The wrong side of the tracks

The wrong side of the tr

hashmonaim 248 88 (photo credit: )
hashmonaim 248 88
(photo credit: )
Drive into Hashmonaim and you are struck immediately by the beautiful mosaics, manicured lawns and idyllic parks. Keep driving down the same street and it is like entering another country, not the other side of the community - and this other country is decidedly third-world. The sidewalks disappear, garbage is everywhere and the stench from the sewer can be overpowering. Hashmonaim, which is situated on the road from Modi'in to Kiryat Sefer, appears at first to be one community; however, complex political battles have in fact left it run by two separate councils. The community is comprised of two halves - Gannei Modi'im and Ramat Modi'im. Years ago, both sides were part of the Binyamin Regional Council, but in 1996, at the initiative of former resident and Shas Knesset Member Nissim Dahan, Gannei Modi'im split off from Ramat Modi'im to become part of Modi'in Illit. It is hard to separate fact and fiction, as there are many different versions of the events that followed. Long-time Gannei residents recall that they woke up one morning and they were part of a new municipality, and Modi'in Illit claims it was forced on them by the Knesset. Whatever the facts, residents of Gannei are not provided with the same level of services as those of Ramat. This split and subsequent events have turned Gannei into a sort of "wrong side of the tracks." Ramat and Gannei have significantly different populations, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Ramat is mainly well-educated and affluent with a very high Anglo population, mostly American, but also English and South African, while the Gannei population is mostly of Yemenite origin of a lower socioeconomic standing. The result is a significant amount of tension between the two sides. RESIDENTS IN Ramat say that their side of the community was in similar shape to Gannei just a few years ago. The residents themselves decided to initiate projects which they helped pay for, and which the Binyamin Regional Council has supported and shared in the expense. These projects included cobblestone streets, landscaping and mosaics on the traffic circles. The area is now well maintained, and many services are now provided to the residents, such as arts, sports, youth activities and beautiful parks. On the other hand, despite the fact that Gannei tax money is paid to the Modi'in Illit municipality, residents allege the city has mostly ignored the needs of the community. Gannei is now often referred to as the "unwanted stepchild" of Modi'in Illit's only major city, Kiryat Sefer. Residents claim that every effort that they have made to improve the situation has been stymied by the municipality in general, and Mayor Yaakov Gutterman in particular. Residents of Gannei reject claims that the differences between the sides of the community are by choice because they pay lower taxes or do not want to fund improvements. They feel that their part of the community is a victim of negligence, racism and corrupt city planning, and that they are being abused in large part due to their vulnerable economic status. Some counter that the real comparison should not be between Ramat and Gannei, but rather between Kiryat Sefer and Gannei. The two communities are part of the same municipality, and they pay the same level of taxes, but Kiryat Sefer is clean, organized and has a high level of municipal services. It would seem an obvious solution to simply transfer Gannei back to Binyamin Regional Council, which is precisely what Modi'in Illit would like to do, but it is not willing to do the repairs required to bring the community to a high enough standard. Yechiel Sever, a spokesman for the Modi'in Illit council, put out a statement blaming the Binyamin Regional Council for the poor state of infrastructure in Gannei. Sever said that it was "absurd" and an "injustice" that Modi'in Illit should be responsible for the huge investment needed to bring Gannei up to par. However, long-time residents argue that what is absurd is that their community was better 14 years ago, and it has deteriorated over the years due to neglect from Modi'in Illit. In many places pedestrians are forced to walk in narrow streets littered with construction debris while cars careen out of control due to the obstructions. While there is a small selection of parks in the area, they are few and far between, and could easily be mistaken for garbage dumps. To make matters worse, there is also a well-known criminal element in Gannei. Residents in the community are familiar with where the heroin dealers live, who is on house arrest and which areas to avoid. One local father, Avizohar Riar, expressed his frustration with the situation when relating the problems his child faces at school. "Instead of playing in parks, local kids play in the many piles of construction debris, using rusty metal pipes and broken concrete as toys," he says. "One kindergartner broke her finger at the beginning of the school year because there was no playground set up for them - just sand and rocks. They still don't have a playground, and even though the children are at school from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., they are not allowed to go outside. There are barely any toys for them, and most of what they do have was purchased by the parents." While nobody has ever tested the air quality, an ever-present stench from the inadequate and often overflowing sewers has raised concern. It is a regular practice in Gannei to use abandoned lots as garbage dumps. When the piles get too high, they are set on fire. Michelle Aaron, an immigrant from New Jersey, recalls an incident where her husband Michael was fighting a fire in a nearby empty lot and had to use water from their garden hose while others threw dirt on the blaze in order to put it out. Other English speaking neighbors made numerous calls to the Fire Department, who refused to come and later blamed their absence on the fact that they were not given an exact address. A spokesman for the Fire Department was not able to locate a record of a call on the date or at the address of the incident in question, but denied there was any problem with trash burning in Gannei. However he later changed his statement, saying that on the day before the incident in question they have a record of coming to Gannei twice to put out fires which were a result of trash burning. Batya Sharabi, an Anglo immigrant who moved into Gannei ten years ago, states, "I loved Gannei when I first moved here. It was a sleepy little village that was filled with such warm people." "Slowly I saw it disintegrating," she continues. "Now I'm concerned about my children every time they step out the door. Once, my son got hit in the forehead by a rock from a construction site and needed [...] immediate medical attention. Another horrifying incident was when a two-year-old fell in one of the open construction sites and landed in a deep pit of water, her father jumped in and pulled her out. Thankfully she was not hurt." "It's criminal that these builders didn't put a fence up, which is the law, but nobody enforces it," she adds. Sharabi also feels strongly about the issue of the sewage. "There's a terrible smell nightly, where we just have to keep the windows closed and suffocate as opposed to breathing in the toxic air," she says. "There have been times when the sewer overflows in the streets, and my kids and I make it a game as to who can jump the furthest and avoid stepping in the 'pee pee' water. "Why can't we have normal parks, safe streets and air that's free from sewage fumes? We pay arnona (municipal taxes), and yet we don't get basic services," she says. What further infuriates residents is the lack of progress with regards to infrastructure improvement, despite the municipal taxes paid by the residents, as well as the millions of shekels allocated by the Knesset for just such improvements. "They are criminals with 'kippot,'" says long-time Gannei resident Haim Hubara. "[The mayor] collects millions of shekels in arnona, and does not use it to maintain the community." "All we want to get are the services that we deserve as citizens, which we don't get. We just don't," he says. "How can they keep raising taxes without giving anything back?" While Gannei residents have been disenfranchised and have until now not been able to overcome the organizational roadblocks, they recently formed a non-profit organization which is working to both raise awareness of the situation and finally put an end to the negligence. They have posted signs around the neighborhood calling others to action which say, "Gannei residents will no longer be silenced."