J'lem merchants disrupt city council meeting over light rail construction

Mayor Lupolianski forced to exit chambers via a veranda escorted by security guards.

eli levy 224.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
eli levy 224.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A Jerusalem city council meeting erupted in pandemonium Monday evening and was stopped just minutes after it began after dozens of city merchants repeatedly booed and heckled Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski. They claim the light rail infrastructure work on Jaffa Road is destroying their businesses. Calls of "Mr. Mayor, go home," "You are destroying the city and our livelihood" and "Who is paying the taxes?" greeted the mayor, who for several minutes tried in vain to hold a normal meeting, ignoring the irate merchants' presence in the city council chambers. At one point, an agitated protester collapsed to the floor. Eventually the mayor was forced to exit the chambers via a veranda escorted by security guards. The city has said that the long-term benefits the repeatedly-delayed light rail system will afford the public when completed - supposedly in two years - outweigh the short-term inconveniences. The merchants are demanding that the planned 22-month long infrastructure work on Jaffa Road - which began last week - be carried out around the clock to expedite the work, and that the city provide free transportation to residents of the area. "We are asking that the city coordinate the work with us, otherwise not one tractor will move in the area," said a merchants committee leader Malchion Kuermes. He added that if the city fails to work with the merchants, a merchants' strike and violent protests will erupt in the streets. "How can it be that the mayor completely ignores us and laughs in our faces?" asked Esther Reshef, who owns a housewares store on Jaffa Road. "People here are desperate; their businesses are being ruined and they are out of money." "The truth is we have only ourselves to blame since we did not go vote in the last elections, and the same thing will happen this year unless we go and vote," said another Jaffa Road shopkeeper, Boaz Rahiampur. "I have lived in Jerusalem for 60 years and this is the first time I have set foot in the Jerusalem city council chambers," concurred Mahaneh Yehuda vendor Rami Ben-Gur. "Our only weapon is the ballot box." The protest came just after Lupolianski's party, United Torah Judaism, selected MK Meir Porush as their candidate in the November mayoral election. Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat called on the mayor to stop the construction work until he reached an agreement with city merchants. "We must coordinate the work as much as possible with the needs of the public and the merchants," Barkat said in a written statement Monday. The secular opposition leader met with a delegation of city merchants on Monday. Lupolianski's spokesman Gidi Schmerling said that the city merchant leaders had canceled a meeting with the mayor and the city's director-general - a claim vigorously denied by chairman of the Jerusalem Merchants Association Eli Levy. He claimed it was the mayor who canceled the meeting with them, adding that the merchants had refused to meet with the city's director-general instead. "The city regrets that political sources have converted this issue to a political struggle in light of the ongoing mayoral campaign," Schmerling said in a statement. He added that the city had proposed reducing property tax for merchants affected by the work but that the Interior Ministry had rejected the idea until now.