Empty promises

The Beit Yehonatan saga has already cost legal adviser Yossi Havilio his position and may yet take a heavy toll on Mayor Nir Barkat.

Beit Yehonatan 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Yehonatan 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Is Mayor Nir Barkat going to pay the price of his unbending position on the issue of the Jewish residents’ illegal housing in Silwan?
Sources at Kikar Safra point out that Barkat is adamant that he will continue to find ways to save Beit Yehonatan from being sealed and the residents from being evicted, despite serious warnings from the court and more recently, from Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein. Weinstein has clarified that in this issue, Barkat has no discretion whatsoever, and that he has to implement without any further delay a court ruling to seal the house, without linking that order to demolition orders for illegal Arab housing in the area.
Clearly, the mayor has empathy for the eight Jewish families established since 2003 in the seven-story, illegally constructed building, which was named after the Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard. So far, Beit Yehonatan’s controversial presence has already cost the city’s legal adviser, Yossi Havilio, his position.
Havilio requested time and again that the order be implemented, and warned the mayor that his efforts to delay or even cancel the ruling were a breach of the law. The issue eventually created serious tension between the two, which led to open conflict. Havilio finally decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t continue to work in such an unfriendly environment, and announced his resignation last October.
Now it seems that even the mayor might have to face a difficult situation, following the attorney-general’s warning that continuing to avoid closing Beit Yehonatan would place the mayor in contempt of court.
Yet Barkat’s sympathy for the Jewish residents in Silwan is only one aspect of the matter, according to sources close to him. “Barkat has a sense of mission – to be the first mayor to put an end to the anarchy in illegal construction in east Jerusalem,” explains one source. “Since he realized that demolishing all the thousands of illegal constructions would not be realistic, he proposed his plan of development in Silwan, and expects all the parties involved to support it. The fact that this plan also includes recognition of Beit Yehonatan is only one aspect of his plan.”
There is no question that Beit Yehonatan has become an emblematic building, which holds almost all the ingredients of the explosive nature of Jerusalem’s seam line: a predominantly Arab neighborhood, neglect, poverty, overcrowding, no master plan, no construction permits and investments by Jewish right-wing associations to house Jewish residents. Likewise, there is no dispute that most of the houses built in Silwan since the early 1980s are totally illegal: They lack permits, registrations and all too often, engineering supervision. Hamas, other Islamist fundamentalist groups and Palestinian Authority representatives are all active in the area, and residents face dangerous criminal activity, particularly related to drugs.
The fact that this neighborhood is located less than five minutes’ walk from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount adds more tension to the already contentious area.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood plays host to two right-wing Jewish organizations: the Ir David Foundation and Ateret Cohanim, the owners of Beit Yehonatan and Beit Hadvash (the House of Honey), located in the midst of lower Silwan. The Ir David Foundation is careful to act strictly according to government rules – buying, sometimes at very high prices, properties from Arab residents who leave the country, and in general, working closely with the “establishment.” Ateret Cohanim, on the other hand, operates more discreetly, obtaining judicial rights to retrieve real estate that belonged to Jews prior to 1948, mostly by evacuating Arab families established there since, as has happened in Sheikh Jarrah.
In the case of Beit Yehonatan, Ateret Cohanim purchased the building from an Arab contractor, built illegally and installed seven young families in its walls. Beit Hadvash is located right across the same street, with one Jewish family living inside.
Beit Yehonatan was built in late 2002 and completed by early 2003 – these were the harshest years of the intifada, when no municipal inspectors dared to enter Silwan, or any other Arab neighborhood, to check for illegal construction. The first mention of its existence was in late 2003, but this was simply a note in the files of the construction permits department.
It took until mid-2005, when then-city council member Pepe Allalu (Meretz) and Danny Zeidman, then-head of Ir Amim, which pushes for equality in east Jerusalem, asked Havilio why “no action [was] being taken against this illegal construction,” quoted from the letter they wrote to the city’s legal adviser.
Meanwhile, the file with the inspectors’ remarks from 2003 was “lost, or hidden on purpose,” according to a source inside the permits department. “We shall never know the correct version, but it is true that no one saw it for almost three years,” the source says. During the time that this file allegedly disappeared, Ehud Olmert was serving as mayor, followed by his former deputy mayor, Uri Lupolianski, in February 2003.
“As soon as I got this letter from Zeidman and Allalu, I ordered an inquiry and instructed the persons in charge in my office to submit an indictment to [the local affairs court],” recalls Havilio, adding that it soon became clear that, for technical reasons, the building couldn’t be demolished. “It is built on a narrow lot, surrounded by crowded constructions; it is obviously impossible to demolish for security reasons, so we made a decision to seal it and evacuate its tenants. But most importantly, it took us time to reach the real owners – the Ateret Cohanim organization – which was initially very reluctant to reveal themselves, while the families living there presented themselves as simple renters.”
The indictment was presented to the local affairs court, and the tenants’ line of defense, explains Havilio, was to request that the court protect them in light of the hundreds of demolition orders against Arab residents that were never carried out.
“Until then,” stresses Havilio, “there was no political involvement from any side, as long as the judicial procedure was going on.”
THE FIRST verdict was delivered in 2007, ruling to seal and evacuate the house. The tenants petitioned the district court, where Judge Gila Canfei-Steinitz rejected their appeal, and the next step was an appeal to the Supreme Court, which was also rejected, followed immediately by a new appeal to the magistrate’s court and then once again to the district court. In July 2008, Canfei-Steinitz rejected the appeal again and called for an immediate implementation of the evacuation order.
“Once the judicial procedure was over, politics began to interfere,” says Havilio. For the first – but not last – time, there was an attempt to stop the ruling, when Lupolianski, then-deputy mayor and chairman of the planning and construction committee; then-deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack (United Torah Judaism); and then-city council member Yair Gabbai (National Religious Party) proposed establishing a list of criteria and priorities for demolishing and sealing illegal constructions.
“Barkat was then head of the opposition; he inquired into the matter but didn’t interfere at all,” Havilio adds. But the procedure went on, and by October 2008, less than a month before the elections that made Barkat mayor, another ruling to proceed right away with the eviction was issued by the court.
At that point, a dramatic step unfolded. Yair Ma’ayan, former director-general of the municipality, sent a letter to the Jerusalem police chief, Cmdr. Aharon Franco, asking him to delay the eviction until after the municipal elections in 2008. A month later, Barkat became mayor, and a few days later Ma’ayan sent another request to the police chief asking for a delay on behalf of the newly elected mayor. In the meantime, Havilio was doing his utmost to implement the court’s ruling. He and Barkat, who, until then, had teamed up against the former administration, suddenly realized that they were no longer on the same page.
“In fact,” then-city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz) says, “it became clear that Havilio was ready to commit political suicide on this issue, facing the power of the mayor, and ignoring additional aspects of this matter. It’s not that I wanted the Jewish residents of Silwan to stay there, but I thought that the issue of illegal construction in the Arab neighborhoods should be looked at in a broader way, that perhaps we should have checked how serious the mayor’s offer was to retroactively permit illegal buildings in Silwan, and if, as a result, there would be eight Jewish families living in the neighborhood, so be it.”
Margalit was referring to the mayor’s new master plan for Silwan, in which he proposes to permit additional stories (up to four) on existing buildings, retroactive permits for illegal buildings and the famous Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden) project – in which 22 out of 88 illegal constructions located on an archeological site would be demolished and reconstructed on the other side of the hill, this time with required permits. This ambitious plan has been – at least temporarily – frozen following heavy pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, but the Silwan master plan is still in progress. Barkat hopes that as soon as it is approved by the district planning committee, it will allow him to save hundreds of illegal Arab buildings – as well as Beit Yehonatan.
But the moment of truth between Havilio and Barkat came a little later: after Ma’ayan’s second letter to the police, Havilio called Barkat and told him that it was simply illegal to interfere. When Ma’ayan sent a third letter in November 2009, once again asking to postpone the sealing, Barkat sent a letter of his own to State Attorney Moshe Lador concerning the issue. In response, Lador and then-attorney-general Menahem Mazuz declared their official support of Havilio against Barkat. The war between the two was by now not only a fact, but also public knowledge.
Mazuz went so far as to call the police, requesting that they ignore the mayor’s request and emphasizing that on this matter no mayor has the right to decide whether to implement a court’s ruling. But Barkat, convinced that his view was broader – focusing not just on a single building, but on the whole situation of illegal construction in the city, particularly in Arab neighborhoods – refused to back down.
BARKAT IS the first mayor to even investigate this contentious issue. All the mayors before him knew that the Arab neighborhoods had become a kind of no-man’s-land in terms of construction and that the law was the least and the last of the residents’ concerns. Yet no one ever dared to grasp the whole issue and find a realistic solution for all of the area’s residents until Barkat personally decided to put an end to the anarchy.
“True, one of the first results of this plan is that it saves Beit Yehonatan from sealing, enabling the eight Jewish families to remain there,” admits a source close to the mayor. “But it also enables the Arab residents to obtain permits, to build up to four stories in existing buildings [compared to the current maximum of two], while the large plan also includes public edifices, open spaces and economic development. Yet for Havilio and the left-wing activists, saving Beit Yehonatan is apparently reason enough to prevent the Arab residents from receiving their first-ever decent proposed plan for their neighborhood. But Barkat is adamant about not caving in.”
Surprisingly enough, the Jewish residents of Beit Yehonatan are not happy about Barkat’s plan. “I don’t understand why the mayor is rewarding lawbreakers for their illegal building – I wouldn’t imagine that a resident of Rehavia would be retroactively given a permit upon discovering that he built an illegal addition to his house. Of course it’s unthinkable – but toward the Arab residents, it is considered by some to be a smart move. I don’t get it,” says Eldad Rabinovitch, a 33-year-old law student, who has been living in Beit Yehonatan with his wife and three children for the past three years.
Asked if he and his neighbors are preparing themselves to depart from the building, Rabinovitch says that the feeling is exactly the opposite. “As far as we understand the situation, this is apparently behind us, thank God. I think everyone understands that this is not realistic and there is no reason the municipality should evacuate us and seal the house, while hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal houses built by the Arabs remain – it is just unfair.”
Meanwhile, things still aren’t quite going in the mayor’s favor. Havilio has indeed lost the battle, and finally decided to resign shortly before the city council was going to approve Barkat’s decision to fire him. But the current attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, seems to stand by his predecessor Mazuz and sent Barkat a harsh letter last week, warning him that he is very close to crossing the line that would make him a lawbreaker.
So far, Barkat hasn’t blinked an eye, and those close to him say that he is has no plans to surrender. He has tried establishing a link between sealing Beit Yehonatan and implementing hundreds of demolition orders and decrees of illegal Arab houses – a step that caused some people at the Prime Minister’s Office to shiver. Barkat has also suggested that a court decree to evacuate an Arab family from a nearby house, which was once a synagogue and has recently been recognized by Israeli court as a Jewish property, could be prevented if the sealing of Beit Yehonatan were to receive the same immunity.
Jerusalem’s police seem to be facing the controversy with stoicism – officially, they are not part of the issue, and their role is only to protect the municipality’s employees who will implement the sealing. “We are ready to provide the escort required as soon as the municipality decides it is ready,” says Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby. And a spokesman for the municipality says that the mayor has instructed involved city employees to act according to legal requirements.
But so far, both Beit Yehonatan, and the hundreds – if not thousands – of illegal constructions, together with the unbearable conditions in these contentious neighborhoods, still remain.