The year that wasn’t

Events that could have – or should have – happened in 2011.

ultra Orthodox woman_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ultra Orthodox woman_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
1) Affordable Housing
In May 2010, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat revealed his plan to enable the city’s young people to acquire affordable housing in the coming budgetary year. Research, mainly done by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, pointed to a lack of affordable housing as a major reason young and productive residents chose to leave the city.
Under the “20-20-20” model that Barkat proposed – and the city council later approved – every construction permit for 20 housing units or more (a total construction area of 2,000 square meters) would require that 20 percent of the total number of houses be a maximum of 100 sq.m., and 20% lower than the average price. Contractors would thus obtain the additional construction space for free, but in exchange, they would have to build non-luxury apartments for the benefit of young families. To be eligible for these apartments, according to the municipality, families had to meet the age criteria (at least one of the couple had to be no older than 41), demonstrate a proven ability to pay back a mortgage, and have no additional properties.
In addition to the criticism the program received – including that it was clearly not a solution for needy families or single mothers – the initiative has been mired in bureaucracy, and its chances of being implemented are slim. According to national law, the decisions of a local planning and construction committee (like the one at the Jerusalem Municipality that proposed the plan) have to be approved by the Interior Ministry’s district construction committee. That committee has not approved this plan, on the grounds that the eligibility criteria are not clearly defined. A national committee that the government set up a few months ago is trying to compose such rules, but so far the whole issue is blocked, because at the Construction and Housing Ministry there are different criteria to determine who is entitled to affordable housing.
2) The Mugrabi Bridge
City engineer Shlomo Eshkol has declared the Mugrabi Bridge – which leads from the women’s prayer section at the Western Wall to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) – dangerous for use. Based on a routine municipal fire department report submitted in May, which found the wooden bridge to be a fire hazard and in danger of collapsing, Eshkol issued an order to close it down, dismantle it and build a new, safe bridge. The current one was built hastily in the wake of a February 2004 earthquake, followed by heavy snow that caused the collapse of the mound leading up to the site.
Sources in the Wakf, the administration for Muslim holy places, admit off the record that the present situation could pose a safety risk, but they refuse to accept the municipality’s taking charge of it. “We do not recognize Israeli sovereignty in this place,” Wakf legal adviser Jamal Abu-Toameh told In Jerusalem.
Judging by the strict tone of Eshkol’s November letter to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, ordering him to close the bridge immediately ahead of its dismantlement, one would have expected to see it indeed shut down. However, that is not the situation on the ground. Following a bold but shortlived attempt to close the bridge to the public (for a mere 36 hours), it is still open, and thousands of tourists – Jews and non-Jews – as well as the security forces in charge of the site, walk on it daily.
Officially the bridge is still dangerous, and the plan to dismantle it and construct a replacement is still ready for implementation. The local construction committee has already approved the new bridge plan, but until the sovereignty and political issues are settled, visitors will continue using the shaky bridge. The only difference at present is that the municipality has stationed a fire truck nearby, in case the predictions of danger come true.
3) The elections that didn't happen
On December 13, a few local community councils held elections. In Gilo, Greater Baka and Katamonim, the election process was successful and has brought an encouraging number of young people and women to these neighborhoods’ boards.
But in two other neighborhoods, the elections were canceled at the last moment, and in a third one, serious incidents at one of the voting stations required a revote.
The elections scheduled for Ramot had to be canceled after what organizers considered a victory turned out to be a serious obstacle. Barkat and the neighborhood’s secular residents wanted two separate elections for two separate councils – one for the haredi population (about 70% of Ramot, according to the municipality) and another for the secular and national-religious residents. But they soon realized that there were no rules set down for such a procedure.
According to Yossi Sharabi, head of the municipality’s society and youth administration, which organized the election process, the vote was “simply postponed.”
The elections for Beit Hanina had to be canceled when Islamist activists – mostly identified with the Hamas movement, which saw an opportunity to gain official standing in the Arab neighborhood – took over the democratic process. Embarrassingly, nothing of this reached Safra Square until the current Beit Hanina council administration decided to alert those responsible.
Sources at Safra Square reported that there had been a high level of confusion at first – “We didn’t want to look like some political censors,” said a high-ranking official. At the same time, nobody wanted to see a democratically elected Hamas administration operating in the heart of the city.
As for the residents, quite a few of them – despite their personal opinions – understood that such an administration might prevent them from getting the support and the funding they wanted from the municipality. The result was cancellation, and Beit Hanina residents may have to wait a long time for an elected council board.
4) Gan Hamelech
Barkat’s pet project – the controversial Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden) plan – took a year off in 2011 after grabbing headlines for much of 2010. The plan calls for creating a green area in what is believed to be the ancient gardens of King Solomon, by demolishing 22 homes in the Silwan neighborhood’s El-Bustan section and retroactively legalizing 66 homes. The Local Building and Planning Committee approved the plan in June 2010, the first step in a long and complicated approval process.
The approval touched off eight days of riots in Silwan.
Since then, the municipality has been waiting for the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Building Committee to consider the plan, which has not yet made it onto the committee’s agenda. The most recent development was in January, when Meretz members unsuccessfully petitioned the Jerusalem Court for Administrative Affairs to cancel the project. The court refused to get involved because there were alternative ways to stop the project during the planning process.
5) Public transport revolution
After three years of delays and false hopes, the Jerusalem Light Rail finally began rolling on August 19. It… was… running… but very, very slowly – more than 80 minutes from end to end, rather than the anticipated 45 minutes. In a race between a runner and the light rail along the entire length of the track, the runner won handily.
Arguments with and within CityPass over reprogramming traffic lights to give the trains priority meant that fewer than 10% of the traffic lights had been updated by the time arbitrators forced the train to start carrying passengers in August. The traffic lights still weren’t finished in December, and an independent safety assessment refused to let the light rail increase to its full capacity of 21 trains.
Problems abounded with the Rav-Kav electronic ticketing system, creating lines of up to six hours at the Central Bus Station during the changeover. Not to mention the strikes – one in the spring, while the light rail was in its trial period, and another during the intermediate days of Succot, one of the city’s busiest tourism weeks.
While the light rail is finally carrying passengers, it still has a long way to go before making a positive impact on the city’s transportation woes.
6) Equality for Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox women
When new Jerusalem Police chief Nisso Shaham took office in May, he vowed that the police would be able to operate normally in the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) Mea She’arim neighborhood. He renewed that vow amid attempted gender segregation during Succot’s Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations, and when returning Egged bus line No. 1 to the neighborhood’s inner streets in early December, for the first time in more than two years. The bus’s return has been met with frequent violence and protests, and the tension surrounding women’s rights in the ultra-Orthodox community has worsened.
In November and December, the situation exploded as soldiers refused to attend army ceremonies where women sang, a woman on a largely haredi bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem refused to move to the back, and haredim spit on a woman during the filming of a Channel 2 segment in Beit Shemesh.
Rather than progress, 2011 seems to be a giant step backward for women’s rights in the haredi sector, both in Jerusalem and other parts of the country.
7) Channel 10
In a much-hyped move, Channel 10 announced in June that it would be moving its news operations from Givatayim to the downtown Jerusalem Capital Studios. The municipality and city activists praised the company for creating jobs for young professionals in the city. However, the move was not unanimously embraced within Channel 10: CEO Yossi Varshavsky said that the company had found a cheaper site in Neveh Ilan, where Channel 2 is located.
American businessman and part-owner Ron Lauder, meanwhile, painted the new location as a Zionistic move. “This is a very strong statement that Jerusalem is a place to do business and a place to live. Many people are only thinking about Tel Aviv for opening businesses,” he said after the press conference in June.
But Channel 10, which has struggled financially since its opening in 2002, faced an even larger hurdle in December over its inability to pay its debts. The channel is now threatened with closure on January 26, and the more expensive Jerusalem relocation has been shelved. On December 21, the High Court of Justice denied a petition by the Jerusalem Municipality to force the channel to move to capital rather than the suburb of Neveh Ilan. If Channel 10 finds a way to continue operating, chances are slim that it will do so from downtown Jerusalem.
8) The closure of Bikur Cholim
For two months at the beginning of the year, Bikur Cholim Hospital gasped for breath as authorities denied the institution a life-saving jolt of funds. After the Treasury refused to pay NIS 30 million to bail it out, closure seemed the most likely next step, but the hospital kept finding ways to limp along.
Nearly a year after the first reports started that Bikur Cholim’s closing was imminent, the hospital is still operating. More than 6,000 babies are born each year at the downtown Jerusalem institution, which largely serves the area’s haredi population.
This year, the hospital opened new delivery rooms, with the National Insurance Institute covering the cost of deliveries.
This has guaranteed the institution a steady income and allowed for some stability.
However, the threats of closure have returned since the new administrative director, Moshe Hevroni, resigned on December 14 over a lack of funding. Former Russian businessman Arkadi Gaydamak purchased the hospital almost four years ago, but it no longer receives financial assistance from him.
9) NIS 250 million for new roads in east Jerusalem
Somewhere between the middle of his first year as mayor and the beginning of his second, what began as an idea became an open policy. Barkat decided that the attitude of the municipality toward east Jerusalem was going to change dramatically. In fact, the city’s budget for 2011 already included considerable sums to improve structures in east Jerusalem. One urgent project was the need to repair and construct new roads to and around Arab neighborhoods. It is important to note that funding for heavy infrastructure – such as roads or public buildings – is not always included in the regular budget, but is instead considered part of the “special budget” allocated from any of several ministries depending on the nature of the project.
Thus NIS 250 million was designated for the construction of new roads to connect Arab neighborhoods but never arrived at its destination, according to city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz), who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio. Margalit says that the importance of part of the municipal budget being carved out for this purpose is that even with Barkat’s decision to change the municipality’s priorities regarding east Jerusalem, the money would definitely be available and would not be dependent on the goodwill of any one minister. The sum is included in the “special budget” for 2012 and Margalit expressed his hope that this time it will be used for the purpose for which it was intended.
10) The evacuation of Beit Yehonatan
Beit Yehontan, the seven-story building inhabited by Jewish residents in the heart of the Silwan neighborhood, has neither been evacuated nor demolished despite a court order to do so four years ago. This issue, the most prominent among the reasons that led to the deterioration of relations between Barkat and the city’s former legal adviser, Yossi Havilio, still has not been resolved. In fact, one might say that the building’s Jewish residents are still living there thanks to Margalit, their fiercest opponent on the city council, who continually avoids bringing the subject back to the fore, as long as this attitude suits his goal of preventing the demolition of illegally constructed buildings in Arab neighborhoods.
For the past year or so, the municipality has demolished almost none of these buildings so as to prevent unwanted tensions, both locally and internationally. But since no one is demolishing illegal buildings in Arab neighborhoods, no one is demolishing illegally built homes lived in by Jews either. And thus the seven Jewish families are still living in Beit Yehonatan, despite the court’s decision and the declaration by Attorney- General Menahem Mazuz in favor of their evacuation some four years ago.