East Jerusalem: Political construction?

As building in Har Homa comes under int'l microscope, other plans for new projects in east J'lem are proceeding quietly.

isawiya 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerzolimski)
isawiya 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerzolimski)
Not long after the No. 14 bus leaves the tree-lined Rehov Emek Refaim, it begins to climb the hill paving the way to Har Homa, the controversial neighborhood south of Jerusalem. As the bus weaves its way around the concentric rings that encircle the community, one's eyes become fixed on the hundreds of shiny apartments cut from Jerusalem stone towering into the sky, and it becomes clear that this place, one kilometer over the Green Line on the southernmost tip of municipal Jerusalem, is here to stay. The mid-afternoon quiet enveloping the streets gives the illusion that the town is deserted, but the silence is soon shattered by the echoes of construction work on new south-facing apartments overlooking the Palestinian towns of Beit Sahur, Umm Tuba and Bethlehem, not to mention the commotion outside the school gates as excited children race to meet their parents. But despite the suburban mediocrity of daily life here, Har Homa, also known as Homat Shmuel, has found itself in the eye of a political storm over the past month when contracts to build an additional 307 new homes were announced the same week that Israeli and Palestinian politicians met to begin final-status talks following November's Annapolis peace summit. The tenders drew fire from the international community as well as the Palestinian Authority, which called on the United States to lean on Israel to halt the construction. Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Eitan responded by saying, "Har Homa is an integral, organic part of Jerusalem. No promise was ever given to anyone that we wouldn't continue to build in Har Homa because it's within the municipal borders of Jerusalem." At bilateral final-status negotiation meetings since the summit, Palestinian officials have insisted on Israel's obligation under the road map to stop settlement activity, while Israeli officials have pointed to the Palestinian obligation to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Following a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem at the end of December, a senior Israeli official said that building in Ma'aleh Adumim and Har Homa does not prejudice a final-status agreement because as they are both existing communities, adding to them does not create new facts on the ground. A few days later, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Olmert expressed empathy for the Palestinian concerns over settlement growth. If construction work undertaken since the road map was accepted had been limited to Ma'aleh Adumim and Har Homa, he said, "then I imagine the Palestinians, though they might not have been happy about it, would not have responded in the way that they respond when every year, all the settlements - in all the territories - continue to grow." But the few residents walking the streets or working in the afternoon seem blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned about, the controversy. "It's not a settlement, it's just another suburb of Jerusalem. People here don't feel like they are settlers," says Avi Bardugo, who makes pizza in one of the neighborhood's few eateries. Contentious even before the first brick was laid, Har Homa's virtual enclosure by Palestinian towns, makes it difficult to shrug off the "settlement" label. According to a report published by NGO Ir Amim, "The term 'settlements' is problematic in the context of the Jewish/Israeli construction in east Jerusalem after 1967. Most of the Israeli public does not see the 'new' neighborhoods of Jerusalem, such as Gilo, French Hill and Pisgat Ze'ev, as settlements, although this is their formal status according to international law." Jerusalem city councilor Pepe Alalu (Meretz) is opposed to the plans: "I think it's a problem because if we said to the Palestinians we need to stop building settlements, then we need to stop building in Har Homa too," he says. "It's possible that Har Homa can be part of Israel [in a final-status agreement], but not unilaterally." But right-wing groups are backing the expansion of Har Homa, known to Palestinians as Jebl Abu Ghunaim. "Har Homa should not be an issue - building anywhere in Jerusalem should not be an issue," says Yechiel Leiter, director of the One Jerusalem campaign. "If you go on the assumption that Jerusalem is going to be divided, then you will feel queasy about building in Har Homa." While the saga continues to make headlines, the homes that may or may not be built in Har Homa represent a drop in the ocean compared to other initiatives to expand the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. "There is nothing exceptional about the plans to build in Har Homa itself. It is the timing that is exceptional," says Chaim Ehrlich, coordinator of policy and advocacy at Ir Amim. "We are talking about restarting the peace process at the same time as building new Jewish neighborhoods [in east Jerusalem]. Har Homa is already a 'fact,' it has already been built and the [security] wall is there, so the size doesn't matter in my opinion." Much more significant, says Ehrlich, are plans to build two new Jewish neighborhoods in the northern and southern extremities of municipal Jerusalem, at Atarot and Walaja, which border on Ramallah and Bethlehem, respectively. An existing plan to build 10,000 housing units in Atarot, at the northernmost tip of municipal Jerusalem, was given an unexpected new breath of life on December 19 by government officials. But in a sudden about-turn, the plan was put back to sleep the following day by Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim. "The prime minister said that he didn't know anything about it and will not approve the plan. There is a non-formal understanding between Israel and Western governments not to build new Jewish neighborhoods [in east Jerusalem]," says Ehrlich. The site, six kilometers north of the Green Line, encompasses the abandoned Atarot airport and is located close to the security fence and the Kalandiya checkpoint leading to Ramallah. A second plan envisages a new Jewish neighborhood called Givat Yael near Walaja, a Palestinian village five kilometers east of Har Homa. "There have been plans for many years to link Gilo with Malha, which would prevent connection between Walaja and Bethlehem and Beit Jala," says Ehrlich. But Alalu sees the Atarot announcement as a political maneuver with little substance behind it. "I think it's a virtual plan, a provocation. The Givat Yael plan came up more than 10 or 20 years ago, the same as Atarot. There isn't a plan ready to build, just the concept," he says. "It's like E-1, it's impossible to think that we can build in these places and pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians. "I think it's more of a political declaration than a declaration of anything real, but it is still very dangerous," Alalu adds. "If we want to continue to pursue an agreement with the Palestinians then these things don't help." RIGHT-WING activist Aryeh King sees no problem with building in remote sites like Atarot. "It's a good idea to build anywhere in Jerusalem. Atarot is close to Kalandiya just like Gilo is close to Bethlehem and Ramot is close to Beit Iksa," he says. "So many people want to live here, but it's too expensive and people are leaving." But Alalu disagrees that building new Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem will help solve the housing crisis. "We have space for over 60,000 houses [within existing neighborhoods] in Jerusalem. But development has been held up by a combination of bureaucracy, internal problems and insecurity, both financial and in terms of security during the intifada." Alalu also makes light of speculation that the recent discussions about Atarot could be an attempt to resuscitate the failed Safdie Plan, which proposed building 20,000 housing units and industrial zones in the west Jerusalem hills. Open space for the construction of new neighborhoods in Jerusalem is limited to the north and south since the Safdie Plan was nixed in February 2007. Plans to build east on the controversial E-1 zone between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim have been frozen by opposition from the US and the international community. "I don't think that we just need to construct houses in Jerusalem," says Alalu. "Other problems include schools, jobs and infrastructure, and not just building houses for rich people from abroad who stay for Succot and Pessah and remain empty for the rest of the year, like David's Village." But the latest furor is not deterring Israelis from seeking to move to east Jerusalem. Yaniv Malka says financial motives were behind his decision to buy land in Har Homa, where real estate prices are lower than elsewhere in Jerusalem - for example, his current home in Gilo, or in Emek Refaim, where he runs a hair salon. "The distance doesn't bother me, I can get everything I need from Malha or Gilo," he says. Living over the Green Line isn't a problem for him either. "I don't care about living there, it's just like being in Pisgat Ze'ev. I'm a Zionist, I love the State of Israel and I'll live anywhere as long as it's legal." Malka is cynical about the political repercussions of building new Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. "The Arabs can't be partners for peace. They are taught that all Israelis are hara [shit] from a young age," he says. "There were terrorist attacks before Har Homa was built so there's no connection between building settlements and terrorism." Bardugo, who has lived in Har Homa for two-and-a-half years, has a similar view. "I'm a believer," he says, pointing to his kippa. "God gave us this land and we can't give it away. Just look at what happened in Gaza." However, Bardugo argues that the price of real estate in Har Homa, which boasts clean streets and views of Herodion and the Judean Desert, is anything but bargain basement. "It's not cheap to live here. This is a neighborhood of Jerusalem and the prices reflect that." Bardugo is optimistic that the new apartments will see the light of day. "We are just waiting for [US President George W.] Bush's visit and once he's gone, the construction will continue." Officially, however, the fate of the new homes is less than certain and they remained on the top of the agenda at last week's meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas where Olmert called for changes to the procedure for awarding building permits in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. ONE EAST Jerusalem housing project that has had a smoother ride than Har Homa or Atarot is Nof Zion, a "private luxurious gated neighborhood" where residents are due to move into 100 new apartments next month. Jewish buyers, mainly from the US, who have paid upward of $550,000 for apartments, can sleep safe in the knowledge that their new property, located in Jebl Mukaber near the Haas Promenade, will be waiting for them. The view is priceless, taking in the Old City walls and the Mount of Olives, before plunging into the Kidron Valley. Nof Zion, which will eventually accommodate 500 apartments and a hotel, was conceived by a private developer, who cites financial motives behind the project. "It's owned by an Israeli and built on private property bought by the family of the owner," says Nof Zion sales manager Emmanuel Lasry. In contrast with Nof Zion, other private organizations like the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund, the Ir David (El-Ad) Foundation and Ateret Cohanim, which are actively establishing Jewish neighborhoods in Palestinian areas including Silwan, the Mount of Olives and the Old City's Muslim Quarter, are motivated by ideological rather than economic reasons. Elsewhere in east Jerusalem, a unique urban plan envisions around 2,000 new homes east of French Hill and the Hebrew University. What makes this scheme, currently under discussion by the Local Planning Committee, out of the ordinary is that it focuses on an Arab village. The plan for Isawiya aims to alleviate overcrowding and curb high levels of illegal construction. "For 40 years already, no new Palestinian neighborhoods have been built by the Israeli government in east Jerusalem," says Ehrlich. An initial plan drawn up in 1991 was approved by the municipality but the scale of the plan was too small to address the housing needs, say residents of the 12,000-strong village, whose population is predicted to rise to over 20,000 by 2020. "We contacted the municipality to try to increase the size of the plan, but they always said that there was no budget," says Hani Isawi of Isawiya's Residential Planning Committee. "Three years ago we found donors and we contacted [human rights NGO] Bimkom and worked on a new plan to solve our problems." Residents aim to expand the built-up area of the village and construct new homes there, including 450 in the existing built-up areas, as well as legalizing existing homes lacking permits. In recent weeks, the Local Planning Committee proposed changes that would limit the expansion of the village. "At the beginning, the municipality was supporting us but because of pressure from right-wing activists and some people in the council, they began to place new conditions on the plan," which Isawi says include a 100-meter buffer zone between the Hebrew University and a nearby army base. Isawi also showed In Jerusalem a letter from several French Hill residents stating their support for the Isawiya expansion plan. "They want to cut a large area from the plan, which will not help the housing problem or solve illegal building here. The Nature and Parks Authority also wants to build a national park north of the Mount Scopus tunnel to prevent us building there." King is one of the key opponents to the plan and represents a number of Jews and Arabs whom he says own some of the land intended for development. "If somebody wants to help the Arabs, they can legalize the [unauthorized] buildings. Why do we need to approve a plan that will build another 4,000 or 5,000 units?" he says. "They are not asking to build upwards. They are strategically spreading the village north to Shuafat and south to A-Tur to connect one big urban area. It's the beginning of the end of the French Hill neighborhood. There are lots of Arabs buying housing there [in French Hill] and eventually the Jews will run away. This is the real plan: It's political, not because there is not enough space." Despite mounting opposition, local residents are determined to press forward with the plan. "We are surrounded on all sides," says Isawi, pointing at French Hill to the north, the Hebrew University and Mount Scopus to the west and south as well as the Ma'aleh Adumim Road to the east, which limit the village's growth. "Residents of French Hill started a campaign because they claim that the plan is too close to their houses and they want us to keep our distance from them. Despite this, they are always talking about peace, coexistence and the unity of Jerusalem. But we will not give up, we will continue our struggle." No east Jerusalem neighborhood, whether small or large, Jewish or Arab, exists in a vacuum; all are pixels in the bigger picture of the political struggle over the city. "The first problem is the issue of an agreement. Without an agreement with the Palestinians we will keep seeing these problems with Atarot and other places," says Alalu. Others balk at the prospect of relinquishing one inch of east Jerusalem from Israeli sovereignty. "The controversy that exists about Har Homa has been created by the government. They are speaking in such a weak manner and put Jerusalem on the table," argues Leiter. But it is not just Jews who feel insecure over the city's fate. "All the land confiscated in east Jerusalem after 1967 was reserved for Jewish building," says Isawi. "My house was built in the 1920s by my grandfather, but in 1968 our buildings were declared 'state lands' and we can't build here. This is the situation: You don't know if your house belongs to you, if you can stay, or if they will come and make you leave."