Anger entrenches opposing sides amid light rail construction

“Look at Emek Refaim today. It’s declining.”

The Rakevet Ba'emek Association's Yossi Saidov, Idit Rubin and Itamar Shahar on Emek Refaim Street. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rakevet Ba'emek Association's Yossi Saidov, Idit Rubin and Itamar Shahar on Emek Refaim Street.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Despite hours of negotiations and repeated attempts to convince either side, a sad reality hovered over the issue of the Emek Refaim section of the Jerusalem Light Rail Blue Line: Anger, suspicion and resentment have entrenched the opposing sides, and despite repeated declarations by both parties that nothing was personal and their only consideration is what is best for the community, the two groups for and against the light rail segment couldn’t come together to discuss the project.
Their story had to be told and conducted separately, and if there remained any doubt how deep and painful is the animosity between the sides, this is the sign that things are not going to reach a healing point anytime soon. “Perhaps one day, when they will meet on one of the light rail cars, they will see something else,” said one man, a resident of one of the little streets crossing Emek Refaim, who had overheard this reporter on the phone talking about this article.
The city’s gargantuan Blue Line project has become the nightmare of quite a few, whether for entrepreneurs, planners or politicians, and has been stuck for a while – although none of this dispute is actually delaying the project’s completion. According to all professionals involved, not one centimeter of construction on the line is planned to begin before the next four years anyway. But one thing is sure: never in the development and construction history of this city, have 800 meters raised so many emotions.
The most recent development is that the District Planning Committee got back the project from the local planning and constructing committee at city council, with the conclusion that the Emek Refaim segment is – still – the best alternative for the Blue Line’s route. It looked at first that Rakevet Ba’Emek supporters (those in favor of the Emek Refaim Street route) had finally won, but their triumph didn’t last long. Within a few hours, members of the Refaim Association, those supporting any route that doesn’t pass through the street, announced immediately their intention to continue their struggle, using all the tools allowed by the law, and brought the whole issue back to square one.
Emotions are the key to understanding this story. Upon trying to grasp the deep narrative of this local strife, one will find almost all the components that make up other social conflicts in the city and the country. While “official” representatives of both sides are adamant not to fall into these traps, old grudges endure: rich against deprived, seniors facing young families, and the progress of modern development vs the nostalgia of an old and small city with which they’ve grown up and grown old.
However, and this could be the most surprising find, both sides share the same resentment toward the authorities, arguing that at the end of the day, they were – and still are – fooled by the “establishment,” which ran the whole project with zero transparency, a masquerade of public participation and were adamantly stuck to their beliefs the whole way.
“The local council [Ginot Ha’ir] was involved trying to enable a real dialogue, and that’s in fact its role,” says Ariel Hirshfeld, president of the Refaim Association, who lives on Emek Refaim. “At a certain point, we all agreed to get a professional consultation from a committee of experts, and we even announced that we would agree to whatever would be its recommendation, but then a member of the board of the local council, someone we trusted, decided to cancel this consultation and stopped the whole process. It was a terrible blow.”
Hirshfeld was referring to Idit Rubin, previously a member of the Ginot Ha’ir board and later its chairwoman, who, despite being herself a resident on the same street, supported the controversial route right from the beginning. Rubin was reluctant to step into the more personal aspects of the conflict, but emphasized that it was out of her understanding that this would be the best thing for the neighborhood. But she added that she paid a very high price for her opinion on the matter, as she was forced to leave her position as chairwoman of the council, though it didn’t change her mind.
“Look at Emek Refaim today. It’s declining. Shops and restaurants are closing, and not only because of the coronavirus. Everywhere in the world it is well known – a train brings renewal, boosts the commerce, the businesses, brings in new residents, young people – that is the best thing that could happen to us. Of course it will require a period of discomfort, road works, businesses that will close – but once it’s done, that will be the best thing that can happen to this neighborhood.”
There is no question that this project will dismantle the picturesque street and will ravage the life and look of Emek Refaim. But is it only a matter of businesses losing income for three or four years? Dalia Mor-Stav and Ruth Dana, both owners of small businesses on Emek Refaim, say much more than improving public transportation is at stake. “I was born here, my father was born here, he had his shop on this street, I have my own jewels shop here,” says Mor-Stav. “I know that if this project runs here, it will not be the same afterwards. This so-special street and surrounding will disappear forever. The special flavor it has, its typical appeal will be lost. Is that what we want for Jerusalem?”
Dana, a tour guide who specializes in the neighborhood’s history and the owner of a lingerie shop, says we should learn from other countries. “I visit a lot in Paris. They also needed to adapt and renovate their public transportation, but they never dared to destroy these gems – you preserve such places, like this street and neighborhood, you adapt solutions, you use shuttles, vans, any means, but you do not destroy history for the sake of modern transportation.”
But what about the residents of the nearby Gonenim neighborhood, who are so in need of the light rail? “Forget for a moment the discomfort and the problematic procedures. Think about my neighborhood – Gonenim. We have some large-scale development projects already approved, which will multiply by three and four the number of housing units, of families, of residents. Today we are about 30,000 residents, and we already suffer from traffic jams. Can someone imagine what kind of nightmare we are going to live in if this segment is not implemented? Do these people who oppose the path understand what will happen? Young families, which we need so much here, will simply forsake us and go elsewhere, perhaps even out of Jerusalem. Isn’t that a pity?” says one resident.  
And emotions, already running high, continue to flare up. Upon hearing the rumor that Refaim supporters are ready to sacrifice the Train Track Park as an alternative route to Emek Refaim, Mordechai Avraham, who lives in a small street off Emek Refaim and a leading figure on the against side, explodes with anger. “This is a lie, a heinous lie. We have never said that, we are committed to the Train Track Park exactly as they are. They are using this to smear us, to tarnish us in the eyes of public opinion. But it is not true.”
Itamar Shahar, of Rakevet Ba’Emek, says none of the proposals offered by the other side is sustainable. “The idea of a tunnel is not feasible at all, not from the engineering aspect, not to speak about the cost, which will come from our taxes.” Rubin adds that running a train underground will be exactly the opposite of what is expected from the project. “Who wants to use an underground vehicle? The whole idea is to use a transportation route that makes everything easily accessible, and moreover, it will destroy a part of the Train Track Park. Why would we agree to that crazy solution?”
For the Refaim group, it turns out that a large part of its anger and concern is about the way the whole project has been conducted. “We feel that nothing has been done the way it should,” Hirshfeld says bitterly. Avraham says they have asked for an independent and professional adviser, someone who is not part of the Master Plan, the body that plans and runs the whole project of mass transportation in the city, and has become part of the municipality. “We have objected at all the different levels of the committees that all decisions and plans are made by the Master Plan staff. That was the idea behind the former decision of the district committee, which sent back the project to the local committee, to check the eventual alternative through an independent side. They sent their conclusions after less than two days, arguing that they checked, and Emek Refaim is still the best option. This is outrageous.”
Rona Zamir was also born here and has lived here all her life, “but today I am not sure that there is a place for me here. If this street changes its character the way it’s going to happen, as I understand, there is no place for me here anymore. Sad, but true.” Zamir added that while everyone is focused on the procedures and the time it will take, nobody pays attention to what will come afterwards. “‘You will have a wonderful result like Jaffa Road,’ they tell us. Seriously? What do we have on Jaffa Road today? Bazaars? This is what we want to get on Emek Refaim, a train that will run through bazaars?”
“The sad part of this story is that we were all cheated by the authorities,” says Hirshfeld. “They presented the project as one that will be debated openly by the residents, but now we realize that was not the intention.” After a short hesitation, Avraham adds that, “in fact, they came with a fixed idea, all ready, totally, completely fixed.” Mor-Stav, Dana and Avraham agree, and Hirshfeld concludes: “They presented us with an illusion of transparency and public participation. In fact, there hasn’t been any.”