Comptroller to probe illegal Palestinian building in Silwan

The Knesset State Control Committee on Tuesday instructed State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to investigate how Palestinians were able to build 88 illegal houses in the Garden of the King in Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood. The Garden of the King is believed to have been built for King Solomon and remained an open space of trees and gardens until the late 1980s. Today, the area is designated as open public space in the city's outline plan; most of the land is owned by Palestinians, and it is almost completely filled with housing. "It looks like someone has been sleeping on the job," committee chairman Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) said. "There are those who claim the oversight was deliberate, perhaps politically motivated in the sense that the authorities did not want to get into a confrontation with the Palestinians." The meeting was held at the request of B'Tzedek, an organization that monitors government policy on issues of concern to right-wing organizations. The Nature and Parks Authority is responsible for the open spaces in Silwan, including the Garden of the King, and has handed over the administration of these areas to Elad, a religious nationalist that works to settle Jews in Silwan and stresses the Jewish history of the neighborhood, which is inhabited today by 50,000 Palestinians. B'Tzedek lawyer Sharon Avni told the Knesset committee that since he began investigating the illegal Palestinian construction at the beginning of 2007, the Jerusalem Municipality had rejected his efforts to obtain information on the illegal housing, and that he had been forced to petition the Jerusalem District Administrative Court for help. He discovered that the court had issued 25 demolition orders against houses in the Garden of the King but all of the houses were still standing. Jerusalem Municipality lawyer Yossi Chabilio rejected the allegations that the city had done nothing about the illegal construction. Of the 88 buildings in the Garden of the King in 2004, seven had since been demolished, and 40 were in various stages of court proceedings, including the 25 cases in which the court had issued demolition orders. The city had filed suits against 20 other buildings regarding which the statute of limitations had passed, but which could still be demolished for special reasons if the court consented. Another 10 buildings were not residential and the others had already been built in 1967, when Israel annexed east Jerusalem. Chabilio added that since 2004, when the city began to crack down on illegal building in the Garden of the King, not a single structure had been erected. "I see this as an impressive achievement," he said. Jerusalem attorney Daniel Seidemann said politicians wanted to "displace large numbers of Palestinians to turn the area into a theme park run by messianic settlers." He took particular exception to a comment by MK Othniel Schneller (Kadima), who said that the garden belonged to the "Jews of Buenos Aires" and everywhere else in the world. "In fact, most of the land in the Garden of the King belonged to Palestinians, Seidemann said. He also warned that as a result of the committee's decision, "the long arm of the attorney-general (i.e. Chabilio) is now going to be investigated by the State Comptroller because the politicians want the legal adviser to do their bidding and to undermine his professional discretion."