The wrong side of the tracks

Drive into Hashmonaim and you are struck immediately by the beautiful mosaics, manicured lawns and idyllic parks. Keep driving.

Drive into Hashmonaim and you are struckimmediately by the beautiful mosaics, manicured lawns and idyllicparks. Keep driving down the same street and it is like enteringanother country, not the other side of the community - and this othercountry is decidedly third-world. The sidewalks disappear, garbage iseverywhere and the stench from the sewer can be overpowering.

Hashmonaim,which is situated on the road from Modi'in to Kiryat Sefer, appears atfirst to be one community; however, complex political battles have infact left it run by two separate councils. The community is comprisedof two halves - Gannei Modi'im and Ramat Modi'im.

Years ago, both sides were part of the Binyamin RegionalCouncil, but in 1996, at the initiative of former resident and ShasKnesset Member Nissim Dahan, Gannei Modi'im split off from RamatModi'im to become part of Modi'in Illit.

It is hard to separate fact and fiction, as there are manydifferent versions of the events that followed. Long-time Ganneiresidents recall that they woke up one morning and they were part of anew municipality, and Modi'in Illit claims it was forced on them by theKnesset.

Whatever the facts, residents of Gannei are notprovided with the same level of services as those of Ramat. This splitand subsequent events have turned Gannei into a sort of "wrong side ofthe tracks." Ramat and Gannei have significantly different populations,income levels and cultural backgrounds. Ramat is mainly well-educatedand affluent with a very high Anglo population, mostly American, butalso English and South African, while the Gannei population is mostlyof Yemenite origin of a lower socioeconomic standing. The result is asignificant amount of tension between the two sides.

RESIDENTS IN Ramat say that their side of the community was insimilar shape to Gannei just a few years ago. The residents themselvesdecided to initiate projects which they helped pay for, and which theBinyamin Regional Council has supported and shared in the expense.These projects included cobblestone streets, landscaping and mosaics onthe traffic circles. The area is now well maintained, and many servicesare now provided to the residents, such as arts, sports, youthactivities and beautiful parks.

Onthe other hand, despite the fact that Gannei tax money is paid to theModi'in Illit municipality, residents allege the city has mostlyignored the needs of the community. Gannei is now often referred to asthe "unwanted stepchild" of Modi'in Illit's only major city, KiryatSefer. Residents claim that every effort that they have made to improvethe situation has been stymied by the municipality in general, andMayor Yaakov Gutterman in particular.

Residents of Gannei reject claims that thedifferences between the sides of the community are by choice becausethey pay lower taxes or do not want to fund improvements. They feelthat their part of the community is a victim of negligence, racism andcorrupt city planning, and that they are being abused in large part dueto their vulnerable economic status.

Some counter that the real comparison should not be betweenRamat and Gannei, but rather between Kiryat Sefer and Gannei. The twocommunities are part of the same municipality, and they pay the samelevel of taxes, but Kiryat Sefer is clean, organized and has a highlevel of municipal services.

It would seem an obvious solution to simply transfer Ganneiback to Binyamin Regional Council, which is precisely what Modi'inIllit would like to do, but it is not willing to do the repairsrequired to bring the community to a high enough standard. YechielSever, a spokesman for the Modi'in Illit council, put out a statementblaming the Binyamin Regional Council for the poor state ofinfrastructure in Gannei. Sever said that it was "absurd" and an"injustice" that Modi'in Illit should be responsible for the hugeinvestment needed to bring Gannei up to par. However, long-timeresidents argue that what is absurd is that their community was better14 years ago, and it has deteriorated over the years due to neglectfrom Modi'in Illit.

In many places pedestrians are forced to walk in narrow streetslittered with construction debris while cars careen out of control dueto the obstructions. While there is a small selection of parks in thearea, they are few and far between, and could easily be mistaken forgarbage dumps. To make matters worse, there is also a well-knowncriminal element in Gannei. Residents in the community are familiarwith where the heroin dealers live, who is on house arrest and whichareas to avoid.

One local father, Avizohar Riar, expressed his frustration withthe situation when relating the problems his child faces at school.

"Instead of playing in parks, local kids play in the many pilesof construction debris, using rusty metal pipes and broken concrete astoys," he says. "One kindergartner broke her finger at the beginning ofthe school year because there was no playground set up for them - justsand and rocks. They still don't have a playground, and even though thechildren are at school from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., they are not allowed togo outside. There are barely any toys for them, and most of what theydo have was purchased by the parents."

While nobody has ever tested the air quality, an ever-presentstench from the inadequate and often overflowing sewers has raisedconcern.

It is a regular practice in Gannei to use abandoned lots as garbage dumps. When the piles get too high, they are set on fire.

Michelle Aaron, an immigrant from New Jersey, recalls anincident where her husband Michael was fighting a fire in a nearbyempty lot and had to use water from their garden hose while othersthrew dirt on the blaze in order to put it out. Other English speakingneighbors made numerous calls to the Fire Department, who refused tocome and later blamed their absence on the fact that they were notgiven an exact address.

A spokesman for the Fire Department was not able to locate arecord of a call on the date or at the address of the incident inquestion, but denied there was any problem with trash burning inGannei. However he later changed his statement, saying that on the daybefore the incident in question they have a record of coming to Ganneitwice to put out fires which were a result of trash burning.

Batya Sharabi, an Anglo immigrant who moved intoGannei ten years ago, states, "I loved Gannei when I first moved here.It was a sleepy little village that was filled with such warm people."

"SlowlyI saw it disintegrating," she continues. "Now I'm concerned about mychildren every time they step out the door. Once, my son got hit in theforehead by a rock from a construction site and needed [...] immediatemedical attention. Another horrifying incident was when a two-year-oldfell in one of the open construction sites and landed in a deep pit ofwater, her father jumped in and pulled her out. Thankfully she was nothurt."

"It's criminal that these builders didn't put a fence up, which is the law, but nobody enforces it," she adds.

Sharabi also feels strongly about the issue of the sewage."There's a terrible smell nightly, where we just have to keep thewindows closed and suffocate as opposed to breathing in the toxic air,"she says. "There have been times when the sewer overflows in thestreets, and my kids and I make it a game as to who can jump thefurthest and avoid stepping in the 'pee pee' water.

"Why can't we have normal parks, safe streets and air that's free from sewage fumes? We pay arnona (municipal taxes), and yet we don't get basic services," she says.

What further infuriates residents is the lack of progress withregards to infrastructure improvement, despite the municipal taxes paidby the residents, as well as the millions of shekels allocated by theKnesset for just such improvements.

"They are criminals with 'kippot,'" says long-time Gannei resident Haim Hubara. "[The mayor] collects millions of shekels in arnona, and does not use it to maintain the community."

"All we want to get are the services that we deserve ascitizens, which we don't get. We just don't," he says. "How can theykeep raising taxes without giving anything back?"

While Gannei residents have been disenfranchised and have untilnow not been able to overcome the organizational roadblocks, theyrecently formed a non-profit organization which is working to bothraise awareness of the situation and finally put an end to thenegligence. They have posted signs around the neighborhood callingothers to action which say, "Gannei residents will no longer besilenced."