Matters of perspective

20 families from US among those moving in to new luxury complex in Jebl Mukaber, enraging local Arabs.

Nof Zion 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nof Zion 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A new Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem is seen in a very different light by its property owners and developers than by its Arab neighbors and activists. Nof Zion, a luxury apartment complex going up next to the Arab neighborhood Jebl Mukaber, is welcoming its earliest residents. With a legal case and early opposition a thing of the past, developers and residents seem confident that its presence, overlooking some of the city's most historic sites, will not cause a stir. "The relations with the Arab neighbors are quite good there," said Rinat Sylvester of L.R. Developers, the company marketing the community, on Tuesday. However, in an earlier interview with The Jerusalem Post, one of the local Arab residents said Nof Zion was far from welcome. "Even if the new residents behave well, they are not wanted here," says kiosk owner Hassan Zachika. "I don't want them shopping here, even for more money." The company responsible for the project, Digal Investments, says it has made a concerted effort to extend the benefits of Nof Zion to the surrounding Arab neighborhoods. They have improved electrical lines, sewage systems and roads, among other things, says Sylvester. "I don't see us disturbing each other. Quite the opposite," Sylvester says. However, Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, advocacy coordinator for Israeli Coalition against House Demolitions, says that a visit to the area around Nof Zion shows new amenities that stop at the gates of the community and go no further. "How the local community benefits is beyond imagination," she says. "It's true they put in a sewage pipeline, but they're doing it just for that community. It's true they built up roads and pavement and street lighting, but that's for them." When the project was launched several years ago, there were attempts at stopping it, but the attitude is now one of resignation, according to Godfrey-Goldstein. The area's Arab residents felt like they were fighting a losing battle, she says. "It was a campaign that basically failed," says Godfrey-Goldstein, citing demonstrations, joint prayer services and the planting of several hundred olive trees as all ultimately unsuccessful. The tension is virtually nonexistent now, according to Sylvester, who says that she's been walking in and around the area for years without any problems. Most people involved have few qualms or concerns about being located squarely in east Jerusalem, despite early fervent opposition to the development's presence. "Everywhere in Jerusalem, you live with Arabs, whether they're your next-door neighbors or you play with them on the playgrounds. It's part of the [fabric] of Jerusalem," Sylvester says. "If you live in Arnona or you live in Baka and you go out with your kids… they're a part of our life. They're living here too." Sales representatives and the American families moving into the development are confident of Nof Zion's right to be where it is, despite increasing American opposition to Jewish communities in east Jerusalem. Israel extended its law to east Jerusaelm after 1967, and the land was purchased fairly, they say. "Everyone has concerns, but this is privately owned Jewish land. It's our land," says Gita Galbut, the international sales representative for the project, who lives in Miami. The developers have defended the project by continually billing it as a commercial venture, not a politically or ideologically motivated one. They say they are simply looking to make money by providing something that was previously missing in Jerusalem - Western-style luxury living within view of some of the most important holy and historical sites. However Meir Margalit, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council from Meretz, says the distinction is just a matter of semantics. "It doesn't make a difference if the motivation is ideological or it is financial. According to international law, this is a settlement," he says. The impending move-in could be a blessing for efforts to ultimately remove Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem by providing ammunition, he says. "They are doing the Palestinians a great favor because it's a good opportunity for the Palestinians to show the American government what is going on in Jerusalem," says Margalit. "The Jews will change the Palestinian profile of east Jerusalem, and this will be an obstacle for peace in the Middle East. I say thank you to these Jews who are coming now because this is a provocation, and we will take advantage of this provocation." But the motivations of the incoming residents are non-political, according to Galbut. The pull for American Jews, who mostly plan to split their time between the US and Israel, is the material quality of the development. Galbut says she is confident that the desirability of what Nof Zion offers - the breathtaking view, the historical significance of the land, its proximity to the most important sections of the city and the luxurious, well-built apartments - will make it a success despite any doubts about its contested location. "In five years, this will be the neighborhood in Jerusalem," says Galbut. "I'm not going to tell you that it hasn't deterred certain people, but this will be the place to live in Jerusalem, ultimately." There's no getting around the fact that what Nof Zion offers its residents is impressive, she says. "The views are breathtaking. The apartments are beautiful. If you stand on any balcony, it's probably the most tranquil setting you can imagine," she elaborates, adding that in less than 10 minutes residents can be either in the center of Jerusalem or out in the country. Confident that Nof Zion is well entrenched and unlikely to be challenged, developers and residents are eager to begin building the community aspects of the neighborhood, and progress continues on the 280 units that remain to be built. In the end, Nof Zion will include a hotel, synagogues, a mikveh, a kindergarten and a shopping center, among other things. The intent is to foster a close-knit community where people will want to help each other and raise their children together, says Sylvester. "I think what people are trying to create there is a yishuv, but in Jerusalem," Sylvester continues. "This is a kehila, a community. This is exactly what you're looking for when you come to Israel." The majority of the new residents, mostly religious families, are expected to move in after Tisha Be'Av. Most are from Israel, but there are also Diaspora Jews who will be moving in. The reaction among incoming residents has been one of glee and awe at Nof Zion's grandeur. When Melanie Dayan bought a unit for part-time use from Galbut two years ago, she did so after only seeing the floor plans. She recently saw Nof Zion in person for the first time and was duly impressed. "I never could have believed it would come out as nice as it did," she says, explaining that the design goes beyond the normal Israeli standards, with huge terraces and closets and spacious apartments. "It is a beautiful project. The views are amazing. There's no city in the world like Jerusalem. To stand in an apartment and look out at the panoramic view is spectacular," says Dayan. "It's new construction, new everything. To be in Israel in something new is spectacular." Galbut says she knew she had discovered something great as soon as she saw the site designated for the project. A regular visitor to Israel, Galbut says she had been looking for awhile for something like Nof Zion to market to Jews outside of the country. "I always wanted to bring people to Israel. I was looking for a project," she says. "I need to bring people to Israel, and this is where I want to bring them." She met with the developers of the project, worked with them on the designs and pitched some ideas that she thought would especially appeal to Americans looking at the property. To date, Galbut has sold about 20 units to American families, including one for herself. She plans to divide her time between her home in Miami and her new apartment in Nof Zion. On a mission trip with her synagogue, Beth Israel, the group was at the Western Wall when Galbut decided to show them Nof Zion. "I want to take you to see something magnificent," Galbut told the people traveling with her. The tight-knit community that she and Sylvester anticipate will be a big draw as well, especially for people coming from outside Israel, reasons Galbut. "You have everything there. That makes the whole transition easier," she says. "Every single Jew needs to own something in Israel. To be a part of a community just makes it more special." Dayan agrees, explaining that if the luxury apartments were in just any city, she probably wouldn't have an interest in buying one. "There's no comparing Aventura to Israel. Every Jew wants to have something in Israel," she says. "To own something in Israel, to know you'll always have a home in Israel - there's no comparing it."