On the verge of expansion

Isawiya residents are cautiously optimistic on a new plan to enlarge their neighborhood.

isawiya 224.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
isawiya 224.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The east Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya is a three-minute drive and worlds away from the Tzameret Habira neighborhood bordering French Hill. Children snake through traffic and overflowing garbage bins as they make their way to and from school along narrow dirt roads. This 12,000-strong Arab community, which is already bursting at the seams, is projected to grow to 18,500 by 2020. To address this expected population growth and its resulting housing shortages, and to improve the overall quality of life in the area, the municipality is advancing a plan for the construction of 1,900 units as part of a new master plan for Isawiya. The plan, which includes areas allocated for commercial and public use, such as playgrounds and parks (presently non-existent in Isawiya), covers 1,580 dunams and extends from the Jerusalem-Ma'aleh Adumim road and Tzameret Habira neighborhood in the northwest, to the Eastern Ring Road in the east, and the Hebrew University and the Mount Scopus Tunnel Road in the south. After the formal procedures are finalized, and, most importantly, the building permits will be issued, new schools, kindergartens, playgrounds and parks will be erected, the existing schools enlarged and new residential quarters will be planned, explains architect Efrat Cohen-Bar of Bimkom: Planners for Human Rights, which has been advancing the project. Another primary objective of the neighborhood scheme is to present a solution for the many illegal structures in Isawiya, which are slated for demolition. "The original territory of Isawiya [before the Six Day War] was 16,000 dunams, from Mishor Adumim to French Hill; however we were allocated only 650 dunams by the municipality [in 1991]!" says local council head Haj Darwish. "The plan that the municipality worked out in 1991 [in its overall plan for the city], allocated inadequate space for residential quarters, and every time young couples asked for building permits they were denied and instead promised that permission would be granted retroactively," he continues. "As a result, we have all these illegal structures which from time to time are destroyed [approximately 500]," he explains. "When it happens, human lives, families are destroyed as well." According to Ahmad Abu Hussein, who was directly involved in the development of the Isawiya master plan on behalf of the municipal Planning Department, the project has already been approved by the Local Planning Committee and is now awaiting final approval by the District Planning Committee, at which point construction will begin. All in all, the bureaucratic process is expected to take another 12 to 14 months, he says. According to Mayor Uri Lupolianski, the Isawiya master plan is one of 20 in the northern part of the capital that have been recently approved. "These plans are a breakthrough in improving east Jerusalem residents' status as equal citizens of the capital and will improve their quality of life," he said in a press release issued last month. Residents of Isawiya say they couldn't be happier with the plan, which they believe is long overdue, and hope that everything will go by the book. Among the potential obstacles to implementing the plan is opposition from neighboring Tzameret Habira, where some residents are anxious about greater proximity to an Arab area. Sitting in his office in the community center, Darwish relays that he heard that a Tzameret Habira resident had filed a complaint with the municipality, protesting against the enlargement of Isawiya, which already borders with French Hill. Darwish says he doesn't understand the logic behind this act "as the relations between us and the French Hill [residents] were always neighborly and friendly. We often meet with them for coffee and tea. "During the intifada years when there was a curfew in Isawiya they [French Hill residents] brought us food supplies and blankets," he says. "We never had any problem with each other. How can people who speak of coexistence protest against improving the quality of life in our neighborhood? "As far as I know, this guy [who filed the complaint] and the others who think alike, just moved to French Hill, [whereas] those who know us are not afraid," surmises Darwish. "Besides, Isawiya is certainly not the only Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem which borders on a Jewish one," he adds. "There's Beit Safafa and Gilo, Neve Ya'acov and Shuafat... it's not something unusual." Still, Anat, a resident of Tzameret Habira, says she would prefer it if Isawiya would not expand in her direction. "I know that there have been no problems with Isawiya, and yet I think it's better to keep neighborhoods separated from each other. Who knows what the future will bring?" Anat says she heard people in her neighborhood complaining about the Isawiya plan, but never saw a petition nor was she addressed by anyone. In the meantime, Darwish hopes the opposition will blow over and that the municipality will not be fazed by the words of "some radical." "We have waited our turn long enough," says Darwish. "We pay arnona [property tax] just like anybody else (which is actually even higher than property tax in the French Hill), and it's about time the authorities addressed our needs." "It's not that we are unhappy with the new plan, which is supposed to improve our lives here in Isawiya, rather that it's difficult for us to believe that things will actually change around here," says local community center head Rabab Ahmed Mustafa, pointing to piles of correspondence between the Isawiya council and the municipality regarding the conditions of the streets, road safety and garbage disposal in the area. Isawiya residents have heard plenty of promises to improve the neighborhood, she says, but the materialization of these decisions is another matter. "We hope very much that this time, with this plan, it will be different," says Rabab. "We don't want to find ourselves in 2020 stuck in a bureaucratic bubble, waiting for a miracle to happen."