy Mayor David Hadari said earlier this week that Barkat’s suggestion was “inconceivable and unacceptable.” However, he said he still believed that Barkat’s intentions were good.
“I believe him when he says that this is the way to consolidate our sovereignty in the city, but I am no less sure that this is a very dangerous path, one we have to be very careful not to take.”
Hadari was referring to the fact that going strictly by the numbers, there is no question that the city would gain control of a larger area than it now has legal sovereignty over.
“But,” he added, “that’s about the only benefit, while the damage could be monumental. Once we start down this slippery slope of giving up parts of this city, who knows where it could end?” Hadari indicated that there was no chance that this idea would get any support at the Knesset or from the government. He added that he refused to sign a petition initiated by right-wing representatives on the city council “because that’s something you don’t do when you’re a deputy mayor,” but emphasized that he was ready to oppose and stop the plan “using any means.”
According to a municipal spokesman, Barkat is examining different options for dealing with “the distress that is caused by the incompatibility between the security barrier and Jerusalem’s municipal borders.”
“It is important to note that the challenge does not include changing the borders,” the spokesman said.