Solomon’s solution

A resident of David’s Village has brought to light a host of alleged building violations.

The serene atmosphere of the celebrated David’s Village complex belies the legal turmoil (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The serene atmosphere of the celebrated David’s Village complex belies the legal turmoil
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The solid and serene appearance of the prestigious David’s Village neighborhood, with its beautiful luxury residences overlooking the walls of the Old City and Mount Zion, may be misleading.
The complex, which is one of the city’s large “ghost” neighborhoods – areas where most residents are wealthy foreign owners who live there only a few days per year – harbors dozens of alleged building violations.
The person who discovered this is himself a resident of David’s Village, one of the few who live there all year long.
Solomon Balas, born in Iraq and raised in England, moved to Jerusalem in 2000 and purchased a house in David’s Village, planning to live the peaceful life of a retired rich man. But it wasn’t long before he started to sense that not everything was peaceful in the neighborhood. Using his businessman’s instincts, he soon discovered what he says was significant illegal activity in his neighborhood – which, unlike most other locations, is under the management of a nonprofit association, the KDOA.
Following a chance encounter he had with an officer of the police’s Lahav 433 special investigations unit, his suspicions came to the attention of the Jerusalem District Police. The police decided to hand the matter over to the Justice Ministry’s Registrar of Nonprofits, suggesting that it open a serious investigation into the matter, since most of the suspicions concerned a nonprofit organization.
David’s Village was built by the Africa- Israel development company in the early 1990s in the southern part of the old Mamilla neighborhood. From the get-go, it was intended for wealthy – and mostly foreign – residents. As a closed luxury project, it has 24-hour security guards stationed at the entrances, and cameras monitoring its streets.
Many of the upscale homes in neighborhoods such as Yemin Moshe, Talbiyeh, the German Colony, Katamon and Baka are vacation homes for wealthy Jews who live abroad and visit Israel once or twice a year. But unlike the other wealthy neighborhoods, David’s Village was a “ghost” neighborhood from the beginning, and it drew plenty of criticism even before the implementation of its construction plans during former mayor Ehud Olmert’s 1993-2003 tenure.
Considering that many of the apartments stand empty for most of the year, the KDOA was established to run the place and manage the properties. Some rumors about illegal construction, such as additions to the already large houses in the project, were already leaking out in the first years of its existence, but the municipality never really looked into the matter.
Those were troublesome years for the municipality when it came to construction permits. Its Building Licenses Department faced a major scandal when police confiscated files and computers in the department and arrested several employees, who went on trial for bribery.
For reasons that remain unclear, the suspicions about illegal construction in David’s Village were not investigated then, perhaps because the police’s other findings in the Building Licenses Department investigation already involved huge cases.
Olmert proudly announced afterward that he had “cleaned up” the department, contending that he had called for the police investigation. But the “cleaning” was apparently incomplete: In 2001, the Versailles Banquet Hall crumbled during a wedding, causing the deaths of 23 people and leaving dozens injured as a result of another fraud and bribery affair that had enabled the use of substandard materials in the hall’s construction.
“This department has always been at the center of a lot of fraud and irregularities,” says Avraham (not his real name), a Building Licenses Department employee who was tried as part of the late-1990s investigation and sent to prison for two years. Today, he helps residents who want to acquire building permits – be it for a new structure or an addition to an existing one – navigate the bureaucracy involved. He is greatly needed, since despite attempts to reduce such bureaucracy and prevent corruption among employees, residents still appreciate having “someone who knows how it works from inside,” as Avraham puts it.
Today, there is no longer a trend of political party leaders parachuting their activists into important positions in Safra Square. Candidates for such positions must undergo scrutiny before receiving approval. But the nuisance of bureaucracy is still present – hence the need for facilitators like Avraham, who are also known as “machers.” And it can take the municipality a long time to deal with complaints about illegal construction.
That was the case with the complaint that Balas submitted to the municipality last year, after he found what he says were some irregularities in the management of the David’s Village association and hundreds of square meters of illegal construction in some of the neighborhood’s houses. The inspectors who eventually came this past January did reportedly discover instances of illegal construction. But according to Balas, there was no tangible action on the matter. He decided to take the issue to the police.
He aimed high, and on September 22, he submitted an “urgent complaint” to the Lahav 433 unit, which investigates severe cases of fraud. The complaint was handed over to the Jerusalem Police, and on October 26, Balas’s lawyer, Yael Cinnamon, wrote a letter to find out what had been done so far.
The Jerusalem Police found that this was a matter for the Registrar of Nonprofits and passed it on.
“After having examined the matter addressed to us by the Lahav 433 Unit, we have found this matter is not in the framework of the Jerusalem Police to investigate, but should be [in that of the] Justice Ministry’s Registrar of Nonprofits, to whom we have forwarded the matter,” a Jerusalem Police spokesman told Balas’s lawyer and In Jerusalem.
As such, says Balas, after rejecting his former appeals to investigate the David’s Village association’s affairs, the registrar had to accept it from the police, though according to the Justice Ministry, no major investigation took place and the matter was handed over to the municipality.
“After an initial investigation of the matter, the Registrar of Nonprofits has reached the conclusion that this was not the responsibility of the association that runs David’s Village but a matter for the municipality to decide on,” said a spokesman.
Balas, who has founded his own nonprofit organization to lead his war on corruption, says that when he signed the contract for his home, the board required him to sign another contract that authorized the board to represent him. However, he refused to do so, having already found that “things smelled bad” in the association and the neighborhood, he says.
In retaliation, he claims, the board tried to intimidate him, including threatening to accuse him of trespassing on another’s property when he decided to install an Israeli flag outside his door for Independence Day.
“As a Zionist,” he wrote to Mayor Nir Barkat in 2011, when the whole saga was just beginning, “I do not like rich Jews defrauding the State of Israel, underpaying arnona [municipal property tax] to the Jerusalem Municipality and indirectly paying less [in] services charges [at the expense] of unsuspecting other owners.”
The David’s Village association declined to comment on the matter.
According to the municipality, there were about 30 construction violations found at the complex.
“These are parking spaces that have been closed and changed from their primary use as parking areas, without permits,” a spokesman responded. “After the owners were contacted by the construction permits inspectors, 15 of them were removed, and therefore no fines were imposed. As for the rest of the illegal closing of the parking plots, the matter has been transferred to the municipality’s legal department.”