Barkat may relocate Silwan residents

Mayor blasts Palestinian "disinformation" over demolitions; UN criticizes Barkat's initiative.

silwan house demolition 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
silwan house demolition 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat hopes to reach an agreement on the relocation of Arab residents living in illegally constructed homes in east Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood, to make way for a planned archaeological park adjacent to the City of David. "This is one of the most strategic sites in the city, on an international level, which must be an open public area," Barkat said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "It is certainly much more important than Central Park in New York." The 49-year-old self-made hi-tech millionaire-turned-mayor said that he was determined to reach a solution to the problem in the coming months, together with both city residents and the government, after the issue is thoroughly planned by a municipal committee and deliberated in public. "It is inconceivable that we will not follow the rule of law in the city," he said. "The question is, how do you get from the current situation to the desirable one." He said it was fair to assume that deliberations between the two sides would lead to a solution - such as an exchange of land, or monetary compensation for Arabs living illegally at the site - and noted that a senior municipal official had held a recent meeting with local residents to discuss the issue. Richard Miron, spokesman for the UN Special Coordinator's Office in Jerusalem, said that the UN has expressed concern about continuing actions by Israel in East Jerusalem. "We are very concerned about continuing actions by Israel in East Jerusalem, including threats of further evictions and house demolitions in several Palestinian neighborhoods in the city. These actions harm ordinary Palestinians, heighten tensions in the city, undermine efforts to build trust and promote negotiations, and are contrary to international law and Israel's commitments. We urge Israel to heed the calls of the international community to halt these unacceptable actions," Miron said. The head of Silwan's residential committee, Fachri Abu-Diab said this week that city councilor Yakir Segev, who holds the municipality's east Jerusalem portfolio, had offered the residents in question alternative land in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina or another city area. The informal city proposal was tentatively rejected in the meeting, he said. "We are talking about a small group who built homes on a park in an open area, where it is very fair to assume that [in the end] there will not be residential housing," Barkat said. While he praised the dialogue with Silwan residents, the new Jerusalem mayor insisted that the issue of house demolitions in the city was about law and order, and not about politics. "The two issues need to be decoupled," he said. "I would like to see what [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg would say about illegal building in Central Park. Would he give up Central Park because there is illegal building there?" The long-running dispute centers on a small section of Silwan, adjacent to the prominent archaeological park at the City of David known to Israelis as the King's Valley and to Arabs as al-Bustan. A years-old municipal plan to demolish 88 illegal Arab homes in the area was frozen in 2005 as a result of international protests. The issue came to the fore again earlier this month, on the eve of the first visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after a municipal committee rejected a long-running legal petition by local Arab residents in the area to keep their homes. About 1,500 people live in the 88 homes in question, local residents say. Although only a couple of homes in the area currently face imminent demolition, according to official city documentation, fallacious reports came out after the recent municipal committee ruling, claiming that Israel was on the verge of razing dozens of the homes. This set off US criticism and a virtual public relations fiasco for Barkat during the Clinton visit. Clinton called Israel's demolition of the illegally built Palestinian homes unhelpful, and in violation of the US-backed peace plan. Barkat called the top US diplomat misinformed. "The international and Arabic press were not interested in the facts," Barkat said. "The Palestinians successfully spun the story in this round, but the facts are stronger than spin." Palestinians and left-wing Israelis routinely complain it is difficult for Arabs to obtain building permits in Jerusalem, forcing them to build illegally, while the municipality insists it is evenhanded in enforcing building codes in all parts of the city. Barkat acknowledged the need for better city services in east Jerusalem, as well as long-term planning, but said that was no excuse for illegal building. According to city figures, 32 homes have been demolished in Jerusalem since the beginning of the year, including 18 in east Jerusalem. The figures are similar to demolitions over the last five years during the tenure of former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, when between 100-130 illegal homes were razed each year. Earlier this week, Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Pepe Alalo of Meretz, which opposes any Jewish construction in east Jerusalem, conceded during a tour of the site by party officials that there was a tremendous amount of disinformation about the house demolitions in Silwan, and urged local residents to work with the city to reach a solution to the issue. In the interview, Barkat also said he would honor a past city agreement with the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center for the construction of a Museum of Tolerance at a central Jerusalem site that partially covers a Muslim cemetery, even though he would have preferred that it be built at a different location. "This is an issue that is not open to negotiations, since you have a very clear municipal commitment with the Wiesenthal Center over the project, and the High Court has reviewed and rejected objections to the plan," he said. Barkat conceded, however, that he himself would have preferred from the outset that the museum be built at a different site. The site has been used as a parking lot for the last half-century. The mayor also said in the interview that after his first 100 days in office he was seeing "serious progress" in speeding up the city's repeatedly delayed light rail system. Barkat, who has long opposed the project, conceded that all the deadlines put forward to date by the light rail's planners were disconnected from reality. But the mayor insisted that he would hold them accountable for completing the project as quickly as possible, even as he said they may not meet their latest deadline of the end of 2010. In an about-face, the mayor conceded that there was no stopping the project and that he was studying how best to meet the city's transportation needs when the first line is eventually completed. Barkat, who is embarking on his first US trip next week since being elected mayor four months ago, said that American Jews should be partners in developing the city. The nine-day trip, which will be used primarily for fundraising, will take him to six cities - New York, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Petersburg, Florida. "Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish nation, and I see the Diaspora as shareholders of Jerusalem," he concluded.