Resourceful Heftsiba 'squatters' hunker down in Modi'in Illit

Almost everyone in Matityahu East is young, many just starting a family; all their stories are similar.

modiin illit (photo credit: Peace Now)
modiin illit
(photo credit: Peace Now)
It doesn't take too long to figure out who the "veterans" are in the Heftsiba housing project in the Matityahu East quarter of Modi'in Illit and which families moved in clandestinely two weeks ago when they heard of the construction company's imminent collapse. The giveaways are the long stretches of electricity wire snaking through the hallways and up the stairs or dangling from the façade of the nearly completed buildings, through balconies and into the apartments of the new residents. So are the baby carriages and children's bicycles parked in the lobbies of the buildings, including those whose outside entrances have still not been paved and whose sandy surfaces are strewn with stones and construction debris. Yet, even though the residents have been in their new homes for less than two weeks, the lobbies of the buildings are already plastered with advertisements for baby crèches, activities and other information. One of the announcements, written by hand, said, "Welcome, dear residents. You can come to us to use our bathroom, charge you cell phones, etc. (and any other urgent need.) The Fuchs family. Happy settling-in." Indeed, it would be almost impossible for the approximately 50 families who have moved into the five nearly completed buildings on Hazon Ish St. in Matityahu East to get by without help from their neighbors and other good souls. For example, there is no permanent electricity so far. A charitable association known as "Vehekhzakta Bo" provided a generator and supply of fuel to the residents, most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s. The apartments have water, but Heftsiba did not provide faucets and many sinks and toilets are still not operable. There is no hot water at all. Electricity is supplied between the hours of 7:20 p.m. and 5:30 a.m and again from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. But the supply is limited and as more people move in, it is being spread more thinly. On Sunday night, the generator broke down. Residents have been asked to use electricity only for light bulbs and fans. Ovens, refrigerators and other essential appliances are not to be used. "Life here is unbearable," 31-one-year-old Eliezer Wasserstein told The Jerusalem Post. "I am almost out of mind. My wife is already out of her mind. Because of the stress, she cannot produce milk to feed our one-week-old baby." Wasserstein bought his apartment four years ago and has paid the entire price of $140,000. He has also spent NIS 20,000 in rent while waiting for the apartment to be finished. "At first, there were delays by the building company," he explained. "One-and-a-half years ago, the High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction preventing us from moving in. That happened just before I was to take possession of the apartment." Wasserstein does not have a bank guarantee to protect him from the Heftsiba bankruptcy. "The company told us we could not get a bank guarantee for an apartment located over the Green Line. They lied to us. We relied on the company, which has been around for 40 years. The same thing applies to most of the purchasers, though we have heard that Heftsiba did give bank guarantees to those who insisted on them." But Wasserstein is more angry with the High Court than with Heftsiba. On January 12, 2006, the court issued an interim injunction prohibiting further construction of the residential housing in Matityahu East and barring new residents from moving into finished apartments because the company had built according to a zoning plan that had not been approved by the planning authorities. Had the injunction not been issued, Wasserstein would have received the deed to the apartment long ago. Wasserstein does not sound the least bit bitter, but he is worried. "The High Court ruling was not aimed at me, it was aimed at Heftsiba. Now Heftsiba is out of the picture. The court can't say it does not have responsibility for what happened. I'm sure they will now rule in our favor." There was even a certain irony to his current situation. "Before moving here, I lived in Haifa," he said. "When the war broke out last year, I sent my family to Modi'in Illit for safety while I volunteered to bring medicines to the elderly and toys for the children in the shelters in Haifa. One year later, I had to leave the children in Haifa [until a few days ago] so they could get away from all the tension here while I stayed in Modi'in Illit to fight my war." The worst thing, he said, was the uncertainty about the future. "It eats me up inside," he said. "None of us have money. We took a lawyer, but that costs money, too. We had to take out loans to pay him. And no one is helping us." Almost everyone in Matityahu East is young, many just beginning their families; all their stories are similar. Alon Mutai, 31, has a wife and one child. He paid the full sum of NIS 428,000 for a three-room apartment in Matityahu East. The apartment was ready when the court's temporary injunction was handed down. During the time he has waited to move in, he has lived in four different rental apartments. When he heard of the imminent collapse of the company, he moved in to the one he had purchased. "I was paying the mortgage plus another NIS 2,000 a month in rent," he said. "I couldn't go on like that." Another man, who declined to give his name, broke into his home through the courtyard together with his wife and child on the Wednesday night news of Heftsiba's troubles first became public. He, like Wasserstein and Mutai, does not have a bank guarantee and has paid the price of the apartment in full. In the past 12 days, he said he has gone back and forth between his rented apartment and his new home, working on the basics to make the new one inhabitable. "I have to be a plumber, an electrician, a burglar and an expert on windows and blinds. And all of this means I am wasting time I should spend studying Torah." He and his family finally moved in for good on Sunday. "It was a hard night," he said. "Being in the dark with no water or electricity, not knowing what will happen to us. I feel stressed and I can't study. That's the hardest thing of all."