J'lem mayor seeks deal to avert secular-haredi crisis

Eda Haredit: We'll 'set the country on fire' if Barkat reopens parking lot on Shabbat.

Barkat press conference 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Barkat press conference 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Seeking to defuse an explosive haredi-secular conflict, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced Tuesday that the municipality had asked a court to open a parking lot opposite the Jaffa Gate on Saturdays. But the mayor added that if the Jerusalem District Court did not agree to allow the opening of the Carta parking lot - which is currently in receivership - by this weekend, he would reopen the municipal lot at Safra Square this Shabbat. The Eda Haredit announced that if the municipal lot was opened again on Shabbat, it would "set the whole country, and not just Jerusalem, on fire." "The Jerusalem municipality has declared a holy war against Shabbat," said posters hung up in Mea She'arim. They called for a mass prayer rally on Saturday, and protests at haredi population centers outside Jerusalem. The municipality has turned to the court in an effort to avert a showdown with extremist haredim who have vowed to renew violent protests if the city hall parking lot is reopened on Shabbat. The mayor said he hoped the court would agree to the city's "urgent" request soon, but that he had no way of knowing when the court would rule. Any lot that is opened would be operated by non-Jews, in accordance with Halacha. "We have done everything to ensure that the opening of the parking lot would be done without desecrating the Sabbath, in a manner which takes into account the feelings of the haredi public, and also meets a life-saving need," Barkat said at a city hall press conference. He noted that similar agreements have been worked out elsewhere in the capital in previous years at the urging of the police. "Consideration and negotiation do not come in place of a decision where it is needed," Barkat said. "This is a trying time for those who seek coexistence in the city, for those who believe that in Jerusalem you have to live and let live." The move to open the lot opposite the Old City walls, which can accommodate 800 vehicles and 35 buses, is laced with irony since Barkat's mainstream haredi coalition partners had rejected an earlier municipal proposal supported by police to open that lot, and then agreed to the opening of the municipal lot that spurred the violent protests by the radical anti-Zionist Eda Haredit group. It subsequently emerged that the Eda Haredit vehemently opposed opening the municipal garage on Saturdays, and was less opposed to the opening of a non-city owned property. It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether the group would accept the opening of the alternate site. An additional option to open a privately-owned parking lot under the adjacent Mamilla Mall was nixed after its owner turned down the mayor's request to use it on Saturdays. The decision by businessman Alfred Akirov, who also owns the nearby David Citadel Hotel and the newly opened Mamilla Hotel, was seen as motivated by a desire not to lose his many haredi customers from abroad who patronize the properties. Barkat's move was welcomed by secular city councilors. "We support the mayor's decision, and we will make sure that this move is implemented in practice despite any opposition from extremist haredim," said Meirav Cohen, a spokeswoman of the Wake up Jerusalem-Yerushalmim Party. "This is a debate over the very nature of Jerusalem," she said. The mayor's much-anticipated decision came 10 days after he acceded to a request by Jerusalem police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco to close the municipal parking lot for two Saturdays to allow time for an agreement to be reached that would forestall further violence. The city lot was opened in agreement with Barkat's coalition partners to accommodate visitors to the capital over the weekends who were illegally parking on main thoroughfares near the Old City. About 100 motorists parked their cars in the city lot on the one Saturday it operated. Analysts saw the dispute as an opportunity by the small Eda Haredit group to attack on the secular mayor, a self-made hi-tech millionaire.