Har Homa's new battle

With political controversy largely receded, Har Homa grapples with price hikes and infrastructure woes.

har homa 224 88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
har homa 224 88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, known today as Har Homa or Homat Shmuel, was once called Jebl Abu Ganim. In 1940, a group of Jews purchased 130 dunams of land in the area, which it transferred to the Jewish National Fund for forest plantation development. After the Six Day War, the hill was captured from the Jordanians and more of its land was bought from Arab landowners. As early as the Eighties, plans to build housing there existed, but were canceled on grounds of nature conservation. In March 1997, under then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, serious planning for the area began. About 75 percent of the land was expropriated from Jewish owners and the rest from residents of nearby Arab villages, like Beit Sahur. From 1996-1999, MK Meir Porush (UTJ) served as deputy housing minister. Those were the days the ministry, in coordination with the Prime Minister's Office, planned the new neighborhood southeast of Jerusalem. "I was in charge of the plans for Har Homa. There was a lot of opposition to the project from left-wingers [because of its location in east Jerusalem], there were lots of warnings that the Americans would never authorize it, but here we are, and for me, I see it as a big personal privilege given to me by God, to fulfill and be a part of this project," Porush recently declared in an interview with Arutz Sheva. Conceived as a low-cost housing solution, particularly for the secular sector, Har Homa has become a real-estate destination, instead, for the religious community and Anglo-Saxon immigrants, with prices rising in stride. More than 10 years have passed since work began on the neighborhood, but Porush still feels closely involved with Har Homa, and is now running a petition on behalf of its residents against the construction of a new Palestinian neighborhood on the site of the former Shedma IDF base, south of Har Homa, in Area C of the West Bank, over which Israel has full civilian and military control. "This Palestinian neighborhood so close to our windows and our children has a high potential for danger, and the decision of the government to support this plan is totally irresponsible," Porush said in the interview. Still, many Har Homa residents don't feel that the surrounding Palestinian villages pose a threat. "I was one of the first to come to Har Homa," says city councilor Meir Turgeman. "People talk, but I can tell you that we have a very good relationship with our Palestinian neighbors, whether from Sur Bahir or Umm Tuba, and that these kinds of security issues do not worry us, at least no more than in any other location in this city." Back in 2001, when the first buildings were ready for occupation in Har Homa, people who took loans to buy apartments there weren't allowed to move in. An unofficial decision by the office of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon didn't openly forbid it, but did everything possible to delay it. "It was both for political and security reasons," recalls Turgeman. "The location was highly sensitive in terms of the Americans' stance and its position so close to Bethlehem, that nobody was ready to take chances. When it was revealed by the local press that the houses were ready but still empty... the green light was given." Seven years later, Har Homa, which at the beginning was populated almost in secret, has now become a real estate paradise. The young neighborhood is home to approximately 4,000 families (about 18,000 people), many of them national-religious and new immigrants from English-speaking countries and France. According to Turgeman, Har Homa "is the quarter with the largest amount of building in the whole city." Indeed, a quick glance at the figures of the municipal Housing and Planning Committee confirms that apart from a few housing projects in Ramat Shlomo, Romema and the old Foreign Ministry compound in Givat Ram, the largest amount of construction in the capital is taking place in Har Homa, with almost 3,000 new units planned in Stage B, south toward Sur Bahir. A look at the shifting price of real estate in Har Homa also lends insight into the neighborhood's evolving status. "Three years ago, you could buy a four-room apartment for $150,000 and a five-room apartment for $250,000," says Herzl Yehezkel, chairman of the Har Homa Neighborhood Administration. "Now you can hardly get these apartments for less than $280,000 and $380,000. It's crazy!" A survey of prices from advertisements during the neighborhood's first years, during the second intifada, reveals even lower prices: a four-room flat could be purchased for $95,000 and a five-room flat for $160,000. "These days are gone now," adds Yehezkel. "We have new immigrants from English-speaking countries and from France who can usually afford to pay better prices, and here, unlike in other areas of the city, they buy and move in - we do not have empty flats and buildings like in other places." SO IS Har Homa a success story? It depends whom you ask. According to Yehezkel and Turgeman, things are only looking up for the nascent neighborhood. But ask Ricki Mahfud, head of security for Har Homa and a Neighborhood Administration board member, and she'll tell you otherwise. "I was one of the first to come to Armon Hanatziv, some 30 years ago. And since I moved here, some six years ago, I have a feeling of deja vu: the same neglect, the same lack of basic [municipal] services. We don't have even one garden here, not one bench for people to sit on," says Mahfud. "The dirt is unbearable," she continues. "There are days, when there's a strong wind, that papers and dirt and garbage whirl all around us, through the streets, the passages and the stairs behind almost all the buildings here. It's disgusting. I regularly call the municipality and nothing's been done." A one-and-a-half-hour tour by car of Har Homa confirms Mahfud's charges. Dust from construction sites hangs in the air and remnants of previous building projects - stones, opened sacks of cement, paper, plastic bottles and food leftovers - litter the neighborhood and lend it a construction zone feel, even in those areas where buildings have long ago been completed. "There's more," adds Mahfud. "We don't have anything to offer our youth here - no activities, no place to meet, nothing. It's a real disgrace. This place is becoming more and more like a slum: dirty outside, neglected, nothing to do in the evenings. "On top of that," she continues, "we don't even have one commercial center. We're close to 20,000 residents and we have only two or three grocery stores. Last week I came back late from work, I needed bread and milk, and the stores had already closed so I had to leave the area to find a place open. Nobody cares, nobody considers our needs." Commercial centers aside, Har Homa's main problem remains its lack of public facilities, including schools, synagogues and playgrounds. "We don't have a post office, not even one bank branch, we're not even dreaming about a cultural center or anything of the sort - we're still struggling with more basic issues," says Mahfud. "For example, why do we have only one primary school here? There's a secular public school, which turned recently into a TALI [school] and the other one is a haredi school, although they all insist it's a regular religious public school. I'm telling you, it's not, it's a hardal [nationalist haredi] school, and pretty soon it will be completely haredi. And we already have a Chabad center. To me it's clear that very soon haredim will be moving here." Turgeman sees things differently. A former chairman of the Gilo Neighborhood Administration, Turgeman believes that Har Homa will remain secular and national religious. Har Homa is "a neighborhood where no one would dream of closing a street on Shabbat. But yes, the majority are dati leumi [national religious] or traditional, so of course, the lack of synagogues is an important issue." THE ORIGINAL construction plans for Har Homa were based on a 70% secular and 30% religious demographic vision. For various reasons, including the neighborhood's geopolitical location and the timing of its construction (second intifada), the area ultimately attracted mainly people close to the national religious agenda, even when prices were unbelievably low. Perhaps the fact that it was named after late city council member Shmuel Meir (NRP), a close friend and colleague of then-mayor Ehud Olmert, who died in a road accident, added to it. One way or another, although Har Homa is by no means considered a religious neighborhood, a majority of residents are religious. "I was involved right from the beginning in the planning of the neighborhood," says Yehezkel. "We planned large flats because we wanted to avoid the situation we encountered elsewhere of families who come in with one child and leave it when they reach the fifth or sixth child. So the flats are large - four, five and even six rooms - to allow residents to stay here." But once again - the plans and the wishes do not always become facts on the ground. Even after it became clear that Har Homa was gaining popularity with the national-religious community, municipal services to address their particular needs were still absent. "For years we had to pray in parking lots," recalls Turgeman. "One year we managed to obtain a caravan for the High Holy Days so we could also offer a place for women [to pray] and the municipality refused to give us a permit. People offered their own private living rooms for prayers - can you imagine that? "It was as if everything was done to chase us from here. It took years, and although today the situation is much better, there's still a real lack of public facilities, including synagogues." "The problem started with the mistaken expectations of the planning committee in the municipality," explains Yehezkel. "They didn't expect that the situation would be inverted: a religious majority and a secular minority. "Today the situation is clear, as are the needs, and I believe that we are on the right track, perhaps because we fought back. As I told the residents, my credo is not to expect anyone to do the job for you. You have to act for your own needs, otherwise you're just a bunch of parasites. And it worked: We forced the municipality to allow us to open a community center of our own, since we refused to be a branch of the Armon Hanatziv or Gilo Neighborhood Administration. In addition, "We succeeded in obtaining a change in the Land Registry of the neighborhood: Instead of protected housing for the elderly - who needs that in a neighborhood exclusively inhabited by young couples and families? - we obtained more public housing and a large park. That was our condition with the municipality to move on to the third phase of construction and it worked out. We are already beginning this third phase, which will include 2,500 housing units," says Yehezkel. Yehezkel doesn't share Mahfud's concern of an influx of haredim to the neighborhood. "On the contrary," he says. "We already know that most of the newcomers to phase two are secular or traditional." For Mahfud, the recent opening of the Chabad house in the center of Har Homa cannot be seen other than as a sign that more observant people - "hardalim and perhaps later on haredim" - will show interest in this neighborhood. "This is exactly the problem this neighborhood is facing," says Sarah, who lived in a rented apartment in Har Homa for two years. "I am a student. When I came here, it was the most affordable, decent apartment I could find. The public transportation was not very useful, but since I already had a car, I didn't really mind. I knew it was more of a family neighborhood, but it didn't bother me, since I thought that it would be nice, as a single person, to have such neighbors. You know, neighbors where you can always find some bread or milk when the grocery store is already closed. "But then I began to realize that this place had a real problem: It was as if no one really cared to finish things. Like a building under construction - when it's done it's done. The construction company removes its excess materials and then the municipality comes in and lays down sidewalks, perhaps some flowers, a few benches - something to make it look like an inhabited surrounding. But here - nothing. All the buildings around the place I was living were finished long ago, but until the last day I was there, it still looked like a construction zone." Residents can take respite at least in one issue that has been addressed: public transportation. Since the beginning of the year, two bus lines have been added, so that presently operating are No. 74 and No. 5 to the city center and No. 34 to Malha Mall and Ramot. Three new kindergartens have been added, bringing the total to 12, and there are plans for an additional two next year. "The growth rate of the children in this community is unbelievable. We are always lacking kindergarten classes," says Turgeman. Despite the challenges yet ahead, Har Homa may soon reap rewards from an unexpected advantage: at least two of its residents may very well be members of the next city council, possibly placing improvements to the neighborhood's quality of life within reach. Veteran city councilor Meir Turgeman, who has lived in Har Homa since its inception, plans to run at the head of a list exclusively devoted to civil issues. "Education, cleaning of the streets, public gardens, additional community centers and youth centers - anything connected to the daily life of the residents - I will not invest even one minute in political issues," says Turgeman. Joining Turgeman in the running is Har Homa Neighborhood Administration head Herzl Yehezkel, who is also a candidate on the NRP list for the city council. Yehezkel is a close associate of city councilor David Hadari, who is favored as head of the NRP list, whose primaries will be held next Tuesday. Fellow resident Ricki Mahfud, a longtime acquaintance of Turgeman, believes that advocating for Har Homa through political channels is the only way to save the neighborhood from becoming a slum. "The fact is that we all need, everywhere, supporters to represent us where decisions are made," explains Mahfud. "If we can have one or two or even more residents of Har Homa on the city council, I'm sure it will make a difference."