Gan Hamelech residents wary of Barkat’s redevelopment plan

"I wouldn’t trade my home for the White House," says one local; "A park is fine," says another, "but around our houses, not instead of them."

silwan arabs 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
silwan arabs 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Fahkri Abu Diab agrees that his neighborhood needs fixing up, but knocking down 100 homes and building new ones is not what he had in mind.
“How does that make any sense?” the mustached 48-year-old asked on Monday, as he walked through the narrow, brick-lined alleyways of El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech, a section of the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem that is the focal point of a municipality redevelopment plan.
“You can see that there’s work to be done here,” Abu Diab said, gesturing at trash on the ground and electrical wiring sticking out from homes.
“But I don’t understand how demolishing all of these houses is the answer. These are our homes, and we pay taxes. Why won’t the city just help us clean it up?”
Yet “clean it up” is precisely what the city has proposed to do, albeit on its own terms.
As part of a sweeping plan to begin dealing with the hundreds of illegally constructed buildings in Silwan, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has locked horns with his own city attorney, Yossi Havilio, and State Attorney Moshe Lador, in an effort to both retroactively approve the majority of illegal housing in the area and completely redevelop Gan Hamelech, where nearly every home has been built without the proper permits.
Barkat had hoped to turn the area into the “Abu Ghosh of east Jerusalem,” a pilot project for how the capital’s east could be redeveloped, The Jerusalem Post was told last week.
According to the plan, Gan Hamelech would be completely renovated, with a large swath of houses located at the base of the Kidron Valley torn down to make way for a national park. Residents would be relocated during the construction and then moved into new four-story apartment buildings, built along the park’s edges.
However, due to Havilio and Lador’s opposition to the plan, together with their insistence that court orders be carried out – first against the Jewish-owned Beit Yehonatan structure, and then against Arab properties – Barkat has signified his readiness to embark on large-scale demolition.
But even if the legal apparatus were to support the redevelopment plan, the Arab residents’ responses on Monday called into question their willingness to go along with it – a sticking point city hall sources had told the Post was close to being resolved.
“I wouldn’t trade my home for the White House,” an older Gan Hamelech resident said. “I don’t care what they offer me, there’s no way I will agree to their plan.”
“I think most of the people in the neighborhood feel that way,” added Morad Shafa, an activist and Gan Hamelech resident. “We believe that the city wants to come in and demolish these homes, but we’re quite suspicious of what will take place after that.”
Furthermore, Shafa said that residents were not thrilled at the prospect of moving into new apartments.
“People want to stay in the homes they’re living in now,” he said. “They don’t want to move and they don’t want to live on top of one another [in new four-story apartment buildings].”
Abu Diab did say that negotiations with the city had brought up a number of possibilities, but that no agreement had been reached and residents were in no way willing to vacate their homes.
“When they told us they wanted to build a park here, we said fine, we’re not against a park,” he said. “But they should build it around our houses, not on top of them – and the city did not agree to that.”
Abu Diab said residents of Gan Hamelech were “living in fear,” as it appeared demolitions were on their way no matter what was decided at city hall.
“How are we supposed to feel when we pick up the newspaper and see headlines like, ‘Jerusalem mayor to demolish hundreds of Silwan homes?’” he asked. “It’s frightening, and people don’t know what to do.”
“On one hand, here we are, 300 meters from the center of town, and this is like a completely different Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s in total disrepair. But our options seem to be very few – either they demolish our homes as part of the mayor’s plan, or they demolish them anyway. Nobody here is going to agree to that.”