‘The lives of Jerusalem’s residents come before anything else’

The holy city, always a powder keg, has been heating up even more of late; ‘In Jerusalem’ sits down with Mayor Nir Barkat to discuss what’s brewing in the capital – and what’s next for him.

Nir Barkat
Mayor Nir Barkat has been in the news these past few weeks due to the wave of terror that has hit the city and as a result of some of his rather controversial statements.
Barkat encouraged Jerusalem residents to carry their weapons when outside, gave a personal example by publishing a photo of himself carrying his own gun, and adamantly requested that checkpoints and barricades be installed around the Arab neighborhoods.
Accused of practically cutting the city in two, Barkat insisted that his primary job was to ensure the safety of Jerusalem residents.
But then came stories in the media about his plans to move forward and run for head of the Likud in the next general elections, and he was accused of being a far more sophisticated politician than the image he has been nurturing all these years.
In answer to all these matters and more, Barkat sat down with In Jerusalem on October 29 in his Safra Square office facing the Old City.
How do you feel?
I mean as mayor of Jerusalem, how do you feel these days?
(Deep sigh) Well, you know, it’s a lot of responsibility, but I am sure we are going in the right direction. It’s a complicated situation. All in all, Jerusalem is moving ahead, developing – a lot of good things are happening here in all aspects.
However, this city has undergone a very difficult time recently, with Arab youths who have run wild and are out of control, out of their parents’ control…
How do you explain the current eruption of violence, just when per your policy, more budgets and attention have been invested in improving the conditions of the Arab sector?
There has been a lot of incitement, heavy, vicious incitement… I would say that the State of Israel is not prepared to face the social media in Arabic. We all work here with the classic communication tracks, while the social networks and Arab media are not on the Israeli radar [of Israeli forces and intelligence services].
These sites are full of hatred and lies about the State of Israel; but in the face of all the incitement, which was rampant on these networks, there has been no Israeli response.
We have to reach that goal and get ready to fight back. Here at the municipality, we have been trying to work on it, with my own site in Arabic and things like that – but obviously, it is not enough.
This is a medium in which we have to be more present. We have to reply to the incitement, the lies, the big lies that are being spread there. Israel has to be there and to respond.
What else has been done?
We have done a lot here: the strict security measures, increasing residents’ awareness, the carrying of weapons – all these and more have contributed to the resumption of relative calm in the streets.
After two [major] terror attacks [last month] – in the Old City and on Egged bus 78 – I resolved to respond immediately.
I requested that security forces put up barricades around the Arab neighborhoods in order to check people. Since we did that, there has been a dramatic change in the situation [in the city].
But at the same time, another result were photos of a city besieged at its core, which conveys the opposite message of what you’ve been working so hard to achieve these past few years: that in Jerusalem it was business as usual, one city, etc.… Now that message is gone.
We have all seen those photos, so what? Nothing has changed. I want to make it clear: When there is a direct threat to the residents, we have to set up barricades, period. When the blood of innocent people is spilled here, we put up barricades.
We do anything necessary to provide security for the residents.
I say it clearly: The life of the residents of Jerusalem comes before everything else. The life of the residents of Jerusalem is more important than anything else. I am aware that it puts a burden on the daily life of the Arab residents, but people’s lives are more important than anything else.
So this is your position – terror means automatically installing barriers and checkpoints?
Clearly. In the case of terror, checkpoints and barriers, to check everyone coming out of these neighborhoods – even at the price of compromising the quality of life, to my regret, of the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Just imagine where we would be standing today if we hadn’t done that.
And now what?
Now, after we put all up these barriers and checkpoints, we have seen delegations of representatives of most of these neighborhoods coming to us and asking for some lightening of those measures.
They come to me through the community councils in their neighborhoods.
And what is your answer?
I’m happy to help. I told them that in order to get back to the situation before these eruptions of violence, we ask you [the Arab residents] to restrain your children, to regain control over them, to send them back to school, to instruct them to behave themselves, to prevent them from getting involved in riots and terrorist acts.
We say it loud and clear: If you [the residents of Arab neighborhoods] don’t take back the responsibility on yourselves and your children, we can’t remove the barricades – it’s too dangerous.
And to my great joy, a large part of these neighborhoods’ representatives worked in that direction, took responsibility for the situation and brought back the calm.
Can you name these places?
Sure. Umm Tuba, Umm Lisur, Sur Baher, Wadi Joz, Beit Hanina… Wherever the police and the municipality have found a responsible local leadership, we have eased the sieges. On the other hand, we have places such as Isawiya and Jebl Mukaber where things have not calmed down, and there the police and the security forces are still inside in heavy numbers and do not allow people to leave there to go and attack people in the streets. It’s very individual – according to the situation on the ground.
My message is clear: There is no alternative to a life in common [to the two sides living side by side in the same city], no alternative whatsoever. But at the same time, we will not enable anyone to perpetrate a terror attack.
Do you see the results of this attitude?
Of course. We know that the Arab residents have been hurt by this. They pay a very high price in terms of their economic situation, much more so than in the Jewish sector.
The need to install checkpoints in the Arab neighborhoods raised another issue, echoed recently by the prime minister’s statement that he might decide to withdraw Jerusalem resident status from the Arabs living beyond the security barrier. As mayor, what is your position on this?
It’s a real challenge. The capacity of a municipality to act beyond the fence is very limited. We need a military escort; it’s not an easy task. As a result, we are using outsourcing services, but it is still far from fulfilling the needs.
For the past seven years, I have raised that banner in the government and said that the situation is not improving – it’s even getting worse. The gap between the situation in the Arab neighborhoods inside the fence is very wide. In addition, we cannot even obtain the information we need in order to see the full picture. I am very concerned about that. I bring the issue back to the table [of the government] periodically. We have proposed some practical solutions, but we still haven’t received any response.
In your eyes, are the neighborhoods beyond the security barrier a burden on the city?
I first want to see how I can provide municipal services to these residents. We have proposed a few options, but it’s a tough issue. When you don’t provide municipal services, you in fact abandon the area – and we all know what comes out of such a situation. I raise the issue every year but, unfortunately, I don’t get answers. The police, the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency], the municipality – all the parties involved clearly tell the government that this situation cannot go on, that it is a strategic issue which should be solved by the government.
If it were entirely in your hands, what would you do?
For the moment, I don’t want to discuss the various suggestions and plans I have on the matter. Let’s wait for the government to debate on it and make a decision.
What is your position regarding the request of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount? Considering that this is the major issue behind this wave of terror, did you talk about it with any representatives of this movement? After all, some are members of your coalition.
First, let us remember – the quasi-majority of the citizens of Israel – the status quo. Even if they don’t like the current situation – and many don’t – they all understand the importance of respecting and implementing the status quo. There might be a gap between the desire and the feeling of a majority and the pledge to implement it. I also want to remind everyone that the entire haredi community and most of the religious are against going to the Temple Mount, from a religious theological position. Therefore, we’re talking about a small minority within the religious sector.
A small minority, but very vocal.
Okay. But what the Israeli government – all the governments – tells them is that there is a status quo, and we are bound by that status quo, for the good or the bad. And that goes as well for the Arab residents, who have also tried to change the status quo, with the Murabitun [female Islamist activist groups whose members regularly harass Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount] and lots of declarations… It is not to be permitted, just as we should not permit Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. Both sides have to understand that any attempt to change the status quo is doomed to fail. We have to understand that implementing the status quo – again, whether we like it or not – is an act of sovereignty. Allowing Jews to visit the Temple Mount [but not to pray] is also an act of sovereignty as part of that same status quo.
And now, what’s next? Are you really planning to move on to the next step?
There have been a few words about that recently. I have always said that I would serve between two to three terms at the Jerusalem Municipality. I haven’t decided whether I will aim for a third term or not; I will decide during the next two years. There are only two options – will I continue or not? But I haven’t decided yet.