Jerusalemites protest car park closure

"We won't let haredim turn the city into another Bnei Brak," vows Deputy Mayor Allalu, of Meretz.

parking lot demo 248.88  (photo credit: K. Rose)
parking lot demo 248.88
(photo credit: K. Rose)
Several hundred Jerusalemites gathered in the capital's Kikar Safra on Saturday afternoon to protest what they called Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's "capitulation" to the city's haredi community over the Shabbat operation of a municipal parking lot. Barkat, on Friday, acceded to a request from the city's police chief to close the municipal garage for two successive Saturdays. The plan is to find an alternative site to during that time to accommodate parking for visitors to the nearby Old City. "This is just a warm-up demonstration," Jerusalem's Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalo of Meretz told the crowd, estimated by the organizers at 800, who sang and chatted in the afternoon sunshine. "But if [Barkat] doesn't reopen the garage in two weeks, we'll fill the whole square." Some haredim, said Allalo, "want to turn Jerusalem into another Bnei Brak… We won't let that happen." The demonstrators were in good mood, but carried angry banners demanding "Freedom from religious coercion," proclaiming that "Jerusalem is for everyone" and, in a bitter comparison with the Islamic republic to the east, asserting, "Today they're celebrating in Teheran and Mea She'arim." The demonstration was hurriedly organized - so hurriedly, in fact, that the speakers came with neither a loudspeaker system nor even a megaphone and had to shout to make themselves heard. Saturday's protest took place outside the mayor's office and directly over the underground parking garage at the heart of the dispute. The mayor had opened the garage last weekend, with the approval of his haredi coalition partners. But the move prompted a riot by thousands of haredim, and more rioting had been threatened for Saturday if the lot were opened again. Barkat's spokesman Evyatar Elad said that the parking lot would be reopened in two weeks if no solution to the lack of weekend parking near the Old City could be found by then. Barkat had said earlier in the week that he was determined to keep the lot open since it did not desecrate Shabbat - no fees were being charged and a non-Jew was operating it - and it met an urgent need. The lack of parking was leading weekend visitors to the capital to park illegally on main thoroughfares near the Old City. Allalo on Saturday spoke vaguely about a deal taking shape in which the nearby Mamilla parking lot, which is not run by the municipality, would be opened instead, and said he intended to hold the mayor to that arrangement. But the opening of the Mamilla lot has also been firmly opposed in the past by the haredi community. Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz told the crowd that the dispute over the garage was "part of the wider struggle over the very nature of the State of Israel. "If there is no freedom for secular Jerusalemites, in time there will no freedom for the secular residents of Tel Aviv or anywhere else," he declared. What was critical, he said, was to ensure that the national education system was reformed so that haredi youth studied "citizenship and languages." And rather than channeling their evident "battle spirit" into their well-organized and sometimes violent protests over the parking lot last week, he said, "they should use their battle spirit by serving in the IDF." Following Barkat's reversal Friday, rabbis from the Eda Haredit, the haredi sect that organized last weekend's protests, called off a protestprayer that had been planned for Friday evening. Spokesmen for the Eda Haredit and other haredi activists have vowed that there will be "no surrender" over the issue. Barkat was surprised by last Saturday's violent demonstration, believing that obtaining the okay from the haredi city councilmen assured general haredi consent. Six haredim, including three minors, were arrested on suspicion of violent behavior during last week's protest. Six police officers and a press photographer were lightly hurt in the rioting in which protesters hurled stones, garbage and diapers at police. Etgar Lefkovits contributed to this report.