Urban milestones: How has Jerusalem changed in 2006?

On the eve of 2007, In Jerusalem takes a look back at the major stories of 2006.

barkat 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barkat 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What a year it's been. From Mayor Uri Lupolianski's surprise about-face on the Safdie Plan to the rebellion in Nir Barkat's party, In Jerusalem has diligently tracked this year's news. On the eve of 2007, we take a look back at the major stories of 2006. Light Rail gathers steam As of December 2005, CityPass, the consortium building the light rail, had not raised funds for the project and while the city had completed the necessary infrastructure work to enable it, work on the tracks had not yet been carried out. According to light rail spokesman Shmulik Elgrably, the project has notched up two major achievements this year: CityPass has raised $2 billion, and work has begun on the tracks in four areas. Tractors have dug to a depth of 1 m. on two sites on Herzl Boulevard, in Pisgat Ze'ev and downtown. The first track was laid a month ago at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Workers are now pouring concrete and tracks will be laid in the near future. Half the tracks are already in the country, and will be laid by a special machine, the Appitrack, which can install the 13.8 km. of tracks at a rate of 170 m. a day. The first carriage, currently being produced in France, is scheduled to arrive in Israel in June. Work on the Blue Line for high-grade buses - which will run from Derech Hebron to Ramot - has been completed from Derech Hebron to King George Avenue and in the opposite direction from Ramot to Rehov Shmuel Hanavi. Work on the section from Yehezkel to Strauss streets, says Elgrably, will be carried out in 2007. Now all that remains, Elgrably claims, is to choose the design of the buses, which will be powered by hybrid engines and will have a capacity of 180 passengers. The line will open at the end of 2008 together with the Red Line, which will carry the light rail carriages. The municipal subsidiary Eden, he says, is now working at a great pace to finish the public works downtown for the Red Line. Work has been completed on Rehov Agrippas and is nearly finished on Rehov Hillel. "We are always faced with a dilemma - to work fast but not to disturb people too much," says Elgrably. While he acknowledges that in certain areas infrastructure works have been carried out intermittently, he claims some people appreciate the "breathing space" provided by the breaks. Work was slow during the intifada because the CityPass company had difficulty raising funds at the time. "Jerusalem is the first project done according to the system of BOT [Build Operate Transfer]," he says. "This process takes longer because the government doesn't decide what to do and when." Elgrably points to one advantage of upgrading the city's infrastructure for the light rail: More building permits can now be granted in the Central Bus Station area. Previously, he says, the water, drainage and sewage infrastructure was insufficient to support growth. Work on the Calatrava Bridge at the entrance to the city is also progressing rapidly. Some of its parts are being produced at a factory in the Haifa Port; others are now on an Israel-bound ship from Italy. Four new light rail lines are apparently in the works, but according to Elgrably no decisions have yet been made regarding timing or location. Stay tuned for 2007: Elgrably promises it will be an eventful year. The break-up By the end of last year, two members of Nir Barkat's list on the city council provided a local mini-scandal: Ruth Ralbag and Avi Kostelitz decided not to vote against the budget for 2006, unlike all the other members of the opposition. The local press announced the death of Barkat's party, since it wasn't the first but the second time that the two had acted independently. It turned out that the announcements were premature. In fact, it took Ralbag and Kostelitz almost a year to reach, from that day in December 2005, the decision to split with Barkat. On their way to full independence some two months ago, they also dragged along city council member Meir Turgman and left Barkat with only two faithful members. All the lists in the opposition criticized the decision, reminding the rebels that strength was only to be found in unity. The three members of the new "Love of Jerusalem" list swear that they have no intention of joining the coalition of Mayor Lupolianski, and once again, the local press and some members of the opposition are convinced that it is only a matter of time before they cross the line. Unsage counsel By the end of 2005, the situation between Mayor Uri Lupolianski and city attorney Yossi Havilio seemed desperate. This year brought no healing to this bleeding wound and the two finally met in court: Lupolianski fired Havilio, who immediately appealed to the labor court to cancel his dismissal. This unfinished saga has already cost the municipality (i.e. taxpayers) almost NIS 1 million, and according to city council member and strong Havilio supporter Sa'ar Netanel, it might go far beyond that sum. The main issue between the two is a clash between strict interpretation of the law and the will of the mayor as it pertains to fixing problems in the city: In an emergency case, Lupolianski allowed students from the private haredi education system to use public buildings. In Lupolianski's eyes, it was only one of his privileges as a mayor of all the citizens. For Havilio, it was a sheer infraction to the law, which specifies that the use of public buildings is reserved only for public institutions. From then on, it brought the two again and again to court. After a few rounds, Lupolianski announced he couldn't work with Havilio, expecting the attorney to understand the allusion. Havilio understood and decided to fight back. Two and a half years later Havilio is still in Kikar Safra, Lupolianski is still determined to get rid of him and the whole issue is in the hands of the labor court. The coalition was and still is behind the mayor, and almost all the opposition, except for the three who split from Barkat's list, support him. The outlook for 2007: the fight will go on. Also going will be the taxpayers' money, to pay for the mayor's private attorney. Fighting over the rainbow August 15, 2005, was the date scheduled for the international gay pride parade in the streets of Jerusalem. Since that same date was chosen by the government for the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the gay community decided to to postpone it to the next year, and hold a simple parade on June 30. That parade ended with three people stabbed by a haredi assailant, one of them seriously wounded. The attacker was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. The 2006 parade was scheduled for November 10. The public outcry was so intense that it ended up in riots by the religious community, and a rather unexpected union between the haredi, religious-Zionist, and religious Muslim and Christian sectors. At the last moment, the gay community decided to accept a police proposal and the parade turned into a rally at the Givat Ram stadium. Meanwhile, the money allocated to the Open House (the parade's organizers) is coming in slowly. Time and again the leaders of the Open House and the gay community have appealed to the High Court to obtain their share of public money to finance their social and educational activities, which are available to all who need them, which includes some residents from the religious and haredi communities. The last time they took the matter to the court, it ended up with a judge's decision that had a tremendous impact on all the cultural venues in the city: Judge Yehudit Tzur decided to freeze all allocations from the municipality to cultural institutions until the criteria for the Open House are well defined. The municipality, which was in no hurry, was given an extension, and again didn't respect the new deadline. Now no one is getting money: No theaters, orchestras or dance ensembles financed by the municipality have received their allocations for the year 2006. The forecast for 2007, according to city council member Sa'ar Netanel, is not comforting and the directors of all the culture institutions are desperately trying to survive. Not going west The plan to develop Jerusalem to the west, known as the Safdie Plan (after its architect, Moshe Safdie), mobilized one of the largest coalitions of activists ever known in the city: A group of about 20 different organizations, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Jerusalem branch, reacted with a strength and determination rarely seen before, especially on green issues. The main idea behind the plan was that since the city cannot - mostly for political reasons - develop in the east, there is no other choice than to go west. The green coalition members pointed out that the plan would mean an unbearable sacrifice of the landscape and environmental assets surrounding the city, and that it would be an ecological disaster. They prepared an alternative plan, based on the available room for building inside the city, as an answer that would not necessitate destruction of the green areas to the west. During all this time, the main struggle was between the associations that are members of the coalition and the different construction and planning committees: first the local one at the municipality level, and then the district commission at the Interior Ministry and finally the National Council for Planning. The Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies hosted meetings and workshops dedicated to the issue, which were attended by citizens, greens, architects and of course builders and their representatives. The director-general of the municipality, Eitan Meir, and the head of the Jerusalem Development Authority, Ezri Levy, were outspokenly in favor of the Safdie Plan. More than 20,000 signatures opposing the plan were gathered, and Knesset members, intellectuals and artists voiced their opposition and demonstrated in front of the ministry to express it. But the mayor's voice was not heard during all the debate, as if he was not part of the discussion, thus the total surprise caused by his recent declaration stating that Jerusalem, in fact, didn't need the Safdie Plan and that he would prefer the alternatives. Since his first declaration on the matter, Lupolianski has become more and more openly supportive of the position held by the green coalition and last week, he officially sent a letter to the head of the Interior Ministry, asking to freeze the Safdie Plan. The answer was that it was not a municipality issue anymore. The final decision has been taken off the agenda of the national committee meeting of January 2 and the confusion among the greens is increasing. The trouble with Wisconsin The Wisconsin program - or in its Hebrew name Mehalev, a Hebrew acronym for "From national security allocations to employment," is a national project that was first established in four locations, including the capital. The idea was to help chronically unemployed people to get back to work and to stop living on national security allocations. Four foreign organizations with experience in this field gained the tenders offered by the government, including the British group Amin which opened its offices in Jerusalem. It didn't take long before community organizations began to criticize and attack the program, claiming that it would just be a way to fill up the coffers of private companies and deprive the unemployed of what was left of their dignity. And indeed, almost from the first day it operated, the employees of Amin in Jerusalem witnessed a daily vigil of activists, who tried to prevent citizens from getting into what they called a trap, or at least to warn them and brief them on their rights. But there was another organization, Yedid, that decided to act differently: They declared that although they were against the privatization of training for the unemployed, it was a government decision and a fact they could not ignore. So while activists from Singur Kehilati and Mehuyavut stood outside, fought the program and tried to teach the people their rights, the people from Yedid obtained a room inside, and did almost the same: They warned the unemployed called to Amin, explained to them their rights, and eventually represented some of their cases judicially. Things went on like this for months, until the new government was formed at the beginning of the year and Eli Yishai from Shas obtained the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio. Yishai immediately announced he would bring considerable changes to the system and indeed, the rules have become smoother and more considerate - especially for single mothers and citizens over 55 years old. Meanwhile, a few important changes occurred inside Amin: It started with the firing of Meshi Shraiber, the Israeli associate of the British directors. Then Reuben Avergil, once a Black Panther and a social activist, who worked at Amin as a consultant, left. However, the figures delivered this week by the Labor Ministry are clear: A considerable drop in the number of unemployed for the last month. Cultural kaleidoscope For years it was accepted that there's nothing to do in Jerusalem apart from a visit to the Western Wall. Even the many young people who discovered the world-class Ha'oman 17 club a few years ago used to arrive directly at the venue and then went back home to the center of the country, without even looking at the rest of the city. And then one day, about two years ago, the situation began to change. As the intifada started to fade away from the city streets, and the promotion company Ariel was created, the list of cultural events in Jerusalem began to get longer. By the end of last year, and even more so this year, the number and variety of cultural events all over the city has become such that it is difficult to attend them all. The system behind this change is rather simple. Since the municipality budget for culture is small (NIS 4 million until last year) and the government subsidies are not always assured (it dropped last year from NIS 25m. to 17m.), the solution provided by Ariel was the only one: to produce large and popular cultural events through private investments, with space for advertisers. The result was that more and more citizens could attend events throughout the year, free of charge or at very low cost. This created the feeling that there wasn't a dull moment in the city. At the end of last year, Ariel CEO Zion Turgman announced, "Next year it will be even wider and richer than anyone ever thought," and indeed, it seems that Turgman succeeded, at least regarding the number of events. There was hardly a week without a festival, a fair or another special program - many of them organized by Ariel and others by City Hall. The list is impressive: The Israel Festival, an art festival sponsored by the municipality, the film festival, a food festival, the book fair, the Oud Festival, the International Puppet Festival and many more. This year also saw the huge reopening of the Hutzot Hayotzer fair in its original location at Sultan's Pool, which attracted nearly 200,000 visitors to the city, including guests from the then war-torn north. But not everybody is satisfied with this turn of events. Some people, most of them heads of cultural institutions and/or artists, say that quantity has won out over quality, and that most of these events are fairs - meaning that the bargain or entertainment aspect is more prominent than the artistic one. But the fact is that it has really been a year full of events. Tolerance not accepted Toward the end of last year, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) was set to begin work on the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance on Rehov Hillel. Approved during former mayor Ehud Olmert's term and granted a building permit during Mayor Uri Lupolianski's tenure, the $200 million center was to have been a 240,000 square feet facility that could accomodate up to 4,000 visitors a day. The Frank Gehry-designed museum was planned to include a separate museum for adults and children aged four to 11. It was also to have boasted a theater for the performing arts, an educational center, a grand hall, an international conference center, a video library and a gallery for changing exhibitions. "I'm proud to say as the head of a major Jewish organization, our largest project will be in Jerusalem," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the SWC, told In Jerusalem last year. "If we're fortunate enough to head major organizations, we should have a center in Israel because Israel is the epicenter of Jewish life." But last December, the project hit a snag when Muslim graves were discovered at the site. After an archeology inspector from the Antiquities Authority discovered the graves, work was stopped in that specific area, but work continued above ground. In February, the Anti-Defamation League called on the SWC to pause in its construction of the museum. Shortly afterward the High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction halting work for a 30-day period during which mediation was carried out between the SWC and Karameh, the human rights group fighting the project. Seven months of arbitration followed, which proved unsuccessful. "We tried to find a compromise but the Islamic groups were simply unwilling to compromise," Hier said in September. In October, the High Court once again ordered the groups to attempt to reach an agreement. The project is currently on hold. Near and deer For years Gazelle Valley, a 227-dunam green oasis that is home to 25 gazelles, has been a source of conflicting interests. Officially called the Valley of Mountain Fruit, the strip lies next to the Begin highway. In the late 1990s, a plan to develop the area as a residential and commercial site caused kibbutzim Ma'aleh Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim to abandon the apple and cherry orchards they had been growing there. For nearly five years, area residents and environmental and social change groups fought the real estate plans. They claimed the area was zoned as open space and developing it would affect the quality of life of the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and pose a threat to the gazelles. In 2002, the development plan was rejected by the District Construction and Planning Committee and the activists won their first battle. They earned another major victory last November when the road safety section of the city's Department of City Improvement posted a deer crossing sign between Herzog Boulevard and the Begin highway. Earlier this month the activists submitted a final plan to the Planning Committee for the establishment of a nature park that would create a permanent home for the wildlife.