Non-political construction

The Nof Zion project in Jebl Mukaber unlike previouse developments in E. Jerusalem is not causing an uproar.

construction 88 (photo credit: )
construction 88
(photo credit: )
With the big legal cases resolved, construction has begun. Work is now efficiently moving forward on Nof Zion, a new luxury apartment complex distinguished by its spectacular panoramic views of much of Jerusalem - views that will center on the Old City but include the Mount of Olives to the east and Mount Zion to the west. On a clear day, a three-minute uphill walk will allow Nof Zion residents to gaze south all the way to the Dead Sea. The views, of course, make the area a prime piece of real estate, and perhaps ensured that opposition would form when it was announced several years ago that Nof Zion would be built partially on land designated as a "green area" by the municipality. But resistance hasn't come from environmental groups. As with so many other housing projects in Jerusalem, objections to the construction of the apartment complex have been connected instead to Arab-Jewish relations in the city, and the negative role some critics say Nof Zion will play in its surroundings as construction progresses. Developers vociferously defend the project, however, pointing out that the apartments' construction has received legal backing every step of the way, and is being built according to plans approved by the city. Described by planners as a "neighborhood... suited to fit the needs of a mixed cosmopolitan, modern Orthodox Jewish community," Nof Zion is being built on a once grassy, tree-lined slope of Jebl Mukaber, an Arab area in southeast Jerusalem captured by Israel during the 1967 war. According to Nof Zion's promotional Web site, "Everything has been carefully planned to assure that this integral, heterogeneous neighborhood meets the needs of the modern Orthodox community." The apartment complex will therefore be a "self-contained," "closed-gated community," and will eventually be equipped with its own shopping center, country club, school and mikve. The first of four phases of construction is currently under way, with foundations being laid for four lots containing a total of 91 apartments. (According to developers' plans, the complex will eventually contain 395 housing units.) The initial phase of construction is taking place on 28 acres of land, with the complex eventually to expand outward. Apartments are being offered for between $360,000 and $600,000, and have been sold so far mostly to Jewish Americans, according to Gita Galbut, Nof Zion's Miami Beach-based US sales representative. According to a statement prepared for In Jerusalem by Yehuda Levi, the owner and general director of Digal Investments and Holdings, the company behind Nof Zion, the marketing of the apartments within Israel will begin next month. The first residents are expected to begin moving in during the spring of 2007, according to current plans. The appearance of a Jewish apartment complex in Arab Jebl Mukaber would likely have caused controversy under any circumstances, but Nof Zion has generated perhaps a wider range of reactions than might normally be expected. Opposition by some neighbors and groups opposed to the construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem has been tempered in some cases by the fact that Nof Zion isn't an ideological project - its owners, says Meir Margalit, a former Jerusalem municipal council member, "aren't building for Jews - they are building for business." The apartment complex, in other words, is not being built for the security and ideological reasons cited in the past by the Israeli government and members of the settler movement. Consequently, while the project has attracted the opposition of traditional members of the anti-settlement movement, the response has been less effusive and well-organized than in other cases. The organization for which Margalit currently works, for example, the left-wing Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, would traditionally have opposed the building of Nof Zion. But while the anti-settlement group criticized the opening of a Nof Zion sales office in Jerusalem on its own e-mail list several months ago, the group is not engaged in organized opposition to the project, Margalit said. In fact, he continued, he wouldn't object to the complex's construction at all, if its apartments were to be made available to both Arabs and Jews alike. "I remember several years ago, when I met [with Nof Zion's developers], they told me openly that their aim is to make money, and if a Saudi sheikh comes and says he will buy the house and apartments, they wouldn't have a problem with it," Margalit said. The construction of Nof Zion in the middle of Jebl Mukaber is "a problem because of the political implications," he said, "but it's very hard to stop because [the developers] buy the land legally." Stopping the construction, consequently, won't become a major agenda point for his group, he said. The legality of the project was decided in several cases regarding the ownership of the land that went before the Jerusalem municipal court before Nof Zion's construction received the legal go-ahead. With the construction of the apartment complex now under way, neighbors are expressing a range of responses. Osama Al-Zahaikeh, a Jebl Mukaber resident and self-described peace activist, sees Nof Zion as "all politics," calling court decisions in favor of project developers "political decisions" that will have a negative impact on the surrounding area. Less critical, however, is a man actually pursuing a legal case related to Nof Zion, 30-year-old Jebl Mukaber resident Kamel Shahen, whose home is located at the eastern edge of the area now under construction. His family has lived on the site of his current home for over a century, Shahen said. Shahen keeps three large binders that include records of property taxes his family has paid over the decades to the British mandatory government, the Jordanian government and finally to the Israeli authorities. The Shahen family is one of three that has received compensation for part of their property from Digal Investments and Holdings, and though he is critical of the way Nof Zion's construction was handled early on, he says he's optimistic about relations with his future neighbors. "They're not radicals, the Americans who will be here," he said. "They're not settlers. They're good people." Shahen is currently awaiting a court date over the remaining issue connected to Nof Zion's construction: the eastern area of the complex, which he fears may cut off his home from major roads. Some 25 families live in the area that could be affected by Nof Zion's eastward construction, he says, and each would be unable to drive - possibly even walk - from the main nearby road to their homes if construction goes forward as he thinks it may. A lawyer for Digal investments declined to answer questions about the project before press time, but city representatives say the issue has not yet been resolved and will be addressed before construction on Nof Zion's later phases begins. "The land designated for the eastern part of Nof Zion is under private ownership and a building plan is in the works for that area but has yet to be approved," wrote Gidi Schmerling, a city spokesperson, in a statement released to In Jerusalem. "During the approval process, any issues regarding access to neighbors will be discussed and adequate solutions will be reached." The question of road access for Nof Zion's neighbors will likely be resolved in the fall, and the marketing and selling of the new apartments will continue apace in the meantime. Nof Zion representatives say they address the questions raised by the complex's construction so far with interested potential buyers. Speaking on the telephone earlier this month, however, Galbut repeatedly returned to what she sees as the complex's defining feature. "I think that this is going to be one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Jerusalem," she said.