Guest Columnist: A man with a good plan

The Gan Hamelech project is the best thing that can happen to Silwan and its inhabitants. Criticizing Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat for approving it is downright hypocritical.

nir barkat jaffa gate 311 (photo credit: AP)
nir barkat jaffa gate 311
(photo credit: AP)
As someone who lives in Jerusalem and is politically active, I have sat far too long watching the media’s and politicians’ new punching bag, Mayor Nir Barkat. It is important for me to explain, because before we harshly judge the mayor of Jerusalem for his Gan Hamelech plan in Silwan, we may want to recall some “trivial” details and acknowledge his courageous concern for this crazy city.
Building in Gan Hamelech is prohibited by the laws of the state. Not by municipal laws, not by the decisions of one committee or another, but by the laws of the state. And despite this prohibition, there are 88 illegal homes in Gan Hamelech, currently under court demolition orders.
It was a judge who ruled to demolish them, not the mayor. Does anyone care to remember this simple fact before he or she gleefully continues to attack the man who has finally determined to bring order to this city? It seems not.
But let us continue. In these illegal houses, families live under very difficult conditions. Some of the houses were built without suitable foundations, with no water, electricity or sewage infrastructure.
Other houses were built directly atop sewage pipelines. Most of them can tumble upon the heads of their inhabitants any day.
I have a feeling that if this should happen, the State of Israel will decide to appoint an official committee of inquiry. I also have a feeling that this committee will resolve to bring about some order and offer a plan that will be rather close to what Barkat is offering today. But perhaps this is only my feeling.
For the first time in the history of Jerusalem, a mayor is suggesting an unprecedented possibility to authorize and legalize 66 of the houses already on the eastern part of the site, while the inhabitants of 22 homes on the western section of the site will be allowed to legally build their houses in the open areas on the eastern side.
It is important to note that the local committee that made the decision was open to the public and acted with full transparency, allowing the representative of the residents to voice their opinion, along with numerous meetings the mayor or his representatives held with the residents, who, as it happens, support this plan. The people who oppose it are members of the actual neighborhood committee of Silwan – i.e., Hamas of eastern Jerusalem and several other red-bearded Muhammad Abu Tirs who decide for the residents what is good and bad for them. We must not let them decide for us as well. Aren’t we refusing to talk to Hamas? THERE ARE three options for handling this. The first is to clear the entire area, demolish the 88 illegal homes according to the urban building plan and obey court orders without giving it another thought. If Barkat were the extreme right-wing pyromaniac that he is being made out to be, it would be much easier to choose this option. But knowing Barkat, he never takes the easy path, but rather the correct one.
The second option is to continue what has become the custom of Israeli governments and the Jerusalem Municipality over generations: to bury one’s head in the sand and comprehensively legalize 100 percent of the illegal building violations in the area.
If Pepe Alalo (former deputy mayor and Meretz city council member whose party resigned from the coalition) were mayor instead of Nir Barkat, perhaps that is what he would do. Barkat courageously and honestly chose a third option, which balances the various needs of the area: This option allows the unprecedented legalization of 75 percent of the houses already there, permitting the construction of more while building an appropriate infrastructure for the first time in the lives of these unfortunate residents.
It is important to remember that since the entire area is designated to be an open public space by law, and since the houses were illegally built, it was never, in fact, developed. Barkat is offering to normalize – for the first time – the municipal infrastructure, including upgrading the road infrastructure, sewage, electricity and other local services.
Moreover, there have never been public buildings on the site, and Barkat is providing solutions for this as well. He is offering approximately 2,000 square meters of public areas, classrooms, kindergartens, a gym, a family health center, an underground parking area and many other services that residents of Silwan have never even known, and will probably never know if we continue to bury our heads in the sand.
Barkat’s plan legalizes the existing houses on the eastern side. In addition, he will approve the building of restaurants, souvenir and art shops for the benefit of the residents, aiming to make the place a worldwide tourist attraction. Barkat has termed this a classic win-win situation. In addition, the western part will become “green space,” as originally intended, where the magical orchards will be reconstructed.
IF THE State of Israel were as courageous as Nir Barkat, the man we all love to hate, it would understand what the residents of Silwan already understand and are afraid to admit: This plan is the best thing that could have happened to the neighborhood and its residents, the same residents we all forgot ever existed. In our hypocrisy, we suddenly remembered these people who live in disgraceful poverty on the most important piece of real estate in Israel.
I write these words with a genuine belief in their veracity, out of an understanding that this plan is truly a good plan, from the stance of a left-wing-center person who leads the Labor Party in Jerusalem. It is time we take off our populist masks once and for all and stop saying what everyone loves to hear, stop blaming the person so easily blamed, and look at the truth and call it by name.
The writer is head of the Labor Party in Jerusalem and a member of the City Council.