Halted Silwan building to continue

Barkat's development plan expected to win initial city approval.

311_Silwan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
After nearly a year of planning and almost four months of delay, and despite numerous legal and diplomatic concerns, two plans to radically redevelop sections of the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem are expected to gain preliminary approval from the municipality’s Local Planning and Construction Committee on Monday morning, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
A spokesman for Mayor Nir Barkat told the Post on Sunday that the projects were designed to improve the quality of life of Silwan’s Arab residents and that they would not “surprise” the international community.
RELATED:Silwan: 5 border police wounded by rocksNGO petitions High Court over Silwan buildings
Yet the move had already sparked a backlash in Jerusalem on Sunday night, with members of the Meretz faction at City Hall threatening to resign over the matter, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), labeling the move the “forced displacement” of the local residents and calling for  a demonstration to be held outside the committee meeting on Monday morning.
The first plan, which deals with a section of the neighborhood known as El-Bustan or Gan Hamelech (the King’s Garden), includes the demolition of 22 structures that were built without the proper permits in an area beneath the Old City walls currently zoned as “green.” In fact, all 88 structures inside the El-Bustan section of Silwan were built in this green area and, as such, are considered illegal by the city and subject to demolition orders.
Pending Monday’s deliberations, however, the eastern section of the green area – which includes 66 structures – will be completely rezoned as residential, and residents will then have the ability to apply for the retroactive legalization of their homes.
Additionally, the plan stipulates that the 22 families displaced from the western section of El Bustan will be included in the zoning of the eastern side, where new homes will be built to accommodate them.
Details of the plan, which were first disclosed by the Post in February, were formally presented by the mayor at a much anticipated press conference at the beginning of March, just prior to US Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated visit to Israel.
Due to a last-minute request from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu however – and amid heavy pressure from the US for a halt to all construction in east Jerusalem – Barkat instead used the press briefing to elaborate on the plan’s details before announcing that it would be shelved until further negotiations were conducted with the neighborhood’s residents.
The announcement alone drew initial condemnation from the UN and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom decried the move as an impediment to negotiations.  
“There is no way the Palestinians can accept the demolishing of houses in Jerusalem and the continuation of building settlements for the Jewish settlers, while the United States is trying to bring the parties together,” Palestinian Authority cabinet minister Muhammad Ishtayeh had said after Barkat announced the plan in March.
Barkat’s vision for the area has been to turn it into the “Abu Ghosh of east Jerusalem,” with the addition of new shops, restaurants, art galleries and a large community center complete with day care facilities and gyms.
But when the plan was to be launched in March, the prime minister, who was apparently concerned about negative fallout the plan might generate, said that while he had no intention of interfering with municipal affairs, there were many “interested parties” keen on stirring up a dispute and presenting a “distorted” picture of the situation.
On Sunday, however, amid ongoing proximity talks with Palestinian negotiators, an imminent meeting between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, and ongoing disagreements between the government and the US administration regarding building rights in the eastern neighborhoods of the capital, sources inside City Hall said that they were confident the prime minister would not intervene again, and that the plan for Gan Hamelech would be approved.
The Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday night offered no official comment regarding the plan.
Residents of El-Bustan have in the past voiced a steadfast refusal to agree to a single demolition in the neighborhood, and even drafted their own plan for the area after Barkat’s announcement in March.
A number of residents have told the Post over recent months that they are simply not willing to leave their homes, have misgivings about the true intentions of the mayor’s plan, and would continue to protest the move regardless of the shape it takes on.
While residents of El-Bustan have in the past claimed that they refused to agree to a single demolition in the neighborhood, a municipality source involved with the management of the plan told the Post on Sunday that “what the residents say to the press and what they say to us are two different things.”
“There are different interests among different residents,” the source added. “Today, basically everyone understands that some houses will need to be demolished, and not for the goal of demolishing houses but for the goal of redeveloping and improving the standard of living in the neighborhood.”
The source also said that the municipality was continuing negotiations with the residents, but that since the mayor shelved the plan in March, one major, tangible step forward was that city negotiators had reached “specific, individual agreements” with a number of residents. He was unwilling to disclose how many such agreements had been reached.
Monday’s hearing is the first in a series of three phases that make up the local planning committee’s long, often tedious process for granting full approval to such plans.
According to a source from the committee, who spoke to the Post on Sunday, there are a total of 41 items on Monday’s schedule, 18 of which are requests to begin work on projects located in east Jerusalem.
Sixteen of those are smaller projects – submitted by Palestinian residents – in the predominately Arab neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber, Shuafat , Issawiya and others. The other two projects relate to Silwan, the first of which is for Gan Hamelech.
The second item concerning Silwan is a proposed change to the current zoning laws that would allow for the retroactive approval of structures in the “central” section of the neighborhood that have been built up to four stories.
Current zoning in that area of the neighborhood permits structures to be built up to two stories, rendering nearly half of the area’s 657 buildings illegal and vulnerable to demolition orders.
If approved, this new zoning would also give residents of central Silwan who are currently in violation of the height restriction the ability to apply for retroactive legalization of their homes as well.
The central Silwan plan has also been handled by city negotiators, who since March have met with neighborhood residents and a slew of municipal planning personnel to hammer out agreements regarding more than a dozen outstanding issues raised by the residents that officials have said needed to be addressed for the plan to move forward.
Among those issues are repairs to local roads, solutions to parking problems, electrical issues, water distribution, sewage and firefighting services – all of which are either sorely lacking or in disrepair.
“These were the things the residents wanted,” a municipal source familiar with the plan told the Post. “We’ve met with dozens of residents and heard from them what they’re lacking, what their needs were, and we’ve worked with them to draft this plan.”
The source added that all of the issues broached by central Silwan residents had been addressed, and that “the plan as it stands now, ready to be taken up by the local committee, has solutions for all of them.” According to a spokesman for Mayor Barkat, Stephan Miller, “the municipality is stating very clearly through its actions its intention to improve the quality of life and living conditions of the Arab residents of Silwan.”
Miller added that he was confident the plan would not “surprise” members of the international community, and that “as negotiations continue with residents of Gan Hamelech, Monday’s discussion in the local planning committee further proves the mayor’s intention to improve their quality of life and their ability to live in legal homes.”