Worthy cause?

The mayor explains how his new plan for Silwan was born.

mayor nir barkat gan hamelech 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mayor nir barkat gan hamelech 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Tuesday, at a widely publicized press conference, Mayor Nir Barkat announced his plan for an area known as El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech, in Silwan. According to the proposal, Gan Hamelech would be transformed from a rundown neighborhood that includes 88 illegal buildings into an attractive tourist site. At the event, at which representatives from the local and foreign press packed the hall, Barkat insisted that the new plan was not connected to his recent bid to retroactively issue permits to certain structures in Silwan in return for reversing the evacuation order for Beit Yehonatan.
Barkat was at pains to point out that while most of the residents involved had agreed to the plan, he had agreed to a request by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to postpone its launch until all those involved gave their consent.
The proposal includes destroying dozens of houses at the base of the Kidron Valley to make way for a national park. Residents would be relocated during construction and then moved to multistory apartment buildings that would also include shops, restaurants, art galleries and a community center.
As it turns out, the project was conceived long before it was published. On a Friday morning just a few months after Barkat was elected, city engineer Shlomo Eshkol, Deputy Mayor and head of the Construction and Planning Committee Kobi Kahlon, city council member responsible for east Jerusalem Yakir Segev, head of the construction permits enforcement department Ofir May and former head of the construction permits department Araleh Bin-Nun were summoned for a special meeting in the mayor’s office. At 8:15 a.m. sharp, Barkat opened the meeting with an unusual comment. “What will be said here will have to remain a secret for the moment,” he announced, piquing the participants’ curiosity.
“I have decided to deal with Gan Hamelech in Silwan,” Barkat began. “I am not talking about demolishing or evacuating it, I’m talking about a dream, about transforming a slum into an attractive venue, and I want to hear your ideas.”
After a short silence, one of those present mentioned the issue of legal ownership and another talked about the uproar anything connected with east Jerusalem would trigger here and abroad. Someone mentioned the issue of illegal structures and the need to do something about it, “and not only in Silwan,” and so on.
Barkat sat back and stared at them quietly for a while, then raised his hand and said: “I am not interested in discussing the problems – believe me, I am familiar with them. I’m interested in hearing your ideas in terms of your portfolios and your advice as to how to proceed.”
Eshkol pointed out that huge sums of money would be needed to make improvements in the area. Barkat interrupted him, saying, “People, you don’t understand me, I don’t want to hear about the difficulties, I want to hear your ideas and propositions,” and added, “you have to understand. My success as mayor of Jerusalem will be judged according to this project. Stop thinking and start dreaming with me.”
You’ve been mulling over this plan right from the beginning of your term. Why?
From the day I became mayor I knew we had to change direction. Of course, I knew the harsh reality on the ground, but I didn’t come to this job to waste my time. I came here with a sense of duty to accomplish.
But still, you knew that this a highly sensitive area – what convinced you to deal with it?
If not me, then who? I am not one to run away from responsibility. Once I understood this had to be taken care of, I did what I had to do.”
Did you take into consideration the problems, the pressure and the tensions surrounding anything to do with east Jerusalem?
I have never been afraid to do the things I believe in. This is the right thing to do, I have no doubt about it.”
Why did you still decide to go public with the plan despite your commitment to the prime minister to hold off submitting it to the local Construction and Planning Committee?
There were too many rumors, and people began to spread false information, which caused tension and might have jeopardized the whole plan, including among those [Arab residents] who had already agreed. There was information saying that we planned to demolish all the structures there, that people would be evacuated from the city and so on. So I had no other choice than to go public with the real information.
Will right-wing organizations such as the Ir David Foundation be involved here like they are in other parts of east Jerusalem?
Absolutely not. Not in the conception, not in the process, not even as subcontractors. On the other hand, I will more than welcome the participation of Arab subcontractors in this project.
There are opponents among the residents and some of the members of your coalition. What is your response to this?
The fact that extremists from the Left, including the Israeli Left, andthe Right are against this project speaks for itself. We are aware ofthe efforts of radical left-wing Israeli associations to convince theArab residents not to accept the plan, since they believe that thiscity should be divided, just as we know that the Right is totallyopposed – it believes this plan is a gift to those who broke the law bybuilding without permits and therefore are against it.
Regarding the residents, it is obvious that they cannot and thereforewill not publicly voice their support, but as the result ofnegotiations, most have signed in agreement.